12 kids who are changing their communities and our world

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One of the most fascinating things about working on KidsPost is learning about kids who use their time and talents to help others. We’ve written about kids who are famous for their efforts — yes, a certain teen climate activist comes to mind — but we’ve profiled many more who become leaders in their schools or their communities. They have fostered abandoned kittens, collected eyeglasses for those who can’t afford them and created artwork for the apartments of people moving out of homelessness. And they have raised awareness of countless issues, including hunger, gun violence and bullying.

To mark 20 years of KidsPost, we wanted to highlight 20 kids and teens from around the world who have noticed problems in their communities or countries and are working to solve them. We then realized that 20 is a lot to read in one sitting, so we have profiled 12 here. We would like you to help us decide on eight more to feature through the rest of this year. (Send your suggestions to kidspost@washpost.com with the subject heading “kid activist.”) We hope these stories inspire you to figure out what your community needs and use your considerable energy and creativity to bring about change.

— Christina Barron, KidsPost editor

Shana Grant, 17, Washington, D.C.

Cause: Gun control and nonviolence

There were 116 homicides in the nation’s capital in 2017. It took just one to change Shana Grant’s life.

“I had always been interested in social justice and how I could improve my community,” the 17-year-old Washington native said. “But I wasn’t sure how to go about it.”

After September 20, 2017, she knew. That was the night that her 16-year-old friend, Zaire Kelly, was shot to death outside his home by a teenager trying to rob him.

Zaire was the first person Shana knew personally who had died from gun violence. And she wanted him to be the last. Police statistics showed that the percentage of gun-related deaths in the city was rising.

“It was time for it to be enough,” Shana said.

Believing strongly that youths can make a difference, she engaged in anti-violence activism. She was on Pennsylvania Avenue a few months later for the student-led March for Our Lives demonstration supporting gun-control measures. Other rallies and meetings followed. Last year, she was elected a D.C. youth “mayor” through a city-run program that develops future leaders.

“I have a unique perspective as an African American girl living in Ward 8 and seeing how gun violence and poverty affect families in my community,” Shana said.

Now she is working on a proposal to help students who are at risk of turning to a life of crime. She calls it “preventing the school-to-prison pipeline.”

At youth government meetings and town hall gatherings, she urges nonviolent solutions to problems. She calls it “practicing peace.”

Here are some of her suggestions for young people feeling angry or stressed: Breathe deeply, write down your feelings, talk to someone, try to see the other person’s point of view, and look for activities you enjoy, such as listening to music.

Shana expects to graduate in May from BASIS DC charter school. She wants to attend Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, in the fall and plans to become a doctor. She is not planning on giving up her activism, though.

“Things need to be changed,” she said. “I want to be part of that change.”

— Marylou Tousignant

Kauã Rodolfo, 11, Brazil

Cause: Raising environmental awareness

One natural disaster after another had sent Brazil reeling. There had been a massive mudslide in the country’s southeast, then a mysterious oil spill along the northeastern shore, and finally the fires in the Amazon rainforest.

That was when Kauã Rodolfo, 11, decided it was time to help. The way he sees it, the planet is in big trouble — and it’s up to kids to solve it. So he started planting trees in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba, one after another.

“It’s important to save the planet,” Kauã said, “and it’s important to protect the trees, because they make us better.”

Kauã is an ambassador of an organization called Plant-for-the-Planet. Conceived in 2007 by a 9-year-old German named Felix Finkbeiner, it is an international awareness campaign led by children that began with an ambitious goal: plant 1 million trees. But soon, what began as the one tree Felix planted at his school had turned into several thousands, then several hundreds of thousands, then, within a few years, 1 million.

But the campaign — and the mission — didn’t stop there. It has sprouted in dozens of countries across the world. Last autumn, it reached Kauã’s classroom. He immediately fell in love with the idea of planting trees and raising awareness about the environment, so he signed up for a day-long training course to become an ambassador of Plant-for-the- ­Planet.

What’s happening in the environment is unpredictable. It’s a scary time to be a kid. But Kauã doesn’t think it has to be.

The planet will find a way if people can learn to work together, he says. It is a value he is trying to instill by making frequent environmental presentations and planting trees.

“I’m not scared of the future of the planet, because I’m going to help the planet,” he said. “I’m going to do this. I’m going to go forward with this project. You don’t have to be scared.”

