At 19, Léa Moukanas is young. But she was even younger when she founded her organization. The young woman with black hair and brown glasses was only 15 when she came up with Aïda, a non-profit organization whose goal is to help children and adolescents with cancer.
Léa was always ahead of her age. She was still a baby when her father, a business strategy consultant, left Beirut with her, her brother, her sister and her mother, a lawyer, to go live in the United States. She was five years old when her family moved again, this time to Paris. Three times a year – for Christmas, over the summer and in February – her parents would take her to Lebanon to visit family – 30 cousins, aunts and her grandmother Aïda.
“I am very attached to my roots. It’s a real anchor,” she says with a smile. Léa Moukanas describes her grandmother as a strong woman who “was very involved in the world of NGOs,” and whose chief work was with the Lebanese association Basma (“smile,” in Arabic), which helps families in need. “She worked there, as a volunteer, almost full time,” Léa, now a student at Paris Science Po, says.
Her family’s flight from Lebanon in the summer of 2006, during the second Israeli-Lebanese war, marked Léa deeply. She views her country of origin with admiration. “My father always told me that it is one of the only places where, when a house is destroyed during a bombing, people get up and rebuild it right away, together. And that’s true. It is a country where everyone is supportive, generous… All this influenced me greatly.”
By the time she turned 15 in June 2014, Léa, a brilliant student with a passion for writing, had already published two novels. Her first book, “The Time Machine“, written at the age of 13, tells the story of two friends passionate about theater – whose characters are strongly inspired by Léa and a childhood friend who had died two years prior. Her second book, “Ulysses among the Phoenicians“, imagines the visit of the hero of The Iliad and The Odyssey in his country of origin.
One October evening, Léa found out that Aïda had died of leukemia. She never really got over it. To keep her grandmother’s memory alive – “an irreplaceable model” – she decided to get involved with NGOs, just like her grandmother had.
“You’re too young”
But it’s not easy to become a volunteer at 15. “I wondered how to use all the values that Grandmother Aïda had passed on to me, and I tried to get involved in a lot of organizations related to cancer and the hospital. I wrote to many organizations, and each time … they did not answer me, they told me that I was too young, or I was told I’d have to perform small tasks, such as sorting folders or holding hands,” she laments.
During the winter between 2014 and 2015, she decided to create her own organization. “I told myself: it’s almost impossible for anyone under 18 to go to France to get involved, and yet in the hospital there are young people under 18, who are surrounded by adults, which is very good, but they are very far from their natural environment, that is to say, children and adolescents their age,” says Léa.
It was January 2015. Lea was in 10th grade, in a French-Arab bilingual school. To create her association, which she named “Aïda” after her grandmother, she needed her parents’ consent. “I confess that I stuck my report card on top of the association form to get my mother’s signature,” she says with a laugh. “My parents would probably have supported me, but at the time, I didn’t know if it was going to work or not, and I did not want to get into something that bore my grandmother’s name, mess it up and then make my family feel double the pain of their loss. So I wanted to keep it to myself until I was sure it worked.”
Her goal was then to help children and adolescents with cancer. “Because that’s what my grandmother would have done if she’d come out of it, and because I saw that there was a real need for hospitals to bring a different atmosphere, something else for parents and children than they already knew in hospital structures,” she says.
“Go home to your homework”
Aïda’s beginning proved difficult, and this despite the small community of high school students who gathered around Léa. In high school, she managed to convince 80 classmates from her grade and from other French-speaking classes to join her. “For them, it was a real need, I did not need to convince them. They wanted to commit to a cause, but they just did not know how,” she recalls. During class, high school students often worked on Aïda, instead of listening to their teachers. “From the beginning, it was very powerful, because everyone got on board. We all wanted, profoundly, to change the world.”
Léa felt boosted by this support. She contacted hospitals in cities throughout France with the idea of helping out in children’s wards. She also got in touch with teams of medical researchers to provide them donations. “We did not really have a defined missions, we just wanted to help in a global way. But it was always the same answer: “you are too young, go back to your homework. We do not need your funds, you will never have enough, drop it.”
After 5 months of refusing to take no for an answer, Léa and her gang started wondering if it would work. “We had done nothing expect take pictures of ourselves in red t-shirt and share them on Facebook … and we’d overspent 400 euros, and there was no more hospitals to contact. I was ready to close the organization.”
But refusing to close her first entrepreneurial project while it was in overdraft, Léa tried to fill the gaps by selling cakes with her friends, in France as well as the ski slopes in Faraya, Lebanon. “We quickly reduced the overdraft by half, but people gave us money thinking we were refugees, without really listening to us,” she laughs. One woman in Lebanon, however, encouraged her to persevere. “She told me to continue, that it was nice to see young people getting involved. It completely changed my perspective, I realized I could not stop there. And even though researchers and hospitals had told me ‘no,’ there were other people to speak to: the families,” she says.
