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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.

By John Hanc

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.

Jordan Coleman
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Erin Patrice O'Brien

Say It Loud and Payin' the Price

Jordan Coleman, 16

Hackensack, New Jersey?

The films Say It Loud and Payin' the Price promote awareness about issues affecting teens.

Driving Force In 2007 and 2008, Jordan was the voice of Tyrone the Moose on the cartoon show The Backyardigans. The gig earned him some extra money. "At first I wanted to spend it on clothes and sneakers," he admits. "But my parents challenged me to do something good for the community instead." So, using his cash, his Hollywood connections and his mom Chrisena's resources as a reporter, he decided to make a movie with a message. "While I always loved school, I noticed a lot of my friends didn't do so well," he says. "By the time I was in the sixth grade, I was one of only three African-American boys in advanced classes. Other boys seemed to be more interested in being the next sports hero or superstar."

Call to Action Say It Loud emphasized the importance of staying in school—a critical issue in the African-American community, since less than half of boys graduate from high school. Chrisena helped Jordan contact the agents of influential African-American entertainers, athletes and politicians. Those people interested in his cause agreed to on-camera interviews. Jordan spoke with NBA stars Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter, former NFL great Michael Strahan, rapper Ludacris and politician and talk-show host Reverend Al Sharpton. ("Did you do well in school?" Jordan asked Kobe. "I got mostly A's and B's," the basketball player said. Jordan asked Ludacris, "What advice do you have for African-American boys?" His response: "Education is first and foremost.") AMC Theaters sponsored a seven-city tour of the film in conjunction with Kids Summer Movie Camp; the $1 kids' admission fee was donated to Roy Rogers' charity. (See film clips at sayitloudfilm.com.)

Now Playing Jordan's most recent film, Payin' the Price, is about dating violence, a topic he became interested in after the stir created by the 2009 arrest of Chris Brown for alleged domestic violence against singer Rihanna. "That's what all the kids were talking about," he says. "Boys and girls had such different feelings about it." Through his research, Jordan found that one in three teens is a victim of dating violence. "That's a staggering statistic," he says. He shot the film using the $10,000 he received for participating in MTV's America's Best Dance Crew. "I want everyone to understand how serious this is."

Ritwika Mitra, Radhika Mitra
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Victoria Yee

Renaissance Now

Ritwika Mitra, 15, and Radhika Mitra, 19

Fremont, California

Renaissance Now aids artists and craftspeople in India and other countries by providing free tools, training and marketing assistance.

Driving Force In 2008 Ritwika and Radhika were visiting relatives in Calcutta. One afternoon they were taking a cab ride through the crowded streets and halted at a red light. "When you stop, people come to the window to sell their wares," Radhika explains. A boy who looked about 8 years old approached their cab and held up a handmade necklace. When the light turned green, a rickshaw seemed to come out of nowhere and knocked him down. "The rickshaw driver didn't do anything," Radhika recalls. "And the cab driver cursed the boy and then drove off." The callous disregard for a child's safety was stamped into their memory. "Alongside the poverty, seeing him get hurt and hearing his cries was too much to handle," remembers Ritwika. "We had to do something."

Call to Action They decided to raise money for tools—chisels, magnetic clasps and leather-sewing machines—to help local artists produce crafts like handbags, pottery and dolls more efficiently. The sisters organized a fundraising dinner and art auction in Fremont that drew 150 people and raised $11,000. But there was one more step: Before they could teach the craftspeople in India how to use the tools, they had to become skilled themselves. Consulting books and online tutorials, they learned how to weave and use the woodworking machines, says Radhika. The next year they returned to the Bengal region to share their lessons, and have since conducted projects in Romania, Bangladesh and the United States. Today, artists around the globe can connect with Renaissance Now and watch instructional videos through its channel on YouTube, youtube.com/supportren.

Key to Empowerment "We don't want to throw money at the problem," Radhika says. "Our goal is to help people become more financially independent so they don't have to put themselves in harm's way for the sake of making money."

Adin Lykken
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Aaron Kotowski

Woofin' & Hoofin'

Adin Lykken, 20

Glen Ellyn, Illinois

Woofin' & Hoofin' sponsors a 5K race for people—and a 1-miler for their pets—to support a shelter and fight cruelty to animals.

Driving Force Adin's project marries two of his passions: animals (he grew up with one cat but his grandparents owned three dogs and three cats) and running (he was captain of his high school cross-country team). He always knew that he wanted to support a social cause but didn't know which one until he visited an animal shelter, DuPage County Animal Care & Control. "It was sad to see dogs and cats being abandoned," Adin says. "But I also realized many others were being adopted, which gave me hope." So he created Woofin' & Hoofin', a charity built around a fundraising race. "Instead of asking my parents for money, I applied for grants," he says. "I couldn't believe organizations would give money to teenagers on good faith!" Initially he received two $500 grants from DoSomething; once the event was established, he won a $5,000 Best Buy @15 award for social entrepreneurship.

Call to Action "I started by gathering a group of six people I could trust," Adin recalls. "All were achievers who could work independently." On Mondays after school the friends held 45-minute brainstorming sessions to throw around ideas. Eventually they agreed on raising money for the shelter by organizing Woofin' & Hoofin', a 5K for people, as well as a Doggie Dash 1-miler (woofinhoofin.org). Entry fees are $25 per person running the 5K, $20 for pet owners jogging alongside their dogs. In June 2009 about 70 runners competed in the first 5K at Newton Park in Glen Ellyn, and there were 15 Doggie Dash participants. "Everyone who competes gets something—either a medal or a doggie treat," says Adin. The following year there were 75 finishers in the 5K and 40 Doggie Dashers.

Pet Project The event has raised $16,000 for Friends of DuPage County Animal Care & Control, the organization that staffs the shelter. "This experience has taught me that life is about passion and dedication, not merely test scores and GPAs," says Adin, who is now a sophomore at Yale, majoring in political science and economics. "When I needed someone to take care of a last-minute emergency, I didn't turn to the person with the highest grades, but the one with the greatest commitment."

Nurture Your Do-Gooder
Nancy Lublin

At DoSomething.org's six Social Action Boot Camps around the country, Nancy Lublin—CEO and Chief Old Person (yes, that's actually her title)—regularly meets kids who exemplify their generation's desire to make positive changes in the world. Lublin, who coauthored a book for kids interested in getting involved—Do Something: A Handbook for Young Activists (Workman)—talks about how to motivate your teen.

Q: How can parents get a kid to become more interested in volunteering and social action?
A:
By creating a home environment that welcomes it. Notice I said welcomes, not pushes. There's a big difference. We don't recommend pushing this kind of thing on your kid.

Q: Experts often recommend encouraging kids to become involved in causes they care about. How can parents get that conversation started?
A:
Don't ask, What do you like? Instead, ask, What makes you mad? What would you change if you could? One question that works especially well: If you had one minute to talk to President Obama, what would you want to tell him?

Q: So once you've helped your kid identify a hot-button issue, what comes next?
A:
Some parents make the mistake of saying, "Since you care about abandoned dogs, let's go to the shelter next week and do something about it." Don't approach it that way. Let him express why he cares about the issue on his own. Then say, "I didn't know that," or "What can we do to help?" Let him feel like he is leading the charge, like the next step is up to him. Be supportive.

Q: How about leading by example? Should parents volunteer more often to spark their kids' interest?
A:
That kind of role modeling is terrific—if you pick a cause that is meaningful to you. But be sure to let your kids find their own things. It will be longer lasting and more meaningful that way.

Share stories of teens making a difference at familycircle.com/actingup

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