He’s already planted seven trees. And he’s excited to plant more.

“I don’t know why I love nature, but if I stopped planting trees, I would be sad,” he said.

— Terrence McCoy

Maimouna Ndiaye, 14, Mali

Cause: Get more girls involved in programming

The youngest kid on Mali’s national robotics team wants to build the perfect assistant.

“Artificial intelligence that is extremely precise,” Maimouna Ndiaye said, “for someone who is very busy.”

Like her — the teenager in the West African country’s bustling capital, Bamako, spends most afternoons behind a Dell laptop, coding away while pop stars such as Shawn Mendes croon through her speakers.

Maimouna, 14, is one of two girls on her high school’s elite programming squad, balancing a full load of schoolwork on top of technology competitions across Africa. They create, among other projects, applications that translate Mali’s mother tongue, Bambara, into French and English.

“She is a master,” said her coach, Malick Traore, the technical manager at RobotsMali — and very unusual in a conservative region where some frown upon women who choose to work.

“That mentality is old-fashioned,” said Maimouna, a numbers lover who applied for her first computer camp at age 9. A group of engineers had visited her school, she said, inspiring her to take the leap.

Today she sees robotics as the future — a path to speed up development in a nation where the average worker earns just more than $2,100 a year — and nudges other girls in town to pursue their machine dreams.

The first step, she tells them, is shushing the internal voice that says, “You can’t do it.”

“You’re capable,” she gushes in these pep talks. “We need everyone to get involved and build a better world.”

Plus, she said, it’s fun.

Maimouna has designed a remote-controlled robot on wheels that flashes a rainbow of colors. She hopes to construct something more humanlike as technology advances, an android that handles everyone’s chores.

For now, she’s busy studying artificial intelligence — the focus of her next competition this summer in Rwanda.

— Danielle Paquette

William Winslow, 14, North Carolina

Cause: Ending childhood hunger

William Winslow could spend the long Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend playing basketball in the driveway at his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. Instead, the founder of the Food Drive Kids sits at the kitchen table with his 10-year-old brother, Alexander, and their parents to plan his nonprofit’s annual food drive.

“I will do whatever it takes to end childhood hunger,” he said.

William was in the first grade when he first learned that as many as 1 in 5 kids in his state were at risk for hunger — including some of his classmates.

“That came as a shock,” he said. “I thought everyone had the same life as me. It was a rude awakening to the real world.”

He persuaded his mom to drive him to a local Food Lion. There, he talked shoppers into buying food — 1,400 pounds worth — to send home in backpacks with kids during spring break.

Seven years later, he’s collected more than 55,000 pounds of food, raised $63,000 and been recognized as a Prudential Spirit of Community honoree.

He’s expanded his mission, too. With Alexander working as head of advertising, Food Drive Kids also provides emergency food relief to the community, has helped build four school gardens to give kids access to healthy food and has set up two Little Food Pantries, which the brothers stock with food and toiletries each Friday.

“I didn’t imagine that William would be 14 and still doing this, but the older he gets, the more passionate he is,” his mom, Blythe Clifford, said.

Many children, not just William and Alexander, still help make Food Drive Kids’ food drive a success. More than 100 kids from the boys’ school and Scout groups turn out in April to hand out food lists to shoppers, collect purchased boxed and canned items and load them into trucks.

Said William: “We prefer kid [volunteers] over adults because they don’t think something is impossible. They just want to do it, and it ends up being possible.”

— Lela Nargi

Haaziq Kazi, 13, India

Cause: Ocean trash

It was the sight of a dead whale in a National Geographic documentary that moved Haaziq Kazi to act. Washed ashore, the whale had 37 pounds of plastic inside its bloated stomach.

“Two things stuck to me: The first was the magnitude of the problem, and the second was the impact it has on life,” he said.

So when the time came for a school project, when students had to come up with solutions to a problem they felt strongly about, Haaziq chose to work on ocean trash.

“There are about 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the ocean,” he said. “This would be enough to stack two-liter plastic bottles from here to the moon and back — twice.”

Haaziq, then 9 years old, attempted to create a device that could help clean the oceans. Finished in three years, the first concept design of the device — called ERVIS — is a ship with saucers and chambers. While saucers would float on the surface of the ocean, creating a whirlpool to suck the waste inside, the chamber compartments would store the waste. The ship would then separate the waste into large, medium, small and plastic particle categories. The waste would be forwarded for recycling on land. It would be powered by renewable energy and have a mechanism to filter out marine life that may get pulled inside.

