Pencils to change the world; Israeli ambassador to visit Fulton, Mo.

University students Zoe Engels, at left, and Elana Greenberg started the non-profit organization Write the Future.

By Ellen Futterman

Changing the world one pencil at a time

It started when they were both students at Glenbrook North High School in suburban Chicago. Zoe Engels was listening to her history teacher’s presentation about a recent trip to Guatemala when she saw some pictures of children there begging for pencils. 

“Those photos were very powerful and really resonated with me, especially because I love to write,” said Engels, 19, now a freshman at Washington University majoring in English and creative writing. 

Engels told her friend Elana Greenberg about the pictures, wondering what, if anything, the two of them could do to help children who have so much less than the two of them. At the time, Greenberg was part of Voices: The Chicago Jewish Teen Foundation, a Jewish philanthropy program through the Jewish United Fund (JUF). 

“Voices taught me a lot about philanthropy and how non-profits function,” explained Greenberg, 20, a sophomore at Wash U. majoring in business leadership and strategic management. “I’m also very interested in business, so Zoe approached me as her more business-oriented best friend.” 

Together, the two began a Chicago-based nonprofit called Write the Future, whose goal is to send pencils to impoverished schools internationally.

Accomplishing this goal, however, took a while to figure out. “We spent a lot of time Googling different grants we could apply for,” said Engels. 

Eventually, they came across KIND Causes grants, which are part of the KIND Foundation, a philanthropic entity of KIND Snacks. Its mission is pretty simple: to foster kinder and more empathetic communities. At the time, KIND offered a $10,000 grant every month to a different cause through a vote-based competition. So after Engels and Greenberg applied, they rallied students at Glenbrook North High and Wash U., as well as their network of friends and family, and won the grant in April with 5,111 votes, beating out their competition by roughly 500 votes.

“The day the competition began I had to go into the hospital to get my tonsils out,” said Greenberg. “It was a very hectic time.”

Getting the grant money was just the beginning. “Once we got the grant, it took us months of planning to get our costs down to a minimum,” said Greenberg, who, along with Engels, worked tirelessly to establish contact with pencil manufacturers and international shipping companies.

Eventually, they added another $3,000 to the $10,000 grant to buy 200,000 pencils and 32 manual pencil sharpeners for students in Malawi, Africa. To complete their Malawi donation, the two partnered with Innovation: Africa, a nonprofit that brings Israeli solar, water and agricultural innovations to rural African villages. After hearing its founder Sivan Ya’ari speak at Wash U., Greenberg saw an incredible opportunity for a partnership between the two organizations.

“The pencils started their journey to Malawi in August (shipped by freight via boat, then transported in Africa by truck, which broke down) and they finally finished their journey at the beginning of this month,” added Greenberg.

She said when she and Engels received pictures last week of students at 16 Malawi schools and orphanages getting their pencils, they both got emotional. 

“It feels so amazing to know what we are doing can really make a difference and an impact,” said Engels. “The pencils are more than just pencils in that they give the students hope because they know people abroad are rooting for their success.”

Both Engels and Greenberg credit their Judaism as playing a large part in their philanthropy.

“My Judaism has really shaped my values in that tikkun olam and giving back is one of my biggest values,” said Greenberg. “Especially coming from the Voices philanthropy foundation, I really learned what it means to be a Jew and give. So it really shaped how I view the world and how I should use my resources and my business knowledge to do good.”

Added Engels: “Through Hebrew school and going though that whole experience I learned a lot about how everything we have is such a gift. It would be a shame not to use the gift of what we have to give back to others.”

For more information about Write the Future or to donate, go to

Israeli Ambassador visiting mid-Missouri

If you didn’t get the chance to hear Ron Dermer, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, speak while he was in St. Louis in August — or if you did and you want to hear him again — he will be the keynote speaker for Churchill Fellows Weekend at the National Churchill Museum at Westminster College in Fulton. 

Dermer will deliver the Enid and R. Crosby Kemper Lecture on the topic of “Churchill and Israel” in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, March 25. 

A brunch will be held for attendees before the lecture at 11 a.m. in the Backer Dining Hall. A kosher meal is available upon request. Cost for reserved seating at the lecture and brunch is $60, and attendees must register by 6 p.m., March 23. The lecture itself is free, but attendees are also requested to register in advance.

Born in Miami Beach, Fla., Dermer moved to Israel in 1996 and began the process of becoming an Israeli citizen the following year. He worked as a political consultant for Natan Sharansky in the 1999 campaign and beginning in 2001 wrote a column entitled “The Numbers Game” for the Jerusalem Post

 In 2005, he gave up his American citizenship in order to assume the economic envoy position at the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. Dermer became advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu who was elected prime minister in 2009 and today is considered Netanyahu’s closest advisor and political consultant. 

After four years as Netanyahu’s senior advisor (2009-2013), Dermer was made Israel’s Ambassador to the United States. 

Those interested in registering for the event may do so at For additional information, contact Meda Young at 573-592-5602 or email [email protected]. To read more about Dermer, visit