DARIEN — While many teenagers set their sights on college after finishing high school, Darien High School graduate Zoe Calahan had a more global vision in mind.

When Calahan graduated in 2015, she took a gap year to figure out what she wanted from her college experience. She also decided to take the time to explore her love of design. She began working with Cherie Green of Cherie Green Interiors and found an unusual way to break into the world of design: throw pillows.

“I thought decorative pillows were an attainable thing to start with,” the 20-year-old said. “It was a good time to do something I’m passionate about. I figured it’d be a good thing to steer me.”

Calahan didn’t stop there. Throughout high school, she had participated in LEAP, an educational program which stands for “leaders educated as philanthropists.” The program was started locally by Calahan’s mother and focuses on empowering young people to build local and global partnership across economically diverse groups.

Calahan embraced this mission by founding Designs By Zoe, a nonprofit where all funds from the decorative pillows Calahan designs go toward a community in Uganda. Through LEAP, Calahan partnered with Charles Mudhumba who is a member of HOLD (Holistic Initiative to Community Development) Uganda, an organization that helps trains local youth to start their own sustainable businesses.

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For more on Designs by Zoe, visit www.dbzinteriors.com

When the partnership originally began, the funds from the pillows provided resources to help the community sew their own sleeping pillows. But in the two years since the partnership has begun, those funds have expanded their reaches. Calahan said she recently gave HOLD a $10,000 loan to allow locals to start sustainable micro-businesses in their community.

“It’s giving them an opportunity to create something of their own,” Calahan said. “It creates the skill set to go on and make something bigger.”

Additional funds from Calahan’s pillows go to women and maternal health.

“We realized after doing a survey they need more than sleeping pillows,” she said. “They need education that can lead them to leading meaningful lives and get out of their current situation.”

Calahan’s pillows are all locally made in Fairfield County and sourced to 10 local stores, including Cherie Green Interiors and the Darien Sport Shop. THe pillows are printed in Darien and sewn by someone Calahan hired in Fairfield. Calahan designs the pillows and customers can also customize them with their own designs.

“The nice thing is with every pillow bought, you make a global difference,” Calahan said.

Calahan Skypes with her partner, Mudhumba, once a week to keep up the program. When the two began the partnership, Mudhumba created the HOLD program.

“The money from the pillow business is expanding,” Calahan said. “It’s going to more than just sleeping pillows. We’re making more of a difference now. We listened really carefully to what our team suggested the community needed. We listen to them to see what the best way to use the profit is.”

Calahan said her nonprofit will hopefully serve as a model for future partnerships forged by other students participating in the LEAP program her mother funded. She said the education she got in the program has equipped her with the skills to keep the partnership running. In the future, Calahan would like to invest in other global communities, as well as expand the interior design portion of her business as she studies full time at Parsons School of Design.

“It’s definitely a juggling act,” she said. “I absolutely love it and I’m really passionate about it. Everything is personally rewarding because of the impact I make.”

ekayata@hearstmediact.com; @erin_kayata