By Shelby Stephens
The story of Meaza Light-Orr, 17, is one like no other. From Ethiopia to Los Angeles and back, Light-Orr has made a tremendous impact in her native village of Kololo, after raising more than $120,000 to build and operate a middle school through her initiative Kids for Kololo.
Light-Orr is set to be recognized by The Helen Diller Family Foundation with the 2023 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award and $36,000 for her efforts in both communities.
Light-Orr and her brother were adopted from the rural village of Kololo, Ethiopia and raised in the United States. The siblings received their surname, Light-Orr, from their adoptive parents meaning light in both English and Hebrew.
While her completing her K-12 schooling at Crossroads School for the Arts and Sciences, and following the example of her mother, who helped establish a primary school in Kololo, Light-Orr and her classmates were motivated to raise money to build and operate a middle school in the same village, increasing enrollment in the primary school by 30 percent as the future educational pathway became clear.
Although she was adopted, Light-Orr embraces both her communities in Los Angeles and in Ethiopia crediting her support system for motivating her accomplishments, “knowing yourself and knowing who you are, where you come from, and what your story is, is like the first step to understanding your values and what you want to accomplish,” she said.
“Another very important piece is understanding the supports systems you have. I’m very fortunate to have a wonderful set of adoptive parents that have instilled in me a drive and who have been very good role models of what you can accomplish and finding those support systems – whether that be your parents or other members in your community – to find bridges for yourself within yourself and then find ways to connect the communities you are a part of.”
In 2021, Light-Orr started Kids for Kololo to increase educational equity and access in rural Ethiopia. The project identifies and addresses unmet educational needs in partnership with local communities while empowering teens in Los Angeles to create positive change in the lives of children in another country.
As an opportunity to reconnect with her birth village in Ethiopia, Light-Orr built upon her mother’s impact and helped fund secondary learning to compliment the primary school that was built years before.
As Light-Orr gets ready to attend college in the fall as a Posse Scholar at Northwestern University, she is motivated to continue her philanthropic journey. A selective number of students who receive a Posse Foundation Scholarship have been identified as future leaders and will have their tuition covered in full at partnered universities.
The Helen Diller Family Foundation announced the 2023 recipients of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, a national prize recognizing teen leaders who are changing the world, and Light-Orr is one of them. Since 2007, the foundation recognizes Jewish teen leaders building a better world, awarding nearly $7 million dollars since its inception.
Now in its 17th year, Helen Diller’s vision to cultivate new generations of socially committed leaders continues to guide the awards program honoring students who exemplify the spirit of tikkun olam, a Jewish value meaning “repair the world.”
When asked about the next 10 years for Kids for Kololo, Light-Orr shared, “In 10 years, I’d love to build more schools. I think school and education are mediums that really propel people forward and provide opportunity, in the future I want Kids for Kololo to do more of that, facilitate more connection, elevate the communities that have supported me, and do more of the work on a larger scale.
“I want to diversify the locations as I have a connection with Ethiopia and Kololo obviously, but the story is the same all over. I think so many different communities would benefit from the resource hub that a school can be like the Kololo school became.”
Light-Orr embodies the exact qualities of someone repairing the world. She has dedicated the necessary time and resources to make an impact from across the globe. Kids for Kololo is expected to expand and become a non-profit to continue their educational reach.
Learn more about the initiative online at Kids for Kololo (@kids_for_kololo).