Let there be light

Our main goal was, and still is, mainly not to make money - but to help people.

A glowing sucess: Youth of Light   (photo credit: TAL FLINT)
A glowing sucess: Youth of Light
(photo credit: TAL FLINT)
The Youth of Light Project is a “social business” that helps teens in Israel who have lost their way. It is a glowing success.
As a psychology student in Tel Aviv University, 24-year-old Ran Oren took part in a mentoring program called “Perah.” He was assigned to help Sagi, a 12-year-old boy who was having trouble in school and came from a difficult home. After their year of working together, they lost touch until two years later in the summer of 1999. Out of the blue, Ran got a phone call from Sagi, who told him that after being in a succession of foster homes and amassing a police record along the way, he was homeless.
Ran met him in Tel Aviv, and after talking to Sagi’s mother and then his parents, invited Sagi to live with his family and also offered him a job in their retail business. Sagi then introduced Ran to his world, where he met street kids who had been lost in the country’s social service system and given up on. He was shocked and sickened by what he saw: young teens sleeping on the floors of abandoned buildings, roaming the streets, panhandling for change or for cigarettes and raiding the garbage of the nearby McDonalds. They were high on drugs and alcohol and their future was grim. Ran decided he had to do something but wasn’t sure what or if it was even possible. After lots of thinking, he came to the conclusion that the best way to help was to get these kids working, having seen the profound effect Sagi’s job had had on him in a relatively short time.
As a student, Ran had learned about Patrizio Paoletti, a visionary Italian educator whose worldwide foundation is committed to encouraging and helping each person to develop his/her full potential via educational projects, lifelong learning and social integration. The Foundation conducts research in neurosciences and psycho-pedagogy with universities all over the world, including Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.
Ran went to Italy and met with Patrizio Paoletti to get educational support (and later financial aid). Ran was now absolutely convinced that the best way to motivate and help these kids was what he had done to help Sagi who was now thriving: give them jobs, a reason to wake up in the morning, a sense of purpose, satisfaction and, the icing on the cake, a salary. A simple business was needed, one that taught a skill that was easy to master and one in which you could see results in a short time. But what would that business be?
In a Herzliya restaurant not long after his return from Italy, Ran noticed candles on every table, the wax flowing over the sides. He asked the manager what they did with the wax and was told that they threw it all out. Ran asked if he could have the excess wax and a week later, was presented with several large boxes. Ran’s business idea was to make candles, a skill neither he nor Sagi nor anyone else who had hooked up with Ran knew anything about. Sagi and 24-year-old Assaf Persia went to candle-making workshops, peeked through doors and windows of those they were refused entry into, and learned all aspects of candle making. Keep in mind that in those days there was no Internet, so Sagi and Assaf relied a lot on trial and error to perfect the craft until, finally, “Youth of Light” was born.
The first group was in Jerusalem. When asked why not in Tel Aviv, Ran explained, “Let’s say there are 1,000 homeless kids in Tel Aviv, in Jerusalem, there are 5,000. I’m throwing out numbers, they’re far from accurate, but the point is Jerusalem is worse than Tel Aviv, loaded with at-risk kids from every strata of society, including those who come from ultra-Orthodox families who were thrown out of their homes when they decided not to be religious anymore. There are also many Arabs, Ethiopians and Russian kids with nowhere to go, so this was our first project.
“We got donations from the Paoletti Foundation, Tziunut 2000, the philanthropist Stef Wertheimer and the Jerusalem Municipality. I also put in what I could. Motty Levy, a Jerusalem contractor who had a big ranch in Jerusalem, offered to give us a caravan on his ranch to work in and the kids were given places to sleep nearby. The Dan Bus Company donated a car, which we used to drive up and down the streets where Jerusalem’s homeless kids congregated, arbitrarily picking them up and feeding them.
“We introduced them to the idea of making candles and explained to them that they would learn how to take something of seemingly no value and turn it into something of great worth,” he said. “‘Look,’” we said, “‘here’s an opportunity to work, get paid and create something in the process. Just show up, no questions asked.’”
 “Word of mouth did the trick and our group grew,” Ran said. “When kids didn’t show up for work, we looked for them. Some days, they were too spaced out to manage, but slowly and surely, I’m proud to say, most of our kids became clean. We concentrated on being a ‘social business,’ i.e., our main goal was and still is mainly not to make money, but to help people, not only like our kids at risk, but any group, physically challenged, mentally challenged, etc., by giving them the life skills that’s needed to succeed in life.”
After getting glowing (no pun) recognition from President Reuven Rivlin, many cities approached Ran Oren, asking him to open a group in their city. Ashkelon was eventually chosen, since the need there was great, and with the municipality’s support, including generous backing from the city’s Youth’s Rehabilitation Office, a 120-sq.m. building, the second “Youth of Light” workshop, opened in 2013 with 20 kids.
