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May 2015 • Online Edition

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Young Activists Determined To Change Lives Now | Print |  E-mail

by Paul Kashmann

Ashley Shuyler was 11 when she accompanied her parents on a vacation to Tanzania in 1996.

JADEN CARLSON, AN 8-YEAR-OLD REGGAE/ROCKER from Lafayette stunned a Red Rocks Amphitheatre crowd, from toddlers to teens to adults alike last month, as part of A Journey of Hope. The youth empowerment event blended music, speakers – including Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Three Cups of Tea author, Greg Mortensen – and a fair focusing on non-profit organizations run by and for young people from around the world. See the article at right. photo: Don Preziosi

Deeply affected by the poverty she witnessed, and the stark contrast with her comfortable life back home, she vowed to do something to ease the suffering of the Tanzanian children.

“I was ready to get going, but my parents suggested I wait until I was a little older,” said Shuyler. Not to be deterred, the precocious youngster returned to her home in Genessee, Colo., and “learned everything I could about the country and its people. I learned to speak Swahili.” In 2006 at the age of 16, Shuyler founded AfriCaid, a non-profit organization with the mission to “support girls’ education in Africa in order to provide young women with the opportunity to transform their own lives and the futures of their communities.”

In support of its mission, AfriCaid raises money to fund scholarships, school building projects, leadership training, vocational and teacher training, school supplies, school lunch programs and other initiatives furthering the education of young women.

Shuyler, now 24, was among the participants last month at A Journey of Hope, an event at Red Rocks Amphitheatre that combined live music and speakers from several countries announcing a “global call to service” to youth from around the world. “People told me a child can’t make a difference,” Shuyler told the attentive audience. “But one child can make a difference, if only in the life of one girl.”

“Being young can be an advantage,” she continued. “People are moved by youth working with passion for something they believe in. Kids often don’t know where to start. You need to find where your great joys meet the world’s needs. Where your talent and your passion come together. That marriage of joy and needs differs for everyone.”

ZACH BONNER, 11, FOUNDER OF THE LITTLE RED WAGON FOUNDATION, and Garrett Weiss, 19, co-founder with his brother Kyle, 18, of FUNDaFIELD, spoke to visitors to A Journey of Hope about the work of their organizations, and the importance of youth activism. photo: Don Preziosi

Zach Bonner, 11, of Tampa, Fla., heard the call to service even earlier in life. Zach was just 6 when Hurricane Charlie roared across Florida as a Category 4 storm, causing over $11 billion in damage. Touring the devastation with his family, Zach was particularly saddened by the impact on the young and the homeless. “People were hurting really badly. They needed food, water and basic supplies. Their homes were gone,” he explained to the mix of young and old gathered at Red Rocks.

In response, in 2005, Zach founded the Little Red Wagon Foundation, with the goal of helping underprivileged kids, whatever the source of their despair. He is especially sensitive to the homeless. “Kids never choose to be homeless,” he noted.

Bonner’s main thrust is putting together backpacks of food and other essential supplies for those in need. To date, he has distributed more than 2,000 to homeless and street youth across the country. Little Red Wagon Foundation also assists children in financially strapped Title I schools by providing supplies, books and candy for teachers to give out as treats to the kids, and has eased the burden of young people living in FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailer parks in Baker, La., through donations of school supplies, toys, books and sporting equipment.

“We want kids to just feel like kids for a while,” said Bonner. “Sometimes all it takes is a yo-yo to make a kid smile. Simple things can mean so much.”

Among the headline speakers at A Journey For Hope was Greg Mortensen, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and author of Three Cups of Tea, which details his efforts to build schools in mountainous areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan devoted primarily to the education of young women.

In a pre-event interview, Mortensen eschewed his own importance in favor of the young people sharing the bill. “It’s so encouraging to see what’s going on. In 1970, a third of the young people surveyed said they wanted to make the world a better place. By 1990, that number had dropped to 18 percent. Today, according to U.S. News & World Report, it’s 45 percent. Instead of going to Florida for spring break, it appears a lot of kids are choosing to spend time working in the inner city. My heroes are people like Zach Bonner and his friends.”

Mortensen’s daughter Amira, 13, is an ambassador for Pennies For Peace, which promotes and supports community-based education worldwide. The Pennies for Peace service-learning program began at a Wisconsin elementary school in 1994, with students raising 62,340 pennies to help Greg Mortensen build his first school in Pakistan. This year, the roster of participating schools is expected to surpass 4,000 with the pennies raised totalling in the millions.

