Depressed about the news? These days, it's hard not to be. But amidst all the tragedy and chaos, there are stories of hope. This is one of them.
Recently, the winners of this year's Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes were announced. The Barron Prize celebrates young people throughout North America who are making a real difference in their communities. This year's winners come from a variety of backgrounds and have passions ranging from saving wild cheetahs in Africa to helping homeless children on the streets of Chicago. What they have in common is a desire to make the world a better place and the confidence that they don't need to wait until they're older to do so.
So if you need a little inspiration, a reminder that there is hope for the future, check out what these 20 kids are doing to make a difference right now.
Abbie Weeks, 18
Abbie Weeks founded the nonprofit organization Ecological Action with the goal of advocating for sustainability through education and political action. Her organization has convinced school officials in her home just south of Denver, Colorado to replace cafeteria Styrofoam trays with reusable ones and is working with town officials to place a fee on single-use plastic bags. Ecological Action has also helped to provide solar energy to the underprivileged, including a home for children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic in Uganda and a military veteran's home on a Native American Reservation in South Dakota.
When Abbie learned of the need for a reliable source of energy at the orphanage in Uganda, she raised $10,000 to fund a solar energy project and worked with a local trade school to learn how to install it. Abbie, a friend and three teachers took 800 pounds of supplies via plane from Denver to Kampala and then via car for the 10-hour drive to the orphanage, in Nyaka. Abbie spent the next two weeks helping to install the equipment so that the Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project could have an inexpensive, environmentally friendly and reliable source of energy.
Alex Weber, 17, and Jack Johnston, 17
Friends since middle school, Californians Alex Weber and Jack Johnston bonded over their mutual love of the ocean. So when they happened to spot thousands of golf balls in the ocean near Pebble Beach, California, they knew they needed to do something about it. They did some research and discovered just how environmentally destructive golf balls can be. So they founded the nonprofit The Plastic Pickup, which has thus far removed 21,000 golf balls from the ocean. Alex and Jack are working with NOAA researchers to publish the data they have collected on the impact of plastic pollution on the environment. If all of that weren't enough, they are also pushing for legislation that will force golf courses to to take responsibility for their environmental impact on waterways.
Alexa Grabelle, 15
When Alexa Grabelle was 10 years old, she created the nonprofit Bags of Books to get books into the hands of kids who might not otherwise be able to afford them. Alexa, from New Jersey, was inspired to do something when she learned about the "summer slide" (the term used to describe the regression in learning that many kids experience over the summer months) and how it was most likely to affect kids from low-income families who may not have access to books when they're not in school. Through Bags of Books, Alexa has distributed more than 120,000 children's books to schools, homeless shelters and children's hospitals.
Ana Humphrey, 16
When Ana Humphrey was in the 7th grade, she was fortunate enough to be part of a hands-on life science class where she learned about environmental issues and helped restore a wetland as part of the final project. She wanted to find a way to keep that environmental activism alive among her classmates as they entered high school, and she wanted to make sure other young students had the same type of enriching experience in middle school. So she formed Watershed Warriors, a nonprofit club that helps eager high-schoolers develop and deliver fun STEM-related activities for 5th grade students in her Virginia hometown. Over the past three years, Ana's Warriors have worked with nearly 300 middle-schoolers, visiting them several times during the school year to work on environmentally themed projects and finishing out the year by helping to restore a local wetland, assess water quality and pick up trash.
Aryaman Khandelwal, 17
Every year, Aryaman Khandelwal and his family take a summer trip from their home in Pennsylvania to India in order to visit relatives and the city in which he was born. During one such trip a few years ago, Aryaman heard his aunt and uncle discussing their struggles with compiling and maintaining medical records at a local health clinic where they worked. During that trip, he and his family also visited a nearby rural community known for its extreme poverty. Determined to help, Aryaman worked with the MAHAN Trust, a local group that helps provide basic health care to tribal villagers. The teen developed an app, called Get2Greater, that can be used quickly and efficiently in the field to determine diagnoses for patients and compile medical data for the community. Aryaman's app has allowed medical personnel to work quickly and efficiently in caring for those in need.
