Community Service Beyond Beacon: An Interview With Zoe Timms

By Amelia Poor

Beacon’s community service program entails a 35 hours minimum of in person volunteer work, reduced from 50 hours before the COVID-19 pandemic, which is beneficial for both the student and the community they live in. The Beacon Beat was recently able to sit down with another young person involved in community service, and is making a global impact. Zoe Timms is an inspiring person who is doing community service work beyond a high school requirement; in fact, she has made it her life’s mission. Over the past 20 years she has impacted the lives of hundreds of women, who face significant disadvantages as a result of cultural norms in India.  

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1997, Timms did various non-profit work before founding the Women’s Education Project in 2002. The Women’s Education Project  builds learning centers across India for young women to learn valuable life skills and form irreplaceable connections. The foundation “prepares women to become earners, leaders and changemakers.” I recently sat down and spoke with Timms about this foundation. Below are excerpts from our recent interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Beacon Beat: I know you went to the University of Wisconsin, but I would love for you to tell me more about where you grew up, and where you went to high school. 

Zoe Timms: I grew up in Fitchburg Massachusetts, which was a much poorer town. My father owns the Fitchburg art museum, so I pretty much grew up with my brothers in the art museum. My mom is from England, she’s an artist and my dad is from Pennsylvania, so it’s kind of funny that we grew up in Fitchburg where neither of my parents really had ties. I went to a girls boarding school just outside of Boston, so that was four years that formed the importance I see in girls programs. It was definitely a piece of why I started this program for girls education, it was just a natural fit for my interests

BB: Had you done any community service work or volunteer work prior to, I believe it was your senior year of college, that you took a year abroad in India trip?

ZT: Good research! Not really, though I had traveled. I think it wasn’t that I could travel anywhere, it was that my parents really never said no to opportunities. Growing up we never went to summer camps or anything like that, but they sent us to live on our own. When I was 13 I lived with a family in France and that was a huge experience. And then I was an Au Pair in high school in Germany. It wasn’t that I had volunteered with other people, I just had the support of my family members, never saying ‘are you crazy going to India’, they just said ‘of course, that sounds good.’ So I was really lucky with my parents. 

BB: So you were very interested in travel when you were younger, and I assume you still are now. But how did you get involved with this trip to India, was there a certain friend or professor who inspired you to go?

ZT: Again, I think I was really lucky. I knew that I wanted to study abroad in college, I knew I wanted to go somewhere. I loved Wisconsin, so that was actually a hard decision to leave the campus, because I loved my time there. But I had a professor who gave me this opportunity, and I just immediately said yes, that’s what I want to do. I knew I didn’t want to study abroad on a beach or somewhere in Italy where it was a party. I knew I wanted a really interesting experience, and that is definitely what India provided.  

BB: And so you got right back to New York and immediately knew what you wanted to do?

ZT: When I was a college student I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Studying abroad was an intense experience, where we learned the local language. I spent a lot of time at an NGO (non-governmental organization) for girl child laborers. I would live there for long periods of time. At the end of that year, I told the director who now works for us that this is exactly what I wanted to do. I came to New York and I worked a little bit, and stayed on my friend’s couch for a summer. I still knew I wanted to work in the nonprofit sector, so I got a job in New York for three years at the Near East foundation. Then I got a phone call from that same professor who started the program, and he said we have a job for you in India. I said okay, when do I start.

BB: I read about you returning to New York and raising funds to start the project. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about how you convinced your friends to raise, I think it was $3,000, to help you fund the Women’s Education Project.

ZT: When I came back, we just had a party in a bar and I talked about the students. My friends invited their friends, and it turned into a larger group. I did the classic wrong move of inviting friends to be on the board, and so we just had a group of friends and their friends who were the initial donors to the organization. I think I had auction prizes or something like that, we made the event kind of a fun party. 

BB: On a slightly different note, I read in an article that you said the curriculum has changed and grown to fit the needs of the students and I was wondering what are some of the curriculum topics you’ve covered, and places you’ve visited as a group?

ZT: The curriculum is based on student needs. For example, there was a young woman who was one of our first students who would fall asleep in the library. It turned out that she was severely anemic, so we started a whole nutrition program based on the local culture, working out what healthy local snacks the girls could make every day would address anemia. And through that we built up a nutrition program so that every day they would have a snack. People really do gather around food, and after we started that nutrition program more and more students came. As they knew it was a space they had to hangout, just to be with friends, we saw how important it was for them to have that space. From student to student, we started building up the program. We started to do field trips that became more and more interesting. We went to apiaries to learn about beekeeping, we went to the Bay of Bengal. The students had never been on a train before, never seen the ocean before. We brought them to the ocean, interviewed fishermen about global warming and fish populations. As the students showed their interests, we built the whole program around them. What we really learned about our students, was that they wanted to take initiative to do things like build gardens and stop child marriage. We realized that they were natural change makers, so we formalized it into a related program. 

BB: Wow, that’s incredible! You sort of covered this, but is there one thing you think is vital to the growth and education of young women?

ZT: It’s about preparing the kids for their opportunities so that, built into learning, the students go on local field trips to places like businesses, hospitals and police stations. So that they learn how to access their local resources and about job opportunities within their communities. 

BB: Are there any standout success stories you’ve had within your program or has there been anything a student or alumni has said that’s really impacted you?

ZT: Oh wow, there’s so much. There’s a woman who’s now working for the state as an agricultural officer. She just secured a plot of land for our program so that the students can do some gardening on that land. We have another woman who is a dentist, which is really impressive. I’ve just had so many special experiences now thinking about these students. There are a lot of really meaningful stories that have shaped our program because it is really about listening to the students. One story that I haven’t talked about is a group of students who kept a clinic open in their rural area during Covid. There was another woman who had an open sewage canal by her house and she wrote a petition and got it capped, which is really unheard of. They are just doing incredible things. One thing I love are stories of the students making craft projects from recycled materials and selling them in their communities.

BB: That’s really incredible and the first story you told about the woman buying a plot of land for the program really goes to show how impactful and special the program is that students just keep coming back to it. 

ZT: It really is special. When you go to India, the first thing that people do when you go into their homes is open up their photo album. I remember seeing a photo of a friend on her trip to the mountains. That was the most memorable thing she’s ever done, a trip to the mountains with her Girl Scouts program. That one trip was her main life trip, that was a huge deal for her. And for many of our students it’s the same thing; we’ve brought them to the mountains, we’ve brought them to the ocean. You’re right, it’s something that they’re gonna take with them forever. 

BB: One final thing I wanna discuss a little bit is that I attend a school that has a real focus on community service. They require volunteer hours to graduate, and every student does some form of community service or volunteer work in their time at Beacon. And I was wondering if there was one piece of advice you would give to students getting started working with nonprofit organizations. 

ZT: My advice is to find a skill, and really get good at that skill. For example photography – every nonprofit needs a photographer or someone to put together a short compilation of videos or photographs for their website or social media. Come with a skill or a proposal that no nonprofit could turn down. If you show up and say I don’t know what I want to do, but I just want to hang out here, it’s not gonna be beneficial to either you or the program. 

BB: Thank you so much for taking the time to come and speak with me, I really appreciate it!

ZT: Yeah, of course!