Changing the world one pencil at a time

By Andrea Louise Thomas

Such a simple implement, the pencil, but its potential is far reaching. No one would know this more than Cindy Rochstein, Founder and CEO of Pencils Community. Her Seaford based charity collects new and used pencils and other stationery items. She and her team of volunteers then repackage these donations and distribute them to disadvantaged children in Australia and around the world. This burgeoning social enterprise has now partnered with other charitable organisations and together they are quickly becoming a humanitarian tour de force.

It all started by accident. Rochstein was cleaning out her daughter’s desk at the end of a school year and found masses of used stationery items. (Many parents would be familiar with this scenario.) She didn’t have the heart to throw them away because she knew they would end up in landfill. As chance would have it, a friend was travelling to visit an orphanage in Vietnam so she asked if he would to take some pencils. Before his departure, she made a facebook post asking friends for donations. Hundreds of pencils arrived and they went on to Vietnam. This is just one of many such stories that have created an ongoing domino effect.

Rochstein sees the pencil not just as a tool, but also as a symbol for educational opportunity and social change. She was most struck by the inequities in global education when she heard about a school in The Philippines where student progress was slow because they only had one piece of paper and one pencil. Each child would take a turn, rub out what was written, then pass the pencil and paper to the next child. Hearing stories like this made her all the more determined to try to change things.

The Pencils Community motto is, “Helping children colour their world,” so it was a happy coincidence when she meet a couple of young New Zealander working with OrphFund, a humanitarian organisation. They were coming to Melbourne for a children’s colouring project. Children from Africa had made drawings of home, which were to be coloured in by Australian children. The Australian kids then sent their own drawings overseas in a creative cross-cultural exchange. When OrphFund was leaving Melbourne, Pencils Community gave them 80 kilos of pencils to take to orphanages in Uganda, Sierra Leone and Kenya.

This was the beginning of Pencils Community working collaboratively with other charitable organizations such as OrphFund, SANCSS and the Lions Club creating new initiatives to help a diverse range of communities meet a broad range of needs. “Everything we touch turns to gold with Pencils,” Rochstein says. “I say yes to every project because there is always a way for it to happen. It’s done on intuition and gut instinct.”

Everything Pencils Community does is motivated by good will. There is no profit in it. Everything goes straight back into the charity. She finds that people just naturally want to help out.

From its grassroots beginning, Pencils Community has branched into nearly twenty foreign countries and countless Australian communities. Pencils are transported to their intended destinations by car, truck, train, container ship, plane, backpack, boat and buffalo to reach even the most remote places. The stories and photos coming back from these communities illustrate the incredible difference these simple products have made.

While the benefit to the recipient is obvious, what has emerged as equally rewarding is the impact on the giver. For instance, a young police officer from Tasmania suffering from work related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder volunteered to take pencil packs to Nepal. While there, she started working with another charity called Seven Women, which helps marginalized women re-engage with their communities. It was such a healing and transformative journey that she can’t wait to get back.

Rochstein’s work is even more remarkable because she suffers from chronic pain. Whilst traveling in Vietnam she was bitten by a tick and contracted rickettsia. She became very ill, but the underlying cause was not found for twelve years at which point doctors were amazed that she was still alive. There is no cure for this disabling disease. It causes severe reactive arthritis. Sometimes she can’t even walk, but she is stoic about her illness saying, “Being sick teaches you the best lessons in life – to value your time and be in the moment. If I didn’t know my ‘why’ I’d just be drifting along, but this has given me more time to work on Pencils.”

Pencils Community has provided many pathways for healing by opening up conversations about mental illness, disability, isolation, loneliness and community building through its volunteering network. “What’s said in the pencil sorting room stays in the pencil sorting room,” Rochstein says. The conversations and connections made amongst the volunteers are transformative.

Anyone can help by: donating, fundraising, public speaking, sponsoring, social media, travel, sorting pencils, packaging, becoming a Pencils Ambassador, posting, transport, logistics and much more. Right now what she really needs most is a warehouse and a van. Any takers? If there is one thing to be learned from Pencils Community it’s that one person really can make a difference.

Kids from the OrphFund orphanage in Kasese, Uganda, with goodies received from Pencils Community. Picture: Chelsea Dennison Photography

First published in Peninsula Essence – November 2017