Elizabeth Klosky, 18
Elizabeth Klosky is passionate about bees. As part of her Girl Scout Gold Award, the teen learned how threatened bees were and decided to do what she could to help. She launched NY is a Great Place to Bee to advocate for bee-supportive legislation and educate the public about the importance of bees. To date, the New York teen has taught more than 14,000 people about the wonders of bees and what every individual can do to support them by building and installing native bee houses and planting bee-friendly flora. Elizabeth also created a petition on Change.org that — along with numerous phone calls and meetings — led to the creation of a bee-supportive legislative resolution in New York state.
Ella Morrison, 11
When Ella Morrison was just 6, her best friend in her Massachusetts hometown, Hailey, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Wanting to help, Ella started a lemonade stand and earned $88, enough to buy her friend lunch and a new doll. Shortly thereafter, when Ella had lost both Hailey and another childhood friend, Jesse, to cancer, Ella learned that only 4 percent of the National Cancer Institute's funds are used to help fund pediatric cancer research. She created Ella's Lemonade Shop to continue selling lemonade and to donate all of her proceeds to pediatric cancer research organizations and to local families affected by pediatric cancers. She has raised more than $50,000. In addition to these funds, she collects new pajamas and Lego sets and donates them to hospitals that treat children with cancer.
Jahkil Jackson, 9
From a very young age, Jahkil Jackson would beg his parents to give money to the homeless people they passed on their local Chicago streets. After helping his aunt distribute food at a local shelter, Jahkil decided he wanted to do more. He founded Project I Am and creates what he calls "Blessing Bags," filled with snacks, toiletries, a towel and socks and began to distribute them to the homeless people in his community. Jahkil works with community members and friends at school to generate donations, organize bag-stuffing parties and hand out the bags. With the help of friends and family, Jahkil has donated more than 3,000 Blessing Bags in Chicago communities and has set a goal to distribute 5,000 by the end of this year.
Joris Hutchison, 10
Joris Hutchison has always loved cheetahs. After he read a book, when he was 6, that mentioned the possibility that cheetahs could go extinct in his lifetime, Joris asked his mom what he could do to help prevent that. With the help of his mom, Joris connected with N/a’an ku sê, a wildlife conservation organization and cheetah sanctuary in Namibia. Not only have Joris and his mom volunteered at the sanctuary for the past three summers, but the fourth-grader from Washington state has also worked tirelessly during the rest of the year to raise funds that are used to purchase GPS collars for cheetahs. In Namibia, cheetahs are most often killed by local farmers who fear the animals will kill their livestock. But with the collars, sanctuary officials can show farmers where the cheetahs are and avoid human/cheetah conflicts. N/a’an ku sê has outfitted 86 cheetahs with collars. All are still alive thanks to the education and technology that Joris has helped fund.
Josh Kaplan, 18
A few years ago, Josh Kaplan was playing soccer on his community team in Arizona when he noticed the brother of one of his teammates kicking a soccer ball by himself on the sidelines. The boy had Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, so he was not able to join the community team, but that didn't diminish his love of the game. Josh soon realized that there were lots of kids like his teammate's brother who loved soccer but didn't have anyone to play with. So he founded GOALS (Giving Opportunities to All Who Love Soccer), a nonprofit that pairs soccer-loving kids with disabilities with soccer-loving kids who do not have disabilities. GOALS organizes two non-competitive scrimmages every month and has become the official partner of the Special Olympics of Arizona.
Joshua Williams, 16
When Floridian Joshua Williams was 5, his grandmother gave him $20 to spend on whatever he wanted. For most preschoolers, that money would have been spent on candy, a new toy or maybe a new video game. Joshua spent that money on his way home by giving it to a homeless man that he had seen from the car window. A few years later, Joshua founded Joshua's Heart a nonprofit that has distributed more than 1.5 million pounds of food to over 350,000 individuals in South Florida, Jamaica, Africa, India and the Philippines.
Nitish Sood, 17
Four years ago, a homeless man handed Nitish Sood a copy of Dr. Suess' "The Lorax." When the young teen, who lives in Alpharetta, Georgia, read the words, "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not," he realized that he needed to do whatever he could to fix the problems that he saw in the world. Nitish co-founded Working Together For Change, along with his brother, Aditya. Their nonprofit provides medical support for the homeless and looks for innovative ways to support those affected by homelessness, such as teaching coding to homeless teens, sponsoring scholarships and organizing 24-hour sleepouts to give community members a glimpse into the challenges that homeless people face every day.