He has worked with a product designer to make a 3-D printed model, and he intends “to work on a real-life model in the next stage,” said Haaziq, who is collaborating with scientists and engineers. “This is literally a moonshot project with huge funding requirements.”

While the ship is the long-term goal, he has not stopped his fight against plastic. Six months ago, he set up the ERVIS Foundation to bring a “generational change,” by educating kids about the effects of plastic usage. The foundation has created an app to track daily consumption of plastic, provide tips on how to cut down plastic use and sell zero-waste products.

“You are never too young to make a difference,” says the eighth-grader from the city of Pune in western India. Haaziq was invited to New York in 2017 for a Ted-Ed talk about his project. In his free time, he likes having fun with Nintendo video games and playing the piano.

“When I grow up, I see myself as problem solver,” said Haaziq, who admires technology entrepreneur Elon Musk. “He challenged the status quo and made what people perceive as impossible possible, and that’s what I want to do.”

— Niha Masih

Genesis Butler, 13, California

Cause: Animal rights and environmental protection

Genesis Butler has three dogs and loves all animals. Just not on her dinner plate.

When she found out where her favorite meal — chicken nuggets — came from, she became a vegetarian, someone who doesn’t eat meat. She was 3 years old.

At age 6, she went further, going vegan. A vegan doesn’t eat any animal products, including eggs and dairy products.

Then she decided to persuade her family and friends to join her.

“It’s not as hard as you think,” said Genesis, now 13. Her parents and three younger siblings became vegan, although Genesis likes to tell how she once caught her mom hiding in a closet with a chocolate bar.

Genesis’s passion led her to start the nonprofit GenesisForAnimals.org to help animal shelters and sanctuaries. She began with $5,000 saved from talks she gives. One talk, posted online in 2017, has been viewed by thousands of people. Her delivery includes rattling off statistics faster than the Washington Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg throws fastballs.

When she was 8, she went before the city council in Long Beach, California, where she lives, to support “Meatless Mondays.” The advisory measure, which recommends that people eat more plant-based food, passed. A TV reporter called Genesis “the most effective speaker” there.

Last year, she wrote to Pope Francis, asking him to give up meat for Lent. A spokesman replied, saying the pope is proud of her.

On the state level, Genesis worked to promote the passage of laws requiring prisons and nursing homes to offer vegan meals, and limiting the sale of cosmetic products that use animal testing.

More recently, she expanded her activism to include protecting the environment, saying that raising animals for food is “the primary cause” of pollution, loss of biodiversity and water shortages.

“If people can change the way they eat, it will have an immediate impact on the planet,” she said.

For her efforts, Genesis was chosen for the 2020 “Marvel Hero Project” about “real kids making a real difference.” She’s the star of her own mini-comic book and will appear in a Disney video.

But she doesn’t think of herself as a hero, just an ordinary kid who enjoys painting, writing and sleepovers with friends.

“And I still love chicken nuggets,” she said, “but now they are vegan.”

— Marylou Tousignant

Naudia Greenawalt, 10, and Linkin Eger, 10, Wisconsin

Cause: Raising awareness about childhood cancer

When Naudia Greenawalt’s friend Linkin Eger was facing cancer, Naudia had a lot of questions. What kind of medicine would Linkin take? Was it possible to get rid of the cancer? Would her friend still be the same goofy, fun-loving Linkin?

Linkin was 2 years old when doctors found his brain tumor. Surgeons removed most of it. But a few years later, the tumor came back, and Linkin needed chemotherapy — medication that kills cancer cells.

Naudia, who attends school with Linkin in West Allis, Wisconsin, wanted to understand what her friend was going through — not only the medical parts, but also what it was like to be a regular kid dealing with a serious illness. She decided to turn Linkin’s story into a book, sell it and donate the profits to Linkin’s family. “I was trying to create awareness about childhood cancer,” said Naudia, 10.

Before writing the book, Naudia joined Linkin at hospital appointments, took pictures and interviewed his family and medical team. In 2017, “My Friend Linkin” was published.

“I thought it was awesome,” said Linkin, now 10. The book sold 500 copies and became the subject of an Emmy-nominated documentary produced by Milwaukee PBS.

