Following Hurricane Katrina, donations poured in from concerned folks all around the country hoping to help make things better. They came in all sizes, with big bucks coming from the usual suspects: Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil, Amaco and Talia Leman.
At the time, Leman was a 10-year-old fifth-grader who lived in Waukee, Iowa, two towns west of Des Moines. She started a charity that prompted kids around the country to go out and trick-or-treat for New Orleans. She ultimately raised $10 million. That is TEN MILLION DOLLARS.
Read all the stories in the Forward’s 2012 Giving section.
She subsequently went on to found RandomKid, a nonprofit that provides kids who want to raise funds for a charitable cause with ideas, resources and tools. To date, 12 million children in 20 countries have used RandomKid assistance to help raise funds.
This and her other efforts prompted New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to throw his support behind Leman “for President in 2044.”
Talia, now 17, spoke to the Forward’s Curt Schleier about her post-Katrina work, tikkun olam and her plans for the future.
Curt Schleier: How did this all begin?
Talia Leman: I was in the park and saw my friend from ballet class selling lemonade trying to raise money for Hurricane Katrina [relief]. I saw a lot of cars were going by, but weren’t stopping. Not because they didn’t care, but they didn’t have enough time. I felt there was a more efficient way to help.
So you came up with the idea for TLC — Trick or Treat for the Levee Catastrophe. What was your goal?
I had a plan to raise $1 million. Of course, honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t think setting a goal of $1 million was all that much. I heard on the news that millions of dollars had already been raised. I was studying fractions in school, and I figured I could raise a fraction of that.
Your plan didn’t win unanimous support in your family, did it? Your brother, Zander, who is on the autism spectrum, was against it from the get-go.
Yes. He said, “I’m opposed to what you’re doing. I’d rather trick or treat for pirate relief.” I’d given myself the CEO title — chief executive optimist — and I gave him the title of chief operating nemesis. I put him on our makeshift website in a Darth Vader costume. And the “Today” show saw the picture.
How did that come about?
They must have been searching for a story. When they first called, we thought it was a joke. They actually had to say, “No, this is the ‘Today’ show.” We were really surprised. My mother told them you’re more than welcome to have Talia, but I’m not willing to have Zander on live television. He struggles and he’s very unexpected [in things he does]. But [the ‘Today’ show people] said we don’t want to do this unless we can have Zander, too. My mother told them we’re going to have to call you back, because obviously this was a big step. In the end we said okay and he did very well.
Using the RandomKid site, young people have done a lot of different things, like raising funds by selling special reusable water bottles to fund a water pump for an African village. What was the most unusual?
One group of RandomKids raised money by putting on a talent show. They didn’t have auditions. Kids just showed up and did whatever they wanted. One kid got up there and rolled out this enormous Lego [construction] and just stood back and said “ta-da.” That was his talent. A girl got up and made different horse noises and translated them into human. Another boy got up and just cracked his nose.
What did you learn from all this?
So many things. I think the biggest and most important is to make room for the unexpected and allow those miracles to happen. Many people think luck is winning the lottery. I think luck is something waiting to bump into you if you let it.
Can we talk a little about your growing up as the only Jewish kid in school?
Before my first day in school I thought the whole world was Jewish. That night my parents told me that no one else in the school was Jewish. To surprise everyone at school I went through my parents’ drawers and took every kippah I could find. I matched them up with the outfits I was going to wear. By the end of the first day I was known by all 600 kids in the school as the Jewish girl. My parents didn’t want me to be surprised, but I took that as an opportunity.
Were there any problems?
People sometimes don’t know how to react to differences in other people. I tried to view some comments I heard as coming from a place of ignorance and insecurity and not about me. But it was hard. I’m now open-enrolled in a Des Moines inner-city school. It doesn’t mean that there are more Jews, though it has a few more — compared to zero. But because the school is so diverse in other ways, being a Jew isn’t a big deal — at least compared to my town school, which didn’t have any diversity.
Was there a Hebrew school nearby?
We did have one and I went to it a little bit before my bat mitzvah, but I’m not someone who has a strong Jewish education, especially compared to my friends from Ramah. I went to Camp Ramah in California starting the summer after my fifth grade and spent time in Israel as part of the camp program.
Are you familiar with the terms tzedakah and tikkun olam?
It wasn’t the first thing I associated with what I did, but in retrospect it does fit a lot with tikkun olam. It means “repair the world” and I like that idea a lot. A lot of people say, “You raised a lot of money so you must be a compassionate person.” But that isn’t what motivated me. I feel the connotation of compassion is pity or charity. I’m more motivated by the need to solve a problem, to repair.
Talia Leman has just published a book, “A Random Book About the Power of Anyone.” (Free Press, 2012) For more information, visit randomkid.com.