Lists of “things to do”
By September 2016, Léa’s whole class was involved in a major brainstorming session. “Together, we thought about what we could do to get around hospitals and researchers. We wondered what we, young people, do best. The answer was obvious: social media.” The high schoolers inundated Aïda’s Facebook page with photos of themselves and content related to cancer research and the children who suffer from the disease. “After a few months, we had more than 3,500 fans, and among them, families of sick children. Among these were the parents of Ethan, 10, who had a tumor of the spinal cord. We told them we were at their disposition, and we asked them what we could do to help them,” says Lea.
Ethan’s parents drew up a list of “things to do” to make their son’s life happier. “A variety of things, like playing with him, taking him to Disneyland, or allowing him to meet the Youtubeur Cyprien.” Each of the 70 volunteers at the time ended up making one of Ethan’s wishes become reality. Then, news spread by word of mouth, and about 60 other families contacted the young people at Aïda. “Often for us to visit their children, in the hospital or at home. Each time, we responded to their needs, which allowed us, after a year, to know very well the family structure of a sick child.”
Léa and her volunteers also, over time, noted the many other issues related to pediatric cancer. In particular the loneliness of sick children, alone at home between treatments; as well as the fatigue and the financial or logistical strain on the parents. “We could no longer just intervene in the hospital,” says the young woman.
At the end of 2015, Léa won the “Young Volunteer” prize from the association “All Volunteers in France,” which rewards the most outstanding examples of volunteerism in 15 to 25 year olds. “It gave us a little boost and comfort in the idea that we were on the right track.” The members of Aïda officially gave themselves three missions: to accompany children with cancer and their families (at home and in the hospital, financially and humanly, from babysitting to housework, homework help, or the simple act of spending time with young patients), funding medical research (especially “young teams” of researchers) … and raising awareness among under-18s (in colleges, high schools and universities) to the disease. “They must realize that it is possible. Every day, we receive emails from young people, who tell us that they would like to do something, but that they are too young… Well no, they are not,” Lea says with conviction.
Doors keep slamming in our faces, but we don’t give up
Three years after founding her organization, the young entrepreneur counts more than 500 members (80% of whom are under 18 years of age), who accompany some 200 families of sick children. “Today, we are much more structured than at the beginning, we are no longer in overdraft and we do not sell cakes on ski slopes,” she laughs. “We have connections in major cities, and every year we double the funds we collect.” In 2015, Aïda raised 30,000 euros in donations. “This year it was 110,000 euros, and next year, surely 200 to 250,000.”
Léa’s organization association, the only high school organization dedicated to medicine in France, is now recognized as a public interest organization, and its donations are tax deductible. “It’s a real source of pride, because it’s something extremely rare for an organization managed by minors,” says the student – who won the audience award in social entrepreneurship in May 2018’s Talents.START contest organized by Les Échos at VivaTech.
“We are now recognized as major players in the field of childhood cancer, and our volunteers are trained in active listening and hygiene, which gives us greater credibility in the eyes of doctors, who trust us more now. But that does not mean that in some places, we do not continue to hear that we are too young,” Lea says with a smile.
The Science Po student, who wanted to become an actress when she was younger, now wants to become a public health researcher and specialize in health economics. She also wants to grow her organization abroad, in England (where a branch was opened last autumn), in the United States (where “it is much more commonplace for young people to do what I do” ), and even in Lebanon. “People are supporting us, and over the next 10 years, I would like to be able to expand in the Middle East,” says Lea. In the shorter term, the young woman wants to continue to increase funds and to open branches of her organization throughout France, in all the regions, and not only in the big cities.
Even though Aïda is to remain a non-profit, Léa plans to hire some employees and develop some related projects, including startups. “When you put your finger on the problem, both in terms of youth engagement and care in the hospital, it gives you ideas for projects,” she says.
According to France Volunteers, 15 to 35 year olds’ social commitment has increased by 33% between 2010 and 2016. But many still hesitate. “My story proves that it is feasible, that it is difficult, that many doors slam in front of you, but that it is possible to help, even as a teenager. And then, helping others gives you wings and can help you flourish in other ways. In my case, it gave me more confidence in myself,” says Lea. “Proud of the work we’ve accomplished,” Lea ends the interview tipping her hat to the 500 volunteers – 80 of whom are her former classmates – and who “are sometimes more motivated than me, even when they’re out of the country. They carry me on their shoulders.”