San Jose Teenager Turns Recyclables Into Cash To Help Kids

Jefferson Award Winner Founded Recycling4Smiles

SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) Most afternoons, Sonali Ranaweera leads some fellow students in an afternoon routine at Del Mar High School in San Jose: collecting bottles and cans that the 16-year-old trades for cash at the recycling center.

The work can be filthy.

“Just knowing I’m doing something good makes me not even think about the gross part,” she explained. “I’m going to change someone’s life, I’m going to make someone smile.”

Ranaweera has raised more than $60,000 through “Recycling4Smiles,” the nonprofit she founded in 2011.

A quarter of the money has gone to New York-based Smile Train to fund corrective surgeries for nearly 60 children with cleft lips or palates. Its community fundraising director Adina Wexelberg-Clouser offers high praise.

“Sonali is one of our superstars,” Wexelberg-Clouser said. “We don’t see a lot of kids who have the initiative and drive that she’s demonstrated at such a young age.”

The idea for her community service project started five years ago. When she was 11, her parents gave her $100 for Christmas and told her, ‘Use this money to make a difference.’

Ranaweera wanted to pay for a child’s cleft lip surgery, but didn’t have enough money. So she turned to recycling, and didn’t stop. Today, students, family, friends, and businesses help her collect and sort bottles and cans. Volunteer Alisson Sanchez has learned something about giving.

“You don’t have to start a hospital to help a lot of people,” Sanchez said. “You can start a club like Sonali did and her own charity.”

Teacher Laura Hallinan calls Ranaweera a role model on campus.

“It really brings that opportunity to make a difference to all of us here at school,” Hallinan said.

Through Recycling4Smiles, Ranaweera has also donated tens of thousands of dollars to other causes, like dental care for kids in Sri Lanka, meals for children in Yemen, and school supplies for Bay Area students.

“When it comes to wanting to do good, a small thing counts,” Ranaweera said.

So for raising money through recycling to change the lives of children, this week’s Jefferson Award winner in the Bay Area goes to Sonali Ranaweera.

More from Sharon Chin
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