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Meet Sara & Mira Scholars Foundation: Educating Cambodian Students from San Francisco

Mira Scholars Foundation

Sara (in blue) with students and a social work assistant (in yellow).

Meet Sara Ortega. She’s a local mom who’s doing extraordinary things for the greater good. Sara started the non-profit Mira Scholars Foundation from her home in 2009, which provides grants for educational services in Cambodia. We think she’s pretty exceptional and wanted to share her story and more information about Mira with you. 

 
How did you come up with the name Mira for your organization? 
In our early conversations about what to title the organization, one person (born and raised in India) suggested a short and simple girl’s name – Mira – meaning prosperous. We liked it immediately, and also liked its other global variants: Spanish for “look,” Latin for “astonishing,” Slavic for “great,” and Hebrew for “exalted.” All of these terms are what we hope Mira brings to the students who benefit from it.  
 
Why and how did you start Mira?
In my mid-twenties, I worked for one of the larger foundations in San Francisco that was pulling in roughly $25 million a year. It was a comfortable job with good pay, nice people, and expected growth, but I found it constraining, very officey and not me.
 

One of three Mira-funded computer labs

From that role, I accepted a job in West Africa with an adult education program.  I loved the experience and knew I wanted my work to continue to center on education.  Among my coworkers one day, we started chatting about what would be involved in developing our own non-profit, but this time focusing on children.  All of the adult students I worked with had bachelor degrees already, so they were generally in a good spot for personal growth and social mobility.  We kept talking about those who weren’t in that type of situation.  All of this was very informal conversation – the “what ifs” and “what’s needed.” 

 
One coworker read about a business plan competition with the only criteria being it had to benefit the social good, so we spent months researching how we could best be of service to the world and put together a plan benefitting academics and youth. After six months, we didn’t hear back from the competition, but thought it was still a good lesson in getting a formal plan together so we pressed on.  Then, one day, I received an email apologizing for such an unanticipated delay.  The organizers expected a few dozen entries but received 600!  Mira was one of the top 10!  
 
There was one requirement to accept the seed funding. Since the organizers were an Asian based foundation, they asked that Mira start in Asia.  At the time, our business plan was flexible to be implemented in many regions, so we decided to launch in Cambodia.  Now, with Mira in a truly serious stage, the two partners I worked with wanted to return to their previous lives in IT and Finance… so it was Mira and me. 
I don’t think there’s anything wrong in starting small, but there sure was a learning curve. 
 
IRS forms, state forms, city forms –  that took maybe another five months to get through. Now, about seven years since that first conversation began, Mira has been able to help approximately 2,500 students and not just in the classroom.  One NGO (non-governmental organization) approached me with a need for funding disabled youth, so Mira‘s “doors” opened a bit further.  I say “doors” as in door to my home, where all things Mira take place.
 

Sara with NGO staff and youth beneficiaries of a program supporting children with moderate to severe disabilities.

How has how doing this work affected you?

It’s truly changed how I see the Bay Area and the U.S. lifestyle and has shown me how generous and altruistic Mira‘s circle of donors has been.
There are so many high end lifestyle expectations here that I think people would let go of if they were exposed more to the outside world.
There are millions of people all around the world who have only themselves. The students in Cambodia are remarkable and inspiring. There is a tangible thirst for quality educational services, and motivation is extremely high. The problem is there’s never enough funding to reach everyone who’s motivated.  Some can move forward; some cannot.  Mira is a small organization.  We will never change everything, but we will change a small corner of the world, and that in itself makes a lasting difference.
 

Sara and daughter napping on a trip to Cambodia

How has becoming a mom changed you and how you feel about Mira?

Well, let’s address the physical part of that first.  My angel (she is; she’s brilliant and peaceful) didn’t sleep through the night for her first fourteen months! And let’s not forget how joyous sleep was in the third trimester of pregnancy.  
Much of Mira‘s momentum had to stop for a bit, but I’m now starting to get back on track, and that feels amazing. 
Right after she was born, we didn’t make our annual trip back to Cambodia to check on our grants and the students because she was just too little to travel.  We went back when she twelve months old, though, and I’m so happy we did.  My incredible husband was there, as well as three volunteers. 
 
As for how I see Mira as an entity, having my own child makes me more aware of what other kids don’t have.  Need diapers? Go to Target. Supplies? Amazon.  There’s always a place to get something.  Also, my husband and I are college educated and in stable jobs.  Though we’re not sure where she’ll go to school, there’s no doubt that it will happen. It’s just a given, right?  
For the 2,500+ students we’ve been helping, there are no givens. None. School and supplies are maybes or long-shot dreams.
 

Sara, her husband and daughter in Cambodia

Tell us about your experience bringing your one-year old daughter to Cambodia to check on Mira’s students and funding.  

When we started telling people I was pregnant in 2015, there were a few folks upfront who literally said, “Well, kiss those travel days goodbye.”  My first reaction was a smile and then an eye roll.
  My husband and I knew we’d always have a traveling family, just that there would be times it was regular and times we’d need to pause. 
Aside from her jet lag, the trip went perfectly.  We’d alternate who had in her in one of those travel/hiking backpacks, and when the ground was safe, we’d just let her walk wherever she wanted.  I was wrapping up breastfeeding at the time, so I did feel a bit awkward about that, being in front of my volunteers, my NGO counterparts, and really anyone with whom we came into contact, but whatever! No one said anything, and it all turned out fine.  We packed some essentials from home and bought most everything else for her there.  Pretty much most products here can be found in Cambodia’s two main cities. 
 
Will you continue to bring her on these trips? 
Absolutely!  I want her to understand that anyone can offer help.  Anyone. You don’t need to be rich and powerful to step into a situation where you know help is needed.  
 
What do you hope she learns as she grows up watching you make such a wonderful difference?
It’s important to me that she sees Mommy as being in the lead of something – an organization or otherwise.   I also want her to see that she can do something similar or even bigger. One of the people I met there, a man in his sixties, once told me, “If you’re a big tree, provide big shade. If you’re a little tree, provide little shade.” That’s the mindset we want our daughter and any future children to have.
 
Learn more about the great projects Mira is working on and how you can support them.
 

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