This June, Katherine Commale was invited to speak in Taiwan- and receive a "Hero Award" from the Taiwanese President. That's amazing, but even more impressive is the fact that Katherine is 17 years old. But before she was an internationally known philanthropist, she was just a 5 year old girl with a big heart and a passion for the mission of Nothing But Nets.
Q. Can you tell us a little bit about how your work with Nothing But Nets started so many years ago? Did you have any idea how big of a “thing” it would turn into?
A. It was 12 years ago, so rewind to when I was 5 years old. At the time, there was no Nothing But Nets campaign — it was in the works, but it wasn’t official yet. My mom saw this program called Malaria Fever Wars on PBS, and she was telling my dad about it one morning at breakfast. I was absorbing everything she was saying. And the thing that really took me back was that [at that time] every 30 seconds, a child died from malaria.
I thought of my baby brother, who was 3 at the time, all my kindergarten friends, and myself. I counted to 30 seconds on my fingers and said, “Mom, did a child just die?” Luckily, she told me that a $10 bed net could save a child’s life, and their whole family if they sleep under it. So that’s what started my passion for fighting malaria.
I had $10 in my sock drawer, and I said, ‘Here, mom, send this in. That’s a few people that can sleep safe tonight.’
Q. You’ve met Laura Bush, Bill Clinton, and more (like UN Secretary General Guterres and Mandy Moore). You’ve had also joined us on Capitol Hill. What would your advice be to someone interested in advocacy and talking to their elected officials?
A. When this started, I wasn’t really thinking about advocating for malaria prevention — I was just thinking about the humanity aspect of it. I thought of any African child as any of my friends, or any child ever.
Because I was young, I saw the solution to the problem so simply. That’s how I got involved with my work. You have to see that simple solution in order to find what you’re passionate about.
It’s not about getting community service hours — it’s got to be something you want to fix. And that’s the number one rule about getting into advocacy and humanitarian work: to find something you’re passionate about. As long as you have a good force with you — I had my family, my friends, my local church, and others that helped me get all that publicity and support when I was young — then you can do big things.
Q. What inspired you to continue raising money and working with Nothing But Nets for the past 12 years?
A. I saw the solution that a $10 bed net can save a life. ‘Let’s go send some nets.’ My mom has focused more on how the mothers feel or how the village feels when they lose a child, or any person. I was more matter-of-fact.
When I saw the statistics change, I saw that I was making a positive impact. That’s what kept me going and got me so excited. I could tangibly see that the work that I was doing. If we could see that go to elimination or 0 deaths, then that’s what I’ll keep working toward.
Q. Tell us about the trip to Taiwan! You met with President Tsai Ing-wen. How did that meeting come about?
A. We were contacted by the Maria Social Welfare Foundation, a rehabilitation center funded by the [Taiwanese] government. It took my family and me a long time to decide that we were going to do this — it’s a long trip, like, 21 hours in-flight, so that was a lot, but we felt positive vibes and felt so welcomed by all the communication we had before the trip.
We were inspiring the youth of Taiwan; I was taught by my mom, and now I got to teach those kids, so that was really profound.
I got to meet the President, which was an absolutely incredible experience, and to see the kids of Taiwan look up to me was so incredibly humbling, because I had never felt like any of the humanitarian work that I’ve done should be praised as much as it was there. They were looking up to someone who does community service, and that was really amazing, because we don’t see that a lot in the United States.
Q. While you were there, they invited you to speak and you also received a “Hero Award” from President Tsai for your work with Nothing But Nets and the United Nations Foundation. What did that mean to you?
A. That was a crazy day! The day of the event, which was a TED Talk for kids, the Vice President presented me with this award for being a global charity ambassador. That was overwhelming, just all the love that I received from not only the people who gave me the award, but everyone in the audience. It really inspired me that all these kids are working towards community service.
Q. You have inspired so many others to join our mission and fight malaria. What do you hope they take from the speeches you’ve made?
A. My mom shared this piece of wisdom: when she saw the passion that I had at such a young age, she wasn’t going to just going to throw that away, and say, ‘Katherine, get back to your school work.’ She fostered that and helped me as much as she could, and that’s something we tried to share.
All the kids I met were truly dedicated and passionate about what they were working towards. I met a group of students in old Taichung City who were working with migrant workers, and they made them feel more at home, not like they were in a foreign country. They made them feel more comfortable, and they even showed me markets that had food from their homelands, which was really inspiring.
Q. What’s next?! You seem to have done more work in 17 years than most people do in a lifetime, so we’d love to hear what your plans are for the future.
A. I would love to bring Nothing But Nets to wherever I go to school. I’m looking to major in Biology, so to connect malaria prevention or vaccines or something to my major would be an absolute dream. But the one thing that’s always been on my mind has been teaching people, and reaching bigger and bigger crowds.
It definitely got tough in middle school and high school, because my mom and I weren’t able to reach as many people by going out every single weekend, so the one thing I’m focused on is meeting the right people and speaking in front of big crowds and teaching what we know. To go to a school that already embraces community service and to teach other students would be an amazing experience.
Q. Tell us about the impact Nothing But Nets can have.
A. I’m so proud to share this work, because Nothing But Nets has been an amazing part of this journey. Nothing But Nets gave us t-shirts to give to all the people who were there [in Taiwan], and now we’ll get Snapchats from the people in their Nothing But Nets gear, because they love it.
Want to make a difference like Katherine? Find out how you can join the fight against malaria here.