Meet Sophia, Owen and Marshall: Three high school activists who have raised over $100K for education

Pencils of Promise
June 17, 2020

Sophia, Owen and Marshall exemplify what campaigning for PoP is all about. It all started in 2015 when the trio of friends was in seventh grade. They had always valued their own education, so when they learned about PoP’s mission they immediately jumped on board to help children around the world gain access to quality education.

Their initial goal was to raise $25,000 for a school build by the time they graduated 8th grade in 2017. They started with lemonade stands and branched out to hosting local sporting events, including two cornhole tournaments. They established connections with foundations, making grant proposals to pursue their campaign goal. As a result, they reached their goal a year early and decided to push for another $25,000. This time, their goal was to bring WASH programming to their school. By sending out quarterly updates, keeping in touch with existing donors and making new connections, they reached $50,000, again ahead of schedule. 

Sophia, Owen and Marshall then traveled to Guatemala with PoP in summer 2018. Being there firsthand highlighted the impact of their fundraising, and amplified their belief in PoP’s mission, work and platform. Leaving Guatemala, they all knew for certain that there was more campaigning to do! They upped their goal to $100,000 (by the summer of 2021) and hit the ground running. They continued to work with foundations, connect with supporters and members of their community, gained the support of an L.A. marathon runner, and ultimately, in late 2019, again more than a year ahead of schedule, they hit their goal. They have now raised over $107,000 for PoP!

Sophia, Owen and Marshall are an inspiration to us all — a reminder that with passion and hard work we can truly all make a huge difference. 

We chatted with the trio about their campaign, what inspires them and their latest involvement with PoP. 

Why is education important to you?

To us, education is the foundation for a happy and fulfilling future. Our education helps us to thrive in the world. It gives us the tools we need to succeed in life and to care for others.

What inspired you to become involved with Pencils of Promise? 

We were struck by PoP and its mission when we learned about Adam Braun’s book The Promise of a Pencil in 2015. It called us to reflect on our lives and realize how much our education had benefited us and been central to our growth. However, for too many children, quality education isn’t accessible. When we saw the statistics of literacy rates in Ghana, Guatemala and Laos, and the work PoP was doing, we knew we wanted to get involved. We were also amazed at the cost to build a school at the time, and how far our money could go, inspiring us to get started. 

What was your first fundraising event like? Did it go as expected?

Our first fundraisers were lemonade stands, standing on the corner of our street and waving at cars as they drove by. We live pretty close to the Rose Bowl, so whenever there are soccer or football games, we get a lot of traffic coming down our street. We knew we could get a lot of business. We met the day before and painted some signs. The day of, we got the lemonade ready and set up shop on the curb for two and a half hours. We would hold up our signs, and one of us would take turns walking around and running alongside the cars with a sign to try to get their attention. We also sold water bottles since it was pretty hot out. We did really well and made over $200!  Not only was it an important step in our campaign, but it was fun to do. We had never held lemonade stands before, so we were able to be playful and have fun together as we tried to sell our lemonade.

What else did you do for your campaigning efforts? How did you promote and share your campaign?

We held a cornhole tournament. We organized a group of supporters and friends, and it was a great success. We had an entry fee, made a big bracket and encouraged teams to have corny names (pun intended). We had music, PoP merch as prizes and a taco dinner to follow, as well as posters to educate people about PoP. We then held another cornhole tournament to serve as a thank you to our donors for helping us along the way. 

For the second tournament, we didn’t have an entry fee. It was important for us to make our supporters feel like we weren’t just fishing for donations, and we wanted to show our appreciation for them. From the very beginning, we composed quarterly updates about the campaign, PoP and our work, and sent personal notes to all our supporters. While maintaining this continued communication with our supporters, we decided to move into the foundation realm for the second half of the campaign. We established connections with key partners, gave pitches and made grant proposals. We wanted to diversify our supporter base by targeting foundations, both to expand our horizons and to avoid being pushy with long-term supporters. Most of our campaigning involved in-person interaction rather than promotion through the internet. We networked around our community, and used connections as jumping points to reach new supporters.

What’s been your favorite part about campaigning? 

Throughout the whole campaigning process, we’ve loved connecting with our supporters. We get so much out of being able to share what makes PoP so special. It has been very rewarding to find people along the way who are just as passionate about education and show them the amazing work that PoP is doing. It’s cool to see people’s reactions when they hear about what we’re doing and how much we’ve accomplished. Toward the end of our campaign, we were really focused on targeted fundraising and getting our feet deep in the foundation world, but we will always have fond memories of sitting on the curb and pestering cars from our lemonade stands.

