Nidhi GotgiStaff Writer
Jennifer ChiStaff Photographer
A student turned a small volunteer opportunity into a full-scale non-profit organization for underprivileged children.
Rebecca Tjahja, a finance and information technology management freshman, was inspired to start her own nonprofit after serving in her church’s goodwill program, Motel Ministry, in Anaheim, Calif.
This is where she realized the widespread, adverse living situations of low-income families.
“I served them breakfast on Saturday mornings and played with the kids,” Tjahja said. “The more I played with the kids, I realized how bright they were, despite the condition they were in. After a while, I thought, ‘I can’t just sit here and serve them breakfast once a week.’ It just didn’t settle right with me.”
Surviving on food stamps and minimum wage, families often found themselves living in motels as temporary residents. As Tjahja interacted with the children in these families, she came to know their true potential and wanted to provide them with the same opportunities afforded to everyone else.
Tjahja jumpstarted her own nonprofit organization, Truly Absolute, four years later in 2012. The program aims to enhance the education of underprivileged students in kindergarten to 12th grade.
In the summer of 2010, Tjahja shadowed the CEO of Indonesia Frontier Consulting to learn more about business practices. Upon her return to the United States, she combined her passion for helping children and interest in business and set up Truly Absolute.
With professional support from her mother, Anna Selamat, and creative feedback from her teacher-turned-mentor, Bryan West, Tjahja was able to launch an academic enrichment program that funds scholarships, develops the social and artistic skills of students and emphasizes the importance of a college education.
Tjahja worked as the developer for Frontier Consulting’s social media platform and used those skills to advertise her cause and recruit dedicated members to help run Truly Absolute.
“It was like applying for a job almost,” said Truly Absolute board member Sohan Daryanani. “They had to fill out a list of qualifications, and we basically looked for people who had genuine and sincere feelings for our cause.”
Tjahja had prior leadership experience as the vice president of California’s Southern Section Future Business Leaders of America in high school, but as she adopted an administrative role in her organization, she found it increasingly challenging to distinguish between being a friend and being a leader to her peers.
“A personal struggle for me is just keeping grounded in my thought and who I’m working for,” she said. “Sometimes I get too goal oriented, but when I go back and hands-on volunteer for those kids, it just brings me right back, and I realize, ‘OK, this is why I’m here.’”
Tjahja’s drive to help the children in Anaheim has led her to open branches of her organization in Indonesia and Cambodia, and she set up a partnership with Latinas Aliadas, a group with similar goals in Mexico. A total of 300 kids have received the guidance of trained volunteers in schoolwork, character building and social skills.
To raise money for these projects, Truly Absolute recruited Miss Southern California to model its line of unique merchandise and a local band called Heart & Soul to record an album that sold over $1,500 worth of copies.
Through the work of Truly Absolute’s volunteers, Tjahja and her team saw not only immediate scholastic improvement, but also a sense of empowerment in the children they tutored and mentored.
Tjahja remembers working with a young woman named Sierra who, despite being bullied for her autism, was able to attend Fullerton College on an art scholarship.
“Their confidence level, how they handle themselves and how they’ve matured goes to show the determining factors in what Rebecca’s trying to achieve,” West said.
The Anaheim academic enrichment program now helps more than 20 kids, and the arts program engages 10 talented students. In addition, Truly Absolute is currently opening branches in Buena Park and Hawaiian Gardens.
West said that people who do great things aren’t just motivated by external sources.
“It’s an internal thing,” West said. “She’s constantly seeking to challenge herself and prove things to herself, not to others. Most of her drive comes from within.”
At only 17 years old, Tjahja has been successful in balancing her campaign to help improve the education of underprivileged children and her own academic career. A McDermott Scholar and recently appointed student senator, Tjahja prioritizes school above all else but doesn’t forget to have fun along the way.
Operating in the adult business world hasn’t stopped Tjahja from having normal teenage experiences such as going to concerts. This is what makes her approachable and able to empathize with the children who live in disadvantaged conditions, West said.
“I’m the type of person who never settles,” Tjahja said. “I see their struggle and see how I can help them and constantly want to do more for them.”