Sydney Kamen looks at soap differently than most people do.
While many look at it as a constant, Kamen sees it as a vital weapon in the war against poor hygiene that allows Ebola, cholera and other fatal diseases to flourish. She has watched the eyes of people in Thailand, Myanmar and other impoverished countries widen as they are offered a bar of the precious commodity—that can sell for more than 25 percent of their weekly wages.
“I know people probably ask, ‘What does a girl from Washington, D.C., know about people not having access to water or sanitation?’ ” says Kamen, a 20-year-old Dartmouth College student. “But I’ve seen a lot that is incredibly shocking and appalling.”
Kamen says her parents raised her to give back to the community. Some of her earliest memories include volunteering at soup kitchens and volunteering for service trips throughout the world. During relief mission trip to Haiti when she was 15, she worked side-by-side with other volunteers – including dentists and oral surgeons — to build oral care clinics, then watched as adults and children lined up in near suffocating heat for treatment of everything from gingivitis to tooth loss and abscesses.
“Those service trips gave me the exposure to sanitation issues,” Kamen tells PEOPLE. “More than 1.8 million children die each year of pneumonia and diarrhea.”
Four years ago, Kamen founded So Others Are Protected (SOAP). She launched the program in Thailand and has watched as it has grown. Workers gather donations of used soap from luxury hotels, then local at-risk women and children are employed to clean, melt, reshape and recycle the soap for distribution in rural and high-risk communities.
“It’s not me but partner communities that do the work. I am not on the ground, recycling soap. I’m not reselling soap,” she says. “But I had the idea and it came about because of all my partners.”
Kamen’s program has expanded to 14 community partners, 13 hotel partners and more than 50,000 bars of recycled soap. She is the recipient of the President’s Volunteer Service Award, the Daily Points of Light Award and many other accolades including her designation as one of 15 recipients of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award for exceptional leadership and engagement in service projects.
Award representative Erica Aren says that many factors made Kamen’s candidacy stand out among the hundreds of worthy nominees.
“Sydney’s project demonstrates her willingness to go outside of her comfort zone and look for sustainable solutions. She saw a problem in under-resourced communities and looked for viable approaches within the local region that would provide those communities with tools to work toward self-reliance,” Aren tells PEOPLE. “She is an empowered and inspiring young leader poised to repair the world one bar of soap at a time!”
No awards are needed to show Donato Obel, M.D. the value of Kamen’s program. He worked with her in the early days of the program and has seen the supplies enhance the lives of those that make and use the soap.
“Miss Kamen came to Uganda in 2012 and did some volunteer work here in Eastern Uganda. We worked together on SOAP,” Dr. Obel wrote to PEOPLE as he traveled through Kenya. “My clinic receives soaps from a hotel in Mbale. This last year our women made [many hundreds of bars of] soap. We also now make soap with the school children to teach sanitation and disease prevention.”
Melody Brown Burkins, Ph.D., associate director for programs and research at Dartmouth, counts Kamen among her top students at the Ivy League college.
“The word dedication keeps coming back (when discussing Kamen). Dedication to public and community service. Dedication to issues of global health,” Brown Burkins tells PEOPLE. “How did she commit herself to this while she was still in high school? It makes no sense. But she is learning that is one act among many future acts she will experience in her lifetime. She tends to shy award from the spotlight but she’s learning that’s part of elevating the impact.”
Kamen says she’s grateful for her partners, who have helped turn her project into a life-saving reality.
“I had the idea, but this is their program,” she says. “That is the best way to have it run efficiently and smoothly – and grow.”