Ashkelon’s mayor, Tomer Glam, is a big fan.
“Ashkelon is lucky to have the ‘Youth of Light’ workshop here, one of the most important projects in our city,” Glam said. “Besides the beautiful candles and packaging they create, the kids get an amazing sense of achievement and confidence in themselves with the added bonus of learning about business and how to manage their lives. These tools will guide them their entire lives. The city of Ashkelon will continue to help them in every way that we can and show our thanks and appreciation for having been selected to be part of the project.”
Being in Ashkelon had an important effect on “Youth of Light.”
“After a few months in Ashkelon,” Ran reported, “everyone knew about us. Together with the city’s ‘meitar’ (mercaz yom tomech l’noar, a center for underprivileged youth), we were awarded a national prize by the government for helping high-risk teens get on their feet. After Ashkelon, we chose Arabe as our next destination, an Arab village in the Galilee where it is very hard to find jobs. They see us as a lifesaver for the village and the 22 talented and enthusiastic kids there have made this workshop very successful.”
Two new projects in the center of the country are on the drawing board.
IN 2010, Ran and some kids from Jerusalem went to Havat Derech Atavlin, an herb farm in the Galilee, to take part in a workshop on medicinal herbs. Ran was so impressed with the possibilities that he and the farm’s owner, herbalist Avi Zitershplier, decided to collaborate on producing an herbal candle based on coconut wax and various herbs such as lavender, rosemary and verbena. These ingredients have different effects, including purifying the air of bacteria, helping one relax, and even repelling mosquitoes with their citronella line.
Besides these and “regular” candles, “Youth of Light” makes specific candles to complement soaps made by the nationwide soap boutique, Sabon, which sell their candles in all their shops and online. The same goes for Steimatzky. It is important to note that 100% of the sales revenue goes back to “Youth of Light.”
During their stay in the workshop, (an average of 18 months), the teens learn to make the ceramic cans that the candles are packaged in and also learn candle design, but there’s much more.
“We encourage and help the kids complete at least their high school education. We also open a bank account for each participant and teach him/her how to manage it and handle their money, a skill they have never learned or even imagined they would need,” Ran said. “They meet with CEOs of many businesses and visit hi-tech companies. We also teach them how to run our online sales (orders, follow-ups and customer service), which is pretty amazing, since most of these kids have never had access to a computer. Some of them have never even been out of their neighborhoods or to the local mall or out of their cities, let alone Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. When we took the kids (from all the projects) to our herbal farm in Rishpon where we grow the herbs used in our ‘Lum’ line, Arab and Jewish participants were together for the first time. At first, they just looked at each other, but the ice broke soon after. Some got up and told their stories, some sang in front of the group and the kids really bonded. It was heartwarming and incredibly rewarding.”
More than 800 kids at risk have graduated from “Youth of Light” since its inception. Research published in 2018 by Bar-Ilan University found that more than 80% of “Youth of Light” workers found jobs after their stint in the project, as compared to 20% in the control group. 56% went to the army or to perform National Service, as compared to 10% in the control group. It’s a sure bet that had they remained on the streets, that number would be close to zero, since their high-risk backgrounds made them ineligible for service.
In each of its cities, “Youth of Light” attracts volunteer residents who help when they can, including packaging orders and befriending the kids. Local businesses also donate money and business expertise.
“Youth of Light” is win-win-win: for kids who have lost their way, for the consumer and for the environment (a good part of all the candles, if not 100%, are made from recycled wax, most of which is bought from all different sources. They also reuse wax from their workshops).
The catalyst for “Youth of Light” was a 14-year-old homeless boy whose future was anything but hopeful. Today, Sagi Santorini is 31 and an integral part of the “Youth of Light” project. He is a living inspiration to the boys and girls there, the poster boy for the success of the project. He and the Oren family are very close. Ran Oren now is 45 years old, a father of three, and the perfect example of what can be done with inspiration, a deep sense of purpose, commitment and vision. Who would have imagined that his mentoring of one 12-year-old boy to make some extra money in university and get some extra course credit would snowball into helping 800-plus kids get their lives back and lead healthy productive lives?
Editor’s note: In January, a fire caused by a short-circuit completely destroyed the Youth of Light workshop. The city of Ashkelon provided temporary workspace and now, thanks to the generous help of the Ashkelon Municipality and Mayor Tomer Glam,  Sabon Israel, Migdal Insurance and other friends and donors, a state-of-the-art workshop will open on November 13 at noon, Mercaz Burton, Aticot, Ashkelon. You’re all invited to the opening ceremony.
“Youth of Light” products can be purchased at any Sabon store, Steimatzky’s and through their website: