National SWS Team Gathers in Pittsburgh, PA



For over a year, the National Starts with Soap team had worked together almost exclusively remotely via text, video chat, and other means.

Not all of us had met each other - until now. For three (well, maybe two and a half) short days in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a group of 13 crazy college kids met up to brainstorm about education reform, eat a lot of food, and have a dandy ol’ experience.

Okay, okay, so maybe that sounds a little vague. Let’s put it this way: When the new and old Starts with Soap national leadership team members met for those few but precious hours that July weekend, we all came out with a unique bond and sense of empowerment that can only come with an organization as special as this one. (Oh, and some pretty great pictures as well. In the words of Kevin Leahy, director of business innovation - “High quality nonprofits take high quality photos.”)

Pyramid! We captured this image within about two seconds and then we all collapsed…

From top to bottom, left to right:

First Row: Siona Sharma; Second Row: Ariella Meltzer, Caroline Leadmon; Third Row: Andre Faria, Vikas Maturi, David Laub, Rose Wong; Fourth Row: George Pandya, Kevin Leahy, Shrey Agarwal, Eamon Bracht

Friday evening, many of us met for the first time ever. It was a bit chaotic with people arriving from across the country at erratic times, but we all made it with only a few catastrophes. We would be staying at Siona’s house in Cranberry Township, which is just 30 minutes north of Pittsburgh (Siona, our lovely founder, and her parents very generously hosted the group for the meet-up). Personally, I lost my “treasured” waffle-maker on the ride over to her house and poor Caroline had just come in from a long journey across Europe. Despite the jetlag, her positive attitude and friendliness was still as ever-present as always.

When each Starts with Soap member arrived, we all greeted each other with some of the biggest smiles you’ve ever seen and a whole lot of laughter and hugs. After a lot of pizza debate, we enjoyed a dinner at a yummy restaurant nearby, and then headed back for some late night bonding and work time.

Rose (left) discusses chapter assistance with some tired regional executives!

We were all a bit tired at that point. Well, maybe more than a bit tired! Yet we were still working hard and having a blast as we planned for Starts with Soap’s next steps - some of which included developing our new website, creating materials for the Detroit Literacy Project, and working within our project committees for some exciting new initiatives. At about 1 a.m., we unanimously decided it was time to get some rest before a busy Saturday.

*Somewhat* bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, the team left at 7:30 a.m. the next morning to volunteer with Produce to People at McKeesport High School. Produce to People is the Greater Pittsburgh Area Food Bank’s large-scale produce distribution program. Each family receives 30-45 pounds of food, of all mostly fresh produce! In the four hours that we were there, we worked to package and hand out food to 640 needy families. These families are all relatively local, and are all on some sort of government assistance or in a state of what Produce to People calls “a food emergency.” The families drive from miles around to receive help, and the volunteers package and hand out the food. I think we would all agree that it was an incredibly rewarding experience. It felt really good to help those less fortunate, and to actually see the direct impact it had on those families in the moment.

Rose, Caroline, Kevin, and Eamon bag potatoes for Produce to People.

The next leg of the journey was adventure time! After a jam session in the car, we reached downtown Pittsburgh for a break before some more work. We had some grandiose plans to eat at a noodle restaurant, but plans ended up changing and we dined at Mad Mex instead. It was very satisfying to feast on some spicy burritos after a long morning of being outside in the humid weather.

All this time, I was really enjoying continually getting to know everyone. It was beginning to feel like I had known these people my whole life, and I felt honored to have such fantastic new friends. Everyone has such passion for so many, politics, music, and more. We all have a wide variety of backgrounds that somehow all clicked, and it was starting to make me realize something important. Diversity in experience and opinion is necessary for innovative ideas that can propel an organization such as Starts with Soap forward. We’re all from different areas, different schooling backgrounds, etc., and those differences are all the more crucial for developing plans that will help a lot of unique students from around the nation.

Andre takes in the Pittsburgh skyline (and a parking structure.)

After the ‘Burgh trip (as affectionately called by native Yinzers (Pittsburghers), it was time to head back to Cranberry for some serious brainstorming and planning. We even phoned in our regional executives who weren’t able to make it to the trip so that mostly everybody could be present. Once back at Siona’s, all of the project committees (more on that in a moment) split up to write detailed proposals and plans. In other words, it was time to get serious.

More on project committees: all of the regional executives are on national committees that have specific tasks/projects to accomplish. There’s the Detroit Literacy Project Committee, which is focused on the implementation of a reading program for third graders in Detroit, as well as buying hundreds of books for these students. The Evaluations Committee is creating metrics and other forms of evaluations to monitor the progress of Starts with Soap at a chapter and national level. “Starts with #steminism” is looking for ways to further STEM involvement for young students, especially young women and minorities, and the Youth Nutrition Committee is researching diabetes prevention and ways to increase health initiatives in schools.

By the end of the two-hour long session, we had all accomplished a great deal and were feeling pretty excited about everything that was yet to come.

The Evaluations Committee (the one that I’m a part of) had created a detailed plan to work with both chapter founders and regional executives on creating an evaluation for each project that a Starts with Soap chapter might pursue. Nationally, we also worked on a system to monitor and evaluate the progress of the organization as a whole.

The Starts with Science Committee planned to implement a pilot program in Chicago for youth to experience a variety of unique STEM areas. Their plan included budgeting, fundraising, a timeline, as well as a vast number of ideas for potential activities for students.

Detroit Literacy has been in progress for a while, and the team definitely had a lot to accomplish over the weekend. In the spring, Detroit Literacy implemented a pilot program at Bennett Elementary School in Detroit. The committee had a plenty of program clean-up and improvement to do, and also worked on developing curriculum around new books that would be given to students in the fall.

Youth Nutrition came up with the idea that their project will be centered around: teaching kids about nutrition through fun, field day exercises. They drafted a one day gym class curriculum, a Food Field Day that demonstrates the "energy" received from foods that students can use to play, work, and be active. Additionally, the committee discussed an October SWS Tour through which they can implement some of their ideas.

After the planning session, the entire group reconvened to briefly discuss our projects before collectively working on the Detroit Literacy Project. We sorted through books and made vocabulary lists for the students.

As the evening rolled around, bringing with it what photographers call the “golden hour,” we headed to a grassy area nearby to take some high-quality photos of the team. Our incredible photographers were some of our very own - Maddie and Kevin. Some goofy group photos were captured, including an incredible pyramid that took about 45 minutes to set up and brought a few bruises to our backs. Still worth it, though! We also took many individual shots, and it became apparent that there are some hidden models within SWS! Who knew 13 nonprofit workers could pose so well?

Caroline and George show off their superb modeling skills!

A playground from the school that three of us attended was one of the photoshoot spots, reminding me of the playfulness and kid at heart in all of us. I hadn’t been on a playground in years, but that singular hour made up for all of the lost time. It also made me think of how crucial it is to have the perspective of people who are still in the education system/fresh out of the education system working towards education reform and policy changes.

We came back to an incredible dinner prepared by Siona’s parents. Laughing over food and enjoying each other’s company, we watched fireworks in the distance and compared them to rockets that George creates. Once again, we discussed and focused on work following dinner. At this point, we were exhausted - but we all still felt the need for a little bit of adventure to finish out what had already been quite an amazing day. We decided to visit an iconic Pittsburgh destination that we had missed earlier in the day - Mount Washington. Mount Washington offers a mountain-top view of the entire city, and at night, it’s an absolute can’t-miss experience.

The 1 a.m. drive was the normal intense jam session in the car as we were all anticipating the movie-like scenery of Pittsburgh city lights. I think we all lost our breath a little bit when we first reached the overlook. At that moment, looking out over the rivers and twinkling yellow lights underneath the stars with some of the greatest people I had ever met, I got the feeling that this was exactly the place I was supposed to be. Needless to say, I couldn’t wipe the goofy smile off of my face.

*sigh* Have you ever seen anything this breathtaking?

At last we drove home, and with the drive came the realization that our short time together was already coming to a close.

The next morning (Sunday), we slept in and woke up to an incredible Belgian waffle breakfast. As some of us had long drives to make and planes to catch (or, make that three missed planes for an unfortunate Vikas Maturi (regional executive)), it was a long morning of teary eyes, long goodbyes, and multiple trips to the airport.

I didn’t even realize it was possible to grow so close to a group of people in such a short time. I didn’t know that I could become even more passionate about a cause I already really cared about by just being in the presence of some really driven, ambitious people.

When a group of young people eager to make real change get together, big things can happen. Big things like growth for ourselves, and growth for others - growth for the world. I love Starts with Soap. I love Starts with Soap for teaching us how a heart for service can bring people together as it did for a few days and push us to heights we haven’t reached before. The Pittsburgh meetup was more than just a meetup - it was, in all honesty, one of the best and most inspiring weekends I’ve ever experienced, and I won’t hesitate to say that everyone else likely feels similarly.

Much love for this incredible family.

Contact Ariella Meltzer at