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5 Teens Who Are Making a Difference

They may be young, but these kids have a passion for good works that would inspire even old souls. Meet a new generation of doers who are improving the lives of people near and far.
Kristen Powers
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Bryan Regan

"Ready, set, pitch!" Seventy high school and college students come to life in a conference room at New York University. Facing them in an outer ring of chairs are adults—a cross-section of government officials, foundation board members and other deep-pocketed notables from the worlds of social service and philanthropy. They will soon vote and award three students $1,000 each to fund their projects.

This is "Speed Pitch," the culmination of DoSomething.org's Social Action Boot Camp, which aims to inspire, empower and celebrate young people who are passionate about community service. Throughout the daylong conference, students have shared and sharpened their ideas of social reform; this is their final opportunity to present them to people of power. Each teen came with a plan for a nonprofit project, like creating a cheerleading squad for special-needs students or crafting homemade gifts for children in local hospitals. As the students deliver their two-minute speeches, the experts listen and offer advice. When a facilitator calls, "Time's up!" the teens move one seat over and start the pitching process again. Think of it as speed dating for social causes.

Community service is a core value of this generation—the so-called millennials. Their interest in giving back has become one of its most salient characteristics, according to Neil Howe, a demographer and the coauthor of Millennials Rising (Vintage). In fact, college students in 2009 ranked the Peace Corps and Teach for America among their top ideal employers. Neither made the cut in 2000; Wall Street brokerage firms and major financial institutions dominated the list back then. "The service ethic of kids today supports civic institutions and is built around the tangible doing of good deeds," says Howe.

And these teens see a real value in volunteering, not just for the people they help but for their own educations as well. Kids like 17-year-old Alex Pommier of Cupertino, California, who created the Ethiopian Aid Project to deliver school supplies and other goods to Gara Dima, Ethiopia. "I'm not implying school is unimportant, but we spend so much time memorizing facts," he says. "I'm not sure how much of that I'll still be using in 20 years." Volunteering, though, has taught him life lessons. "I've developed management skills, worked through language barriers and realized the importance of teamwork," he says. "I've learned things from volunteering that I will never forget."

Meet other millennials—all alumni of DoSomething's Boot Camps—who have channeled their idealism and energy into bettering the lives of others.

Chapel Hill High School Community Garden

Kristen Powers, 18

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Once a neglected plot of land, Chapel Hill High School Community Garden has been cultivated into a lush, productive space.

Driving Force In early fall 2008, Kristen's biology teacher and eco-club adviser mentioned the ugly empty lot next to the school's tennis court. The 50 x 70-foot area was overgrown with grass and weeds; on it stood an abandoned greenhouse covered with vines and dirt. It was the perfect spot for a garden, the teacher said, but who had the time and motivation to clean up the mess? "It bugged me to see a problem when I knew there was a solution," says Kristen, who was the founder and president of the high school's environmental club, the Green Tigers. With six initial members, tackling the garden seemed like a doable first project. "We realized we could have a discernible impact," she says.

Call to Action Luckily, growing season was three months away. "It was just enough time to get the plot ready," says Kristen. But there was a bit of a learning curve. "We were Green Tigers without green thumbs," she admits. The students didn't know what to grow, and preparing the yard for planting was more involved than they'd anticipated. "Initially I thought we should make the garden produce as soon as possible," Kristen says. "But a more sensible short-term goal was to clean it up before researching which crops would flourish."'

Room to Grow Soon enough, the garden's visible changes inspired other kids, parents and teachers to pitch in and reclaim the land. Students received service credits for tasks like cleaning out the greenhouse, planting flowers and creating wood-chip walkways, but soon they were stopping by the garden simply to hang out. Local gardeners suggested growing techniques. "We tilled, moved mulch and added compost to beds," says Kristen, who also led a fundraising drive that brought in $3,000. In spring 2010, the Green Tigers had their first successful harvest: kale, mustard greens, arugula, potatoes and onions. It was enough to fill 50 bags with produce for an informal salad fest for the 100 volunteers—the majority of them students—who had beautified a piece of Chapel Hill under Kristen's direction. The Green Tigers have since donated 135 bags of organic produce to the community.