Hill students changing women's lives 8,800 miles away

by Len Lear
Posted 12/17/20

Mia Costonis, Alysa Akins and Meena Padhye are Springside Chestnut Hill Academy (SCH) students who have learned a lot more at school than English, history, math and science. They have learned how to change the lives of women in Cambodia.

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Hill students changing women's lives 8,800 miles away


Mia Costonis, Alysa Akins and Meena Padhye are Springside Chestnut Hill Academy (SCH) students who have learned a lot more at school than English, history, math and science. They have learned how to change the lives of women in Cambodia, which, according to Google, is more than 8,800 miles from Philadelphia.

The students have done this by selling beautiful hand-woven scarves, masks and table runners imported from Cambodia at Serendipity, 8506 Germantown Ave. (They make great Christmas gifts and are literally improving the lives of Cambodian women and children.)

The scarves, woven by hand from organic cotton in a small village in Cambodia, were purchased through Sonas, a social enterprise business that supports the weavers and teaches them skills that will ultimately help children in their village get an education.

Akins, who graduated from SCH earlier this year, was introduced to Sonas while on an SCH-sponsored trip to Cambodia. Students lived in the weaving village and learned the fundamentals of social entrepreneurship and sustainable business practices. Akins was so inspired that she came home determined to bring the women’s work to Chestnut Hill. Shortly thereafter, under the auspices of SCH’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (CEL), “Sonas to America” was born, and then-junior Mia Costanis was brought on board to help Akins build the business.

In March, when at-home lockdowns began, Akins and Costonis hit a pause on importing scarves. Trained in the CEL problem-solving mindset, they instead reached out to their partners in Cambodia to commission face masks. The result? Colorful, all-cotton masks selling for $6 on Shopify.

The team started with a simple order for 100 masks, which were sold out before they even arrived in the U.S. In addition to turning over 100% of the proceeds to Sonas, for every mask purchased, the students donated a mask — more than 100 in all — to the Mattie N. Dixon Community Cupboard in Ambler.

“So far we have donated over $8,000 to the women in Cambodia,” said Mia, 17, of Ambler, a senior who plans to major in business in college, “and we are hoping to donate even more after this holiday season! The Sonas Village has a scholarship fund that was made to help send Cambodian children to college, and this money will go to that fund …

“Through running Sonas to America, I've learned what it's like to become your own boss. Meena and I have worked countless hours to make sure our website is perfect and that all orders are shipped out as fast as possible. After sending a donation, it feels amazing to know that all of our hard work is making a direct impact on these women’s lives … I had discussed going to Cambodia last year before Covid, but with the expensive travel costs, my family and I decided to donate the amount of money we would have spent in travel costs directly to the village.”

Meena, 16, of Blue Bell, a junior who also hopes to study business and environmental sustainability in college, told us this experience has taught her “amazing and valuable business skills I didn’t think I would have until I was much older. For example, a lot of my role at Sonas to America has been learning marketing techniques and using social media to advertise to customers. I also learned so much under the mentorship of my CEL teachers and Mia about leadership, perseverance and networking.

“Sonas to America is important to me because I am passionate about ethical and sustainable business. It is difficult to find companies that use ethical production methods and care about the impact that they make on other people and the environment. I'm so proud of Sonas to America because we truly embody these values. I love that we are helping hard-working female breadwinners!”

Earlier this year, the students, who will teach younger SCH students how to keep the project going after they graduate, received an email from Paul Gil, director of Sonas, who wrote: “It has been only two and a half months since we shipped you the first samples, and you have been able to achieve something that we have never before experienced, even with the well-established customers we have in the U.S.”

The Cambodian women's handmade products can be purchased at Serendipity or at shopsonas.org. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com