June 8, 2011
Out of Africa
Rachel Sapire’s story begins in Africa: first in Egypt, where her maternal grandmother was forced to flee because of anti-Semitism and then, farther south, in Zimbabwe, where she forged a new life and gave birth to Sapire’s mother. Sapire’s father was born and raised in South Africa, so Sapire spent her formative years traveling to that exotic land, where AIDS and animals and enormous inflation colored her youth.
Now she’s off to Harvard.
“I really loved visiting there,” Sapire said of the long summer months she spent in the African heat. “But it’s hard to go back. There are a lot more problems; there’s a lot of crime, so we don’t really go anymore. We used to have so much family there, and now everyone has left.”
In a way, it’s her very own Jewish exile story, with the hard-edged lessons and the yearning to return that have irrevocably shaped her — even from the sun-soaked, breezy streets of Pacific Palisades, where she grew up. It was in Zimbabwe, for instance, that Sapire saw firsthand the social stigma that precluded those infected with HIV/AIDS from seeking treatment. “I knew someone working for my grandparents’ friends and she was HIV positive. But she never admitted it. She took care of this family’s baby, had been abandoned and disowned by her family, but never said anything, because she was scared,” Sapire said.
This story prompted Sapire to enroll in a summer course on global health at Brown University, where a teacher introduced her to the Partners in Health subsidiary, Face AIDS, a youth organization that provides socioeconomic support to infected communities in Africa. Sapire soon launched a local chapter at Milken Community High School, and from there became one of two high school students — out of seven mostly college students — to earn a seat on the group’s national board. At the moment, she’s in the throes of planning their next annual conference, set to take place next fall at Stanford University, where New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof will speak.
When she’s not trying to save the world, or locked in her room knee-deep in textbooks (yes, she has one of those GPAs), Sapire retreats to the quietude of creating art. She said she’s been painting and drawing her “whole life” and was part of a small group that designed and implemented a mosaic wall at Milken Middle School. Maybe more than the art itself, Sapire likes the artistic process, the break it provides from her highly programmed, fast-moving world. In an
Maybe that’s why Sapire has devoted more than 300 hours of her high school career to volunteering. On Sundays, she and her mother visit the Valley-based organization Friends For Pets, where they walk dogs that spend all week locked in cages.
Her fluency in issues of global concern (and her proficiency in Hebrew and Chinese) suggest the seriousness of Sapire’s worldly ambitions — whether in fieldwork, public health or scientific research. “Something that requires a lot of traveling,” she said. And she is not the least bit overwhelmed by the magnitude of the world’s lack — she’ll do what she can, she said. After all, her motto is: “Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.”