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Free soap 'a remarkable gift' for poor families

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Web extra: CNN Hero Derreck Kayongo
  • Derreck Kayongo is donating soap to impoverished countries via his Global Soap Project
  • The CNN Hero personally delivered the first box of free soap to Kenya last summer
  • When he was young, Kayongo found refuge in Kenya after fleeing Uganda
  • He says he has seen poor families dance in celebration after receiving soap

(CNN) -- Derreck Kayongo is a Ugandan war refugee who started the Global Soap Project to help vulnerable communities fight disease.

Based in Atlanta, the nonprofit has collected 100 tons of used soap from hotels in the United States and reprocessed it for shipment to impoverished nations.

What started in 2009 as a one-man operation in his basement has grown into an effort that includes 300 hotels and hundreds of volunteers all over the country. The group now operates out of a donated warehouse.

Kayongo recently spoke with CNN about how far he and his Global Soap Project have come and what he envisions for the future.

CNN: What did it mean to you to personally deliver your group's first box of soap to orphans last summer?

Kayongo: I became a refugee in Kenya, so it was important for me to be at the first delivery in Kenya with that soap. It's like going back home where you left so much plight and suffering, and going back and giving back. So many of us leave distressed areas and never look back. Having been blessed in the U.S., I knew I needed to give back.

The soap means a lot (to the kids). It means somebody cares. This is a health issue, and we are trying to protect them from simple diseases that could kill them. It means health, and it also means hope.

CNN: How does your process work?

Kayongo: When the soaps come into the factory, we separate them by hotel. We don't mix the soaps up -- they have different smells, colors, chemistry. We inspect each bar, literally. We used to use a potato peeler to peel off anything of concern. Now we have a machine that's been outfitted with a gadget that will literally peel everything off and give us the inner piece.

The machine breaks the pieces down into a dust, and then we take that out and add water, which gives a feta cheese texture. Then we put it back into the machine, which heats it up to about 250 degrees and compacts it. It comes out as a long bar that we cut into small bars -- either 4- or 6- or 8-ounce bars. ...

Then we box the bars. We don't package them in plastic or small boxes -- we don't want to continue pollution. But before we ship them off, we take a bar at random and ship it to a lab and they test for pathogens. Once it comes back negative, we know that batch is safe and good to go.

CNN: How does the soap get to the people who need it?

Kayongo: We have partner organizations that work with us. They are already on the ground doing incredible work and know where the needs are for soap within the communities they serve. They serve very poor people. These organizations usually have containers of other aid going to the communities, and they pick up the soap from our warehouse and put it in their containers. It's a wonderful symbiotic relationship and a good way of using resources all around.

Then (the soap) gets home, and the mamas and the kids start screaming. (They) dance. The soaps have different smells, different colors, and they're from beautiful hotels here. They're high-end soaps. You can imagine getting that soap. It's a remarkable gift.

CNN: What are your future goals?

Kayongo: I look forward to a day where we will become a full-fledged operation, where we have the money to make this professional. I want to be a soap depot where people who are under distress who need soap ... whenever there is a crisis globally, they can come to us and we can give them the soap.

I don't want to ever see a child without soap. I don't want to see a mother give birth where the attendant didn't wash her hands. I want to put a bar of soap in every child's hand globally that cannot afford it. That's my goal.

See the full story on CNN Hero Derreck Kayongo:
Recycling hotel soap to save lives