Ray Wipfli, 14
Ray, from La Cañada Flintridge, California, has always been a big fan of soccer. When he was 10 and his mother invited him to come with her on a work trip to Uganda, Ray brought with him lots of new soccer gear that he could give away. The children that Ray and his mother visited were overjoyed with their gifts and thrilled to share with Ray their mutual love of soccer. Ray was so moved by his experience that he wrote a speech that later became a TEDx talk, about the power of sport to bring people together.
Since his initial visit to Uganda, Ray founded the nonprofit Ray United FC and has organized 5K walks and soccer tournaments and sold handmade baskets and "everything in his garage" to raise funds to bring soccer training and health education camps to Uganda. His fundraising has also helped to build a new primary school in Uganda and provide scholarships for kids who need financial help completing high school and college.
Riley Callen, 14
By the time Riley Callen was 12, she had already undergone three separate surgeries on her brain to remove two benign brainstem-based tumors. On top of that, there were countless reconstructive surgeries to help her recover functions that were lost with the removal of tumors within her brainstem, an area that controls most of the vital functions of the body. While Riley was in the hospital recovering from her third brain surgery, she decided that she wanted to do something proactive to help herself and others in her situation by raising money to promote awareness and support benign brain tumor research.
Through her nonprofit organization, Be Brave For Life, Riley organizes an annual Hike-A-Thon through the fall foliage on the trails near her home in rural Vermont. Riley set a goal to raise $10,000 her first year. She raised $100,000. The next year, she hit $150,000. In all, Riley has raised more than $265,000 toward benign brain tumor research.
Rupert Yakelashek, 13 and Franny Ladell Yakelashek, 10
When Canadian Rupert Yakelashek learned that his home country was not one of 110 countries around the world that recognizes environmental rights, he organized a rally in front of the city hall in his hometown of Victoria, British Columbia to convince city councilors to change that. Soon, his sister Franny joined him in reaching out to every municipality on Vancouver Island to develop Environmental Rights declarations that formally recognize the rights of all Canadian citizens to clean air, healthy food, safe drinking water and access to nature. So far, 23 Canadian municipalities have passed Environmental Rights declarations thanks to the efforts of Rupert and Franny.
Sharleen Loh, 17
Sharleen Loh loves science. She wants all kids to have access to programs that teach it. Several years ago, she organized a STEM-night at her former elementary school and more than 700 people showed up. Since then, she has organized programs to teach STEM activities to more than 5,000 kids throughout her area, primarily kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods. To help her in her mission, Sharleen recruited other kids who loved science from 15 area high schools to become "STEMbers" and founded STEMup4Youth. Her nonprofit offers bi-weekly STEM programs at 40 locations across Los Angeles and Orange County, including Boys and Girls Clubs, Title I elementary schools and libraries.
Sophie Bernstein, 15
Five years ago, Sophie Bernstein planted a small backyard garden and donated all of her harvest to a local food bank. It was when she was making her donation that Sophie learned just how much it was needed. She learned about the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables at food pantries and about food deserts; areas without access to affordable nutritious food. When race riots broke out in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, Sophie decided to address social injustices in the best way she new how. She launched Grow Healthy, a nonprofit that has created 22 vegetable gardens at low-income child care centers and has grown and donated nearly 17,000 pounds of produce to local food banks and families in need. Sophie and her team of almost 800 volunteers also lead garden workshops in which they teach community members, especially kids, about plant science, sustainable gardening and the benefits of eating fresh produce.
Stella Bowles, 13
Two years ago, Stella Bowles learned that many homes in her community of Upper LaHave, Nova Scotia, Canada had "straight pipes," plumbing that puts sewage from toilets directly into the nearby LaHave River. She was horrified and wondered how this situation could exist when straight pipes were illegal. She decided to make the river, which flows right in front of her home, the focus of her science fair project. Through water quality testing, Stella found levels of fecal contamination so high in places that it was actually unsafe to even be splashed by the river water, let alone swim in it.
With the help of her mom, Stella posted her findings on Facebook and began speaking at local community forums to share what she had learned. The Canadian government took notice and agreed to fund (to the tune of $15.7 million dollars) a two-year project to clean-up the river. Stella is continuing to monitor contamination in the LaHave River. Her most recent science fair project, entitled, "Oh poop, it's worse than I thought," recently won a silver medal at the National Science Fair.