In the book, Naudia describes what it was like to see Linkin go through chemotherapy. “To be honest, it was a little bit scary, but once I got used to everything, I wasn’t scared anymore.”

Linkin is done with treatment now, and he’s stable. He and Naudia are continuing to promote childhood cancer awareness by interviewing other young patients and writing their stories.

“They are a great team,” said Kelly Eger, Linkin’s mom. “Linkin brings the experience, and Naudia brings the questions.”

Last year, Linkin finished his first book, “My Friend Mackenzie,” about an 8-year-old girl with brain cancer. “If Mackenzie had a superhero power, it would be to help people beat cancer. I wish I had that super power too,” Linkin wrote.

In the future, Naudia wants to become a primatologist like Jane Goodall and study monkeys. Linkin wants to be a brain surgeon.

But first, they’ll write more books.

— Gina Rich

Sidney Keys III, 14, Missouri

Cause: Improving literacy among boys

From a young age, Sidney Keys III loved to read. But finding characters he could relate to was a challenge, because most of the books at his school library featured white protagonists. “I’d never been exposed to African American literature in a fun way,” Sidney said.

That changed when Sidney’s mother, Winnie Caldwell, took him to EyeSeeMe, an African American children’s bookstore in University City, Missouri. Sidney, then 10 years old, picked up “Danny Dollar Millionaire Extraordinaire: The Lemonade Escapade,” by Ty Allan Jackson. “I couldn’t put that book down, because it was about a black boy who looked like me,” said Sidney, now 14.

Sidney wanted his peers to experience the same excitement in finding characters that resonated with them. In 2016, he created Books n Bros, a reading club for boys ages 7 to 13. The club, which now has 100 members, focuses on African American literature and meets each month to discuss a book; past topics have included history, sci-fi and fantasy genres.

Meetups take place in the Saint Louis area, but out-of-town “bros” can participate by Skype. Caldwell, who manages the club’s business and communications, said Books n Bros wants to eventually offer the program in schools.

The club is open to boys of all races and backgrounds and has an “Adopt a Bro” option enabling donors to sponsor memberships, which cost $25 a month.

People assume boys don’t enjoy reading, Sidney said. But he hasn’t found that to be true.

“Now that kids are having fun while reading, boys don’t want to leave the meetups,” he said.

“Marvel’s Hero Project,” a new Disney Plus series recognizing kids who are making a positive impact, profiled Sidney in a documentary and comic book titled “The Spectacular Sidney.” The video premiered in January.

Getting to be in the documentary was “definitely pretty awesome,” Sidney said. But his favorite part of the Books n Bros experience has been helping boys like him improve their literacy skills and enjoy themselves at the same time.

“It really warms my heart knowing they’re having fun,” he said.

— Gina Rich

Milena Radoytseva, 16, Bulgaria

Cause: Encouraging better behavior online

Have you ever been a bully? Or not stopped a bully when you had the chance? Those are important questions, says Milena Radoytseva, who is on the youth panel of the Bulgarian Safer Internet Centre (SafeNet). She remembers when she was in a group chat a few years ago, and another kid became the target of mean attacks.

“It started as a joke,” she said, so she didn’t do anything about it. “I sat and watched.”

“We won’t let that happen again,” declared Milena, who helped develop the youth panel’s new campaign to raise awareness about online aggression. The approach isn’t to criticize kids, but to educate them about how to change their perspective — and hopefully their behavior. For example, they made a video featuring an angry boy furiously typing messages on his computer. When he sees that his little sister’s drawings show him as a superhero, he realizes he hasn’t been acting like one.

“The Internet will never be this totally happy place with rainbows,” she said. But the experience can be improved by being thoughtful and careful, added Milena, who purposely keeps her social media profiles private.

Being part of a team that encourages kids to speak out is new for Milena. She didn’t know that opportunities like this existed a year ago. But when she entered (and lost) an essay competition, she wound up at an event promoting youth participation. That’s how she found SafeNet, and she has since joined other groups, including the youth network Megaphone and the Eurochild Children’s Council. Milena jokes she had to make her parents a chart so they could understand all of her activities.

At a recent children’s rights event in Brussels, Belgium, Milena took the microphone and introduced herself — unexpectedly in French, the native language of most of the audience.

“She took the moment and put everyone at ease,” said Alice Hagger-Vaughan, Eurochild’s child participation and policy officer.

