FRANKLIN LAKES, N.J. — Franklin Lakes mother Cathy Zahn walked down a dirt road with her husband and three daughters towards a rural Cambodian village.
On either either side of the road were parents and children handing them flowers. Occasionally, a child would run up and give them a hug.
When they reached the village center, they saw a brand new school wrapped in a red ribbon waiting to be cut.
The building was the product of six years of work on the part of Zahn, 59, who had been selling burlap tote bags and pillows to raise the $15,000 needed to erect the "Zahn School."
"It was breathtaking," she told Daily Voice. "To see this thing that I had helped build and to think of how many lives it could change."
Six years earlier, in 2009, the River Vale native read "Half the Sky" by Nicholas Kristof. The book bears witness to how young Cambodian girls are denied a proper education and are sold into the world of human sex trafficking.
Being the mother of three girls and having recently retired from her career as a medical researcher, Zahn felt she needed to do something.
"I couldn't sleep at night knowing there was such devastation," she said.
After some trial and error, Zahn settled on designer tote bags and pillows made from recycled burlap coffee sacks as a fundraising mechanism for her cause.
She called her nonprofit "Gracie Greene."
"Almost every woman owns designer bags in Franklin Lakes," Zahn said. "So I figured I could design a cool bag and it would have the added benefit of being a force for good."
Working with the nonprofit organization World Assistance for Cambodia, Zahn was able to open her school in early 2015.
But she hasn't stopped there. She has continued to donate money to provide bathrooms and computers for the school's 500 students.
Her Gracie Greene bags and pillows are currently sold in four different stores around New York and New Jersey as well as on her website .
Each bag comes with a tag featuring the face of a student at the Zahn School and an explanation as to where your money is going.
"For a drop in the bucket you can really help so many people," Zahn said. "We live very good lives here in Bergen County, but it is a very different story over there."
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