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Image: Joshua Huston

In 2006, 11-year-old Jessica Markowitz’s parents were asked to host a Rwandan human rights activist named Richard, who was speaking around the US about his experiences. He told Markowitz how the most vulnerable people in his country were young girls her age. That inspired her to go back to her all-girls middle school, Seattle Girls’ School, and create a club called Richard’s Rwanda. The members hosted events like bake sales and car washes to raise money for shoes, lunches, uniforms, and other supplies their counterparts in rural Rwanda needed to complete their primary and secondary education.

Even at her young age, helping out wasn’t new to Markowitz — her mom was involved in several charitable organizations, and years of Hebrew school introduced her to important ideas. “A big part of my service is definitely attributed to the Jewish culture in general,” she says. “The concept of tzedakah that you learn from a young age ends up staying with you.”

This was a new level of giving, though, especially for a middle-schooler. Markowitz traveled to Rwanda annually, raised thousands of dollars, and sent dozens of girls to school on scholarship. Although she experienced success, it wasn’t always easy. In the midst of accomplishments — such as appearing on the cover of Parade magazine with actor Matthew McConaughey and being honored at the White House — she was bullied in high school for being a “goody two-shoes.” 

Now 22 and on the cusp of graduating from New York University, Markowitz has evolved, as has the focus of her efforts. She and her roommate recently won NYU’s Changemaker Challenge, earning $10,000 to put toward The Abari Collective, a new initiative of Richard’s Rwanda. The venture aims to create a solution for the young women who have graduated from school and need jobs. By training them in metalsmith work and business skills, she’s hoping to create long-term economic sustainability.

It’s a logical progression for the nonprofit that’s been a constant in Markowitz’s life for more than a decade. “All of this work has become a part of my family,” she says. “I grew up with these girls — they’ve seen me grow and I’ve watched them grow. It’s become something a lot more than just a charity.”

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