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2013 Youth Award Biographies

Allyson Ahlstrom (Age 18)

Allyson Ahlstrom has a passion for fashion — and for helping others, too. That’s why she gives away the latest styles to underprivileged teenage girls. When girls walk into her Windsor, California, boutique, they see pink and black walls, classy displays, and racks of new, donated, name-brand clothes. Every shopper can pick two head-to-toe outfits, along with a formal dress and matching shoes. The girls walk out feeling more upbeat, Allyson says, because there’s a link between self-esteem and nice clothes. “That is why I decided to start Threads for Teens, so that teen girls could gain the strong sense of confidence needed to be able to better realize their aspirations. “ One of Allyson’s own aspirations was to help her community but she had always thought she was too young. She changed her mind in 2010 after spending a Sunday reading Generation Change by Zach Hunter. “That very night,” Allyson recalls, “I came up with an idea, wrote a letter, and designed a logo for my project.” Within a week, she had contacted 300 clothing companies asking for donations, and she was shocked by the response. Popular labels like Chinese Laundry, Joe’s Jeans, and Tommy Hilfiger began sending loads of clothes that took over the family’s house until a property management unit donated the Windsor store front. With help from family, friends, and community volunteers, she set up the store and outfitted 200 girls. Now she’s planning a 48-state tour by trailer and truck to bring clothing to 1,000 girls. Allyson looks forward to running her mobile boutique because of the happiness she’ll give the girls and the happiness she’ll get back. “Everyone deserves to feel good about themselves. Having clothes that are ‘in’ gives these girls exactly that,” she says. “And seeing the joy on their faces makes it as much of a blessing for me as it is for them.”

Katy Butler (Age 18)

How can you make things better if you’re being bullied? One Plymouth, Michigan, girl showed the way when she went from bullied youth to crusader for kids who hurt — the way she did after coming out as gay in middle school. “Once when I was in seventh grade,” Katy remembers, “a few guys came up behind me while I was putting my books in my locker. They called me names and asked why I even bothered to show up every day. ‘No one wants to go to school with a lesbian,’ they said. I tried to ignore them, afraid of what else they might say — or worse, who else they might tell — if I stood up to them. As I tried to leave, they pushed me against the wall. Suddenly they slammed my locker shut on my hand and broke my finger. I held back tears while I watched them run away laughing. I didn’t tell anyone, mostly because I didn’t know who to talk to about being gay. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so humiliated and alone.” But painful as the experience was, it was a blessing in disguise that spurred Katy into action. Three years ago, she led a campaign to change the wording of Michigan’s anti-bullying legislation, which made exceptions for those who bullied because of strong moral or religious convictions. An online petition she started garnered 53,000 signatures and convinced Michigan lawmakers to remove the license to bully language from the law. Katy scored another triumph last year when she collected 500,000 signatures to have the rating of the documentary Bully changed from R to PG-13. Because of Katy, thousands of students have now watched the film and gotten its message. Many of them have also joined her campaign for change because she has made them see “it can’t get better if you don’t make it better.”

Brianna Cart (Age 17)

Brianna is the founder of Angels over Iraq and Afghanistan, a group that sends care packages to our troops. "We send lots of soup and things," Brianna says, "because they only get breakfast and dinner, so we try to send them lunch things, snacks, and hygiene items." Troops need them all, as Brianna learned at her mom's hair salon six years ago when a customer talked about anysoldier.com, a website that connected civilians with soldiers. He and his son had picked out four names, collected donations, and sent four packages of needed supplies. After he said how grateful the soldiers were, Brianna decided to also log onto the site and choose a solider. "He sounded really nice," Brianna said, so she wrote to him telling him about her cockapoo, Lady, and her life. Then she spent $65 dollars sending him a big box full of items he could use. She wanted to do more after reading the soldier's letters, but she couldn't afford to spend that much every month. So she asked neighbors and local stores to pitch in. "One man from Texas we worked with actually came to my school to thank me," Brianna recalls. "It made me feel great, and I was going to stop, but because they appreciated it so much, I thought I should keep going." And she has with the help of 15 friends who have also joined her in holding five annual yard sales, the latest of which earned a record sum of nearly $11,000. All told, she and her fellow angels have raised $17,000 in postage and send over $90,000 worth of items to the troops. Together, they've given a taste of home to over a thousand soldiers since 2005. "I think it's important," Brianna says, "because they're doing so much. This is just something little that we can do in return."

Zachary Certner (Age 16)

Zachary Certner believes in making kindness cool, and he’s spreading the word through SNAP. His special needs athletic program conducts free sports clinics for New Jersey kids with special needs, along with sensitivity training to help other students see the challenges they face. Special needs kids have few chances to make friends or play sports, Zachary learned while growing up. “My dearest family friend, a year younger than me, was diagnosed with autism,” he recalls. “I saw his struggles on a daily basis,” and he wasn’t unique as Zachary observed at school. “I was disturbed seeing kids excluded from sports, lunch tables, and even friendships just because they were different,” he says. “Since sports have always been a passion of mine, I felt strongly about giving every child the opportunity to be part of a team.” So when he was nine he and his older brother Matt co-founded SNAP. With community support, they set up a five-day schedule of clinics in basketball, baseball, golf, and other sports, all run by student volunteers . “The most unique part of the program is the lack of parents and teachers. It is for kids by kids,” Zachary says, so it’s meaningful for both helpers and the helped. Last year, SNAP served 140 special needs kids, and it has so far trained 450 students as volunteers. In addition, SNAP has reached 2,700 students through workshops that show what it’s like to be blind, dyslexic, autistic or otherwise challenged. And they make a big impact, as Zachary explains. “I have been contacted by parents and principals after these education programs. They say the special needs kids are having an easier time and aren’t isolated during lunch any more. “Parents cry with joy when they tell him their kids are now making friends. “Their happiness shows me why I am doing this,” he says, and makes serving others a snap.

Nicholas Cobb (Age 16)

Nicholas Cobb gives comfort and joy to folks living on the street. It’s been an 11-year long mission for the Allen, Texas youth. “When I was about four years old, I saw a homeless man living under a bridge, and I didn’t understand,” he recalls. “My parents told me, but I just couldn’t believe that he didn’t have a home to go to.” Since then, Nicholas has worked to help those who have fallen on hard times. He began by getting donations for a nearby homeless shelter, Samaritan Inn. “First we collected soaps, shampoos, and other toiletries for the people there,” Nicholas recalls. “The next year we collected food, and the next year we collected cleaning supplies. Through the years, it just got bigger and bigger,” and so did the number of people at Samaritan Inn. Many of them didn’t have winter coats, as Nicholas came to see. So when he was 12 he started Comfort and Joy, an organization that would raise money to provide coats for the homeless. With help from his Boy Scout troop, Nicholas raised $3,400 and used it to buy coats for 129 people. He has gone on to raise $30,000 through support from the Junior League, Home Depot, and Newman’s Own. These funds have allowed him to donate 400 coats to local shelters, rebuild a senior’s home, and start a garden at a school. He now provides suits for the homeless to wear on job interviews and funds college scholarships for their kids. “The idea is to help people be able to help themselves and get on their feet,” he says. “Then they can help others like in the movie Pay it Forward.” That’s the way to be happy, Nicholas says. “You can’t really feel bad or sad about anything when you are doing something to help some else.” If you do, it will also bring you comfort and joy.

Teah Flynn (Age 16)

Teah recently used tennis balls and racquets to practice the golden rule. In February, she hosted a “Keep the Ball in Motion Rally and