Describe your visit to Guatemala. What was it like to visit a PoP school and how did that motivate your campaign even further?

To say that the trip was meaningful and impactful would be an understatement. The sheer joy when the students saw us was overwhelming. When we visited different communities, they all had signs, flowers and posters, and some even shot firecrackers. 

On a more personal level, though, the trip amplified how impactful our campaign was. It became clear how much the people in Guatemala appreciated our efforts and had benefited from the work of campaigners like us. The trip allowed us to meet with those we have been working to support from thousands of miles away, something we will always value. Being able to see PoP programs gave us a new degree of passion for PoP and reinforced how unique PoP really is. There was a sense of enjoyment and happiness among the students, which to us, spoke volumes to the work of PoP. The trip was also very fun and enjoyable. We got to travel with a family from Sweden who we became great friends with. The PoP staff was incredibly friendly and hospitable. Our long car rides seemed short when we were all telling stories and solving riddles! Overall, it was inspiring to see people from around the world united by a common belief in PoP’s mission.

What advice would you give to other PoP campaigners? What have you learned from this experience? 

We would encourage other campaigners not only to stay consistent and get creative, but to enjoy themselves along the way. We have become even closer friends because of this. 

Being personable and direct in campaigning is crucial. It is very important to connect to supporters personally, forging lasting relationships, and making sure that a donation means more than just a transaction. It’s vital to stay consistent with donors, keep them updated on the campaign regularly, and continually show appreciation. For us, it was especially important to balance being genuine and professional in all of our communications. Something that had been crucial to us was creating a network of people that we could use as a home base. Lastly, something that we have committed ourselves to throughout the entire campaign is humility. We constantly worked to be committed and passionate, but also to remain collected and humble. 

What are you hoping to do with PoP in the future? 

We are so proud of what we have been able to do, and really feel like we’ve made a substantial impact. We want to be able to preserve that. Along those lines, we are transitioning away from the role of ‘campaigner’ and are hoping to move into an ambassador/advocate role for PoP. Beginning with our internship this June, we are eager to take on a new position in our work with Pencils of Promise. We are excited about continuing to push for an increase in access to quality education around the world while learning more about PoP behind the scenes. We are hoping to get more involved with PoP on the back end in the future. We are also hoping to travel to Ghana and visit our school build.

What is your favorite school-related memory? 

Sophia – Every year during spirit week, we have a school-wide dance competition. Each grade choreographs a dance and we all perform for each other in the gym. This is one of my favorite times during the school year because of the high energy and competitive spirit that each grade brings to the day. Each grade cheers for each other even though we are up against one another. It is so much fun because it serves as a small break from academics and is a great time for class bonding. It also helps that my grade has come in first place for the past two years.

Marshall – I remember my math classes in middle school were always so fun, especially with my 6th- and 7th-grade teacher. She was so engaging and funny, and she would also let us listen to music sometimes while we were solving math problems. Our favorite thing was joining up and forming a conga line when Pitbull’s Fireball came on! I would always look forward to going to class because it was such a great environment. We were learning math, no doubt, but we were all just having a great time!

Owen – I will always have fond memories of moments of connection with my teachers or the material being taught. That being said, I will always remember the little shenanigans that went on in elementary school. Whether it be a funny song we would all listen to, a game on the playground, skits in Spanish class, jokes we would always tell, or random things that would happen to me or our classmates, I look back and sometimes say what were we thinking, and other times laugh with a feeling of nostalgia. It was the little things that made school special, and the everyday things that I will always cherish. Even now, when I see friends from our old school, we still laugh and connect around random moments from middle school.

Outside of campaigning for PoP, what are your passions and interests?

A lot of our time is spent around our schools, whether that be sports, choir, leadership roles, studying, or just staying active in the community. We find ourselves spending most of our free time hanging out with friends and family. That being said, we try to make some room for playing sports, listening to music, biking, reading, cooking, traveling and watching TV.

We consider ourselves lucky to have incredible supporters like Sophia, Owen and Marshall, who are working for the greater good of the world. Even at a young age, the three friends are finding creative ways to engage their community.

If you’re as moved as we are by this story, start your campaign today. You will join a community of campaigners like Sophia, Owen and Marshall, and help provide students across the globe with access to quality education.