Two years ago, Lauren Joy Ray ’13 recognized a need as she walked down the dusty streets of Uganda’s Acholi ghetto. Rows upon rows of handmade paper jewelry filled the streets, but there were no customers to sell it to. With a heart as big as her smile, Ray bought a suitcase full of jewelry she knew she could sell at home. Little did she know that suitcase marked the beginning of her current nonprofit, Be the Joy.
Ray says she has grown up with a heart for missions. In the summer of 2009, the Austin native and her family visited Uganda on a church mission trip. While there, she was overwhelmed with the lack of hope present in the Ugandan ghettos. Empathy bloomed within Ray and sent her mind swirling with ideas on how she could help.
That’s when she met Filda, 13 years old and living in the Ugandan orphanage where Ray and her family were volunteering. The two girls quickly bonded. “She had so much joy and I never thought anything bad could be in her life,” Ray recalls. “But she couldn’t afford an education, so I looked at her and told her I would send her to school.”
According to Ray, only 14 percent of girls in Uganda go from free primary school to secondary school due to the expense of education. “That’s the equivalent of girls having to drop out of school after the 6th grade in the U.S.,” she says.
She quotes the “The Girl Effect” movement: “When you educate an impoverished girl, they’re less likely to get married at age 14. They stay healthy and HIV negative, and can raise a family when they’re ready.”
The door for Ray’s involvement opened right in front of her. Starting with that suitcase full of jewelry, she realized she could help two different groups of Ugandan women: the ones making the jewelry and the ones she’s sending to school with the money raised.
Shortly after returning from Africa, Ray created Be the Joy, inspired by her own middle name and her favorite Bible verse, Psalms 126:3 (“The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.”).
Be the Joy is designed to purchase handmade jewelry from Acholi women, increasing their wages and allowing them to provide for their families. The profits made from selling the “heartbeads” go to fund the education of young Ugandan women.
“No secondary education is free in Uganda,” Ray emphasizes. It costs approximately $125 per semester for a secondary student and $750 per semester for a college student, not including books, uniforms, and school supplies.
She launched the Be the Joy website in October 2009 and sells jewelry, T-shirts, notecards and other merchandise on the site. In spring 2010, Ray won a StartChurch contest, achieving nonprofit 501(c)(3) status for free. Several College Station and Austin boutiques and salons carry Be the Joy jewelry, and Ray hopes to one day have her products picked up by larger retailers.
A year after her initial visit to Africa, she returned with her family and continued to meet girls in need of school fees. Currently, Be the Joy is sponsoring 33 girls attending secondary school and college.
No matter the growth her nonprofit experiences, Ray says the philosophy behind it remains the same: “One girl at a time.” Be the Joy makes a commitment to each girl and follows her throughout her schooling.
Ray is quick to say she can’t do it alone. “My friends, my sorority and the Aggie family in general have been so supportive of the cause.” The business honors and marketing major also mentions that her time at Mays has taught her the value of professionalism and diligence in the business world.
In September 2010, Ray’s family adopted two Ugandan girls, Patricia and Rose, from the orphanage they worked with in 2009. Ray says her new sisters love to help with Be the Joy and “think it’s neat that they’re sending their friends to school.”
Her advice to students interested in starting their own nonprofit is simple: “Keep your passions alive and your main goal in mind. Don’t let the details dilute what your purpose is. Also,” she adds, “enlist help.”
Ray considers herself lucky to have found her calling so early. She has big plans for her nonprofitâ€”sponsoring more girls, getting merchandise in retail stores and eventually, she wants to open her own secondary school in Uganda.
“I love investing in these girls’ futures,” she says. “I have relationships with each one of them. I know exactly where the money is going, because they’re my friends.”