“When I started to raise money to build my first school in Korphe,” said Greg, “I wrote 580 letters to celebrities hoping to raise the $12,000 I needed. I got one letter back from Tom Brokaw, with a check for $100. But the kids understood, and got busy, and raised over $600.”

“I’ve grown up into being active in my community and serving people around me,” said Amira. “I was 9 when a major earthquake hit Pakistan. I was wondering what I could do, and my dad suggested, maybe you should try to help the kids have fun. Me and Dad teamed with Gold’s Gym and gave jump ropes and chalk to the children.”

ASHELY SHUYLER FOUNDED AFRICAID WHEN SHE WAS 16 YEARS OLD, to bring hope and education to young girls living in Tanzania. photo: Don Preziosi

This theme of putting fun back into the lives of the downtrodden motivates Danville, Calif., brothers Kyle and Garrett Weiss in their work building soccer fields for children in Africa. The soccer-addicted pair, now 17 and 18, went to Germany in 2006 for the World Cup soccer tournament. “Imagine something 100 times more important than the Super Bowl,” said Garrett. “We got tickets to the Iran vs. Angola game, and had a chance to talk to some kids from Angola, and found out how hard life was in their part of the world.” Returning to the States, the young men started FUNDaFIELD with a $100 contribution from their own school soccer team.

“Soccer is more like a religion in Africa,” said Kyle. “No matter where you are, you pull out a ball and instantly there’s 100 kids kicking it around.” Thus far, FUNDaFIELD has raised more than $86,000 and placed five fields – two in Kenya, one in Uganda and two in South Africa.

All of the youth activists credited family involvement with inspiring them and enabling them to follow their passion. “My grandfather worked with the U.S. Agency For International Development,” said Shuyler. USAID is the government agency that has provided U.S. economic and humanitarian assistance worldwide for more than 40 years. “I grew up seeing how small acts of kindness can change someone’s life.”

The Weiss clan supports FUNDaFIELD as a family affair. “Everyone’s been so supportive,” said Garrett. “Mom bakes cookies, Dad drives and my sister is on our board of directors.”

Bonner concurs, explaining that, “My whole family is involved (in Little Red Wagon Foundation). They’re always helping out in all kinds of ways.” In 2006, Zach walked from Tampa to Tallahassee to raise money and awareness, with his mother and other family members providing companionship and support all along the way. In 2007, the walk shifted to a Tallahassee- to-Atlanta, Ga., leg, and this past summer, it culminated in a stretch from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. Next year, a coast-to-coast jaunt is in the works.

Even Brad Corrigan, the headline musical guest at A Journey of Hope under his stage name of Braddigan, looks at a lineage of community involvement. “My father was a businessman, but he volunteered in prisons and listened to the men, and heard their stories. My grandfather ran Denver Rescue Mission. As we walk with people like Zach, it’s not for a statistic, it’s for a person.” Corrigan has established Love, Light and Melody, in support of La Chureca, a garbage dump community of 1,500 residents in Managua, Nicaragua. And, Amira Mortensen simply adds, “I can’t ever remember not wanting to help.”

Closer to home, in 1996, students at Herzl RMHA, 2450 S. Wabash St., under the guidance of teacher Sara Kornfeld, established “Change the World. It Just Takes Cents” – devoted to raising awareness of the civil unrest and genocide taking place in Darfur, Sudan, and raising funds to educate Darfuri youth at home and abroad. 

Since that beginning in a southeast Denver classroom, Change the World has become allied with the Save Darfur organization, and has spread to middle- and high-school students from coast to coast, as well as to London, Israel, Sweden and Darfur itself.

In addition to elevating the social justice issues to a heightened awareness in the Denver, Colorado and national consciousness, Herzl students have raised funds to rebuild a school in Korma, Darfur, and furbish a social activities room for Darfuri refugee children and youth in a newly created community center in Israel, where several hundred Darfuri refugees have been given asylum.

Kornfeld explains that “the program is classroom-based for 7th graders, and becomes extracurricular after that.” Students can focus on the Change the World project for six years before leaving Herzl, if they so choose. “Our hope is, they will carry their activism onto college campuses. We expect they will.”

Christiane Leitinger is the adult director for Pennies For Peace. She states the Journey for Hope message as: “Kids should know that you don’t have to be an adult, or a foundation with lots of money. You can be 11 years old like Zach, and make a difference.”

Mortensen has met directly with heads of both political parties as well as top U.S. military leaders, and their counterparts in other lands. He echoes Leitinger’s sentiment, “Our best hope for peace does not come from Washington, Kabul or Islamabad. Our best hope for peace and a better world is with the young people. I’m just an old guy sitting on a log, watching them work.”

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