Milena’s best languages (other than her native Bulgarian) are English and German, and she hopes that communication plays a big part in her future. When she was younger, she pretended to host a talk show in her living room. Her goal now isn’t so different: “I want to speak about things that need to be spoken about.”

— Vicky Hallett

Demetri Sedita, 16, Florida

Cause: Protecting Tampa Bay waterways

Each January, the Gasparilla Pirate Festival attracts crowds to Tampa, Florida. They line Seddon Channel to watch a pirate ship pretend to attack the city. They cheer and toss thousands of glittery bead necklaces.

Demetri Sedita knows the dark side of these festivities. Many beads wind up in the city’s waterways, where they’re eaten by marine animals or break down into tiny bits of toxic plastic that “work their way up the food chain,” said Demetri, a high school sophomore. They pose a threat to the area’s shorebirds, manatees, dolphins, stingrays, common fish such as sheepshead and “to all levels of the ecosystem.”

He and his 14-year-old brother, Ethan, founded Green Gasparilla in 2015 to try to stop the problem. They organize post-festival bead cleanups — with parents and friends using weighted hooks to snag the strands, or with volunteers in scuba gear. More critically, they work to keep beads from getting into the water to begin with.

The month before the parade, Demetri and Ethan do media interviews to spread the word that “tossing beads is simply littering,” Demetri said. For 2020, the boys also enlisted the help of Tampa’s mayor, Jane Castor, and appeared with her as she announced her Bead-Free Bay initiative.

“Our goal is to let the public know that future generations won’t be able to enjoy the waterways because of their reckless practices,” Demetri said.

He was frustrated to see that, despite his efforts, most people continued to throw beads this year. But he’s determined to figure out a way to make Green Gasparilla’s message and mission more effective.

Last August, Demetri was named a “youth ambassador” by the ocean conservation group, EarthEcho International. Speaking with adult mentors and activist peers has given him ideas for improvement. One is drafting sample anti-bead legislation to present to Tampa’s lawmakers.

Exploring with his underwater drone is a favorite activity — Demetri once spotted a Civil War shipwreck in the Hillsborough River. It’s also part of his advocacy strategy.

“When I showed the mayor underwater footage of all the beads, she was shocked,” he said.

If he can similarly shock his fellow Floridians, they might take bigger, better action in time for next year’s festival.

— Lela Nargi

Alice Imbastari, 10, Italy

Cause: Picking up trash

Wiggling her toes in the sand, Alice Imbastari surveys a stretch of Mediterranean coastline near her home south of Rome. But she’s not looking at the waves or even the paraglider soaring above. She’s searching for trash. “See that?” she shouts, and rushes to grab a ripped chip bag.

In minutes, she fills up a sack with all sorts of things that shouldn’t be here — deflated balloons, hot dog wrappers, a hair comb. They range in size from a chunk of plastic foam to a tiny dot of plastic. “Birds think they’re eggs and eat them,” said Alice, who dreams of being a vet when she grows up.

Alice has learned a lot about litter in the past year since she spoke in Rome in front of a crowd of thousands gathered for the first Global Climate Strike for Future. “I counted to 100, and then I gave up,” she said of the crowd.

Although giving that speech — and others that have followed — was scary, Alice is more terrified for the environment. That’s why she begged her parents to let her protest just like her role model, Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage activist who has attracted worldwide attention with her campaign to fight climate change.

Because they wouldn’t let her skip classes every Friday, Alice came up with another plan. “From school, I looked out the window and I could see the sea,” she said. So she got trash bags, rubber gloves and a pair of chimney tongs, and started doing weekly beach cleanups. She tries to reuse whatever possible, often to make crafts.

“When she was smaller, we used to take shells. Now we take plastic,” said her mother, Paola Bernasconi, who has noticed other changes, too. For snacks, Alice prefers cut-up veggies instead of sweets wrapped in packaging. For her 10th birthday last May, she asked to plant fruit trees.

It’s often lonely on the beach — other kids from school haven’t been interested in helping, and some even bullied her about her activism. So she recently switched schools. But she won’t stop cleaning.

“I go home, and there’s plastic again the next day,” Alice said. “It keeps coming.”

— Vicky Hallett

Illustrations by Natalya Balnova for The Washington Post. Art direction by Alla Dreyvitser. Design by Victoria Adams Fogg.

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