At one of the lowest points in her young life, Erin Zaikis suddenly had clarity.
She was lying in a hospital bed in Thailand last summer, her body racked with the effects of dengue fever, a leading cause of illness and death in the tropics.
“I was sharing a room with a 16-year-old girl who had just given birth and had a lot of complications,” said Zaikis, who was in rural northern Thailand working in a program that fights child sex trafficking. “It made me realize life could always be worse: I’m here in the hospital losing my hair, but I still have parents who care about me, and have the option to fly home and be treated in the US.”
She did come home to recover. And Zaikis, a 2007 graduate of Marblehead High School, had found her calling.
Having seen some of the region’s most basic needs, she zeroed in on the lack of health and hygiene education. But what she did not see anywhere? Soap.
Her job in Thailand was to assess children’s risk of being trafficked and to match them with local vocational programs. “We would go into schools, and I’m used to seeing really horrific [scenes],” she said. “But when I went to the bathroom at this school, I noticed that there was no bar soap. So I went to the teachers’ bathroom, same deal.
“So I got my translator, who asked the children where the soap was. And they just had the biggest blank stares, and they said, ‘What’s soap?’ ”
After recovering from her illness, Zaikis, now 24 and living in New York City, poured her knowledge and energy into a new business endeavor: soap she makes by hand, with a portion of the proceeds going to child welfare organizations in Southern Ghana, Thailand, and India.
“The whole thing started as a therapeutic thing for me,” she said. “I used to be super-social, and really loved to go out every night. And when I moved back to New York after Thailand, my hair was falling out, and that was so traumatic, and I really didn’t want to go out or see my friends.
“After a while, I started thinking about crafts, and then I started linking it back to the soap idea.”
What has now become an online company — livesundara.com — began with Zaikis in the kitchen with her sister and roommate, Leslie, 25, learning how to make soap.
“Some of my first batches were absolute disasters,” Zaikis said. “And then I started to modify the product, and then I think I perfected it into something that I could be very proud to put my name on.”
Her soaps are called Sundara, which “means ‘beautiful’ in Sanskrit,” she said. “I really like the sound of the word. My slogan is ‘Doing good is beautiful.’ ’’
Zaikis took inspiration from the ancient use of flowers, herbs, and plants to make three all-natural, biodegradable soaps: lavender and shea butter; lemongrass and pomelo; and chai tea. A portion of Sundara proceeds goes toward hand-washing workshops and public health initiatives overseas.
“I really wanted to sell something that people could have a connection with and feel proud their money is going toward a cause they could learn about and be connected with,” she said. “I think that conscious consumerism is so big for my generation, and I wanted to play a part in that.”
Zaikis, who hopes to expand into liquid soaps and candles by the end of the year, has long-term goals for her company. But she also feels it has already been a success.
“We had a [using soap] project run and I’ve already seen pictures and I feel like I’ve made some small impact,” she said. “But, I think I’ll feel like a success when I can inspire other people, or someone tells me I followed my heart and my passion because I was inspired by you. It’s not even a business thing, about selling or making money, but inspiring other people.”
Growing up in Marblehead, Zaikis had vacationed with her family in Europe, Israel, Costa Rica, and other foreign lands, fostering her ambition to see the world. She had dreams to make the world a better place.
It was watching a documentary as a sophomore at the University of Michigan that inspired her to take action.
“I can’t remember the name, but it was the most horrific film I’ve ever seen,” she said. “It was about families in Brazil who are living in trash dumps and their whole way of life is sorting through the trash.
“I just thought to myself, ‘This is no way to live,’ and no one had ever taught me about it. I was 19 at the time and it just blew my mind that people actually live like that. And it wasn’t a movie; it was a documentary.”
Zaikis was moved to see extreme poverty in real life, instead of on a screen or in a book.
So that summer — in 2009 — she traveled to Mumbai, the teeming capital of India where about 13 million people live, ranging from the very rich to the abject poor. While there, she lived in a Mumbai orphanage that housed about 100 girls, many of whom were victims of or at risk of sex trafficking.
“That’s the worst thing in the world,” Zaikis said. “I remember meeting a girl who was 10 and she had been raped for five years. Her grandmother had tied her to a mattress. And she was diagnosed with AIDS when I was there, and it just broke my heart.”
After graduating from Michigan in 2010, Zaikis went back to the region, continuing her work with child welfare organizations.
Her accomplishments do not surprise one of her teachers at Marblehead High.
“She’s just an amazing kid,” said Andrea Portnoy, who taught Zaikis math. “I’ve been a teacher for over 40 years, and she’s one of the rare ones that you remember.
“She’s always wanted to help people. She’s always had that thing about her. She’s just absolutely marvelous.”Maureen Mullen can be reached at mullen_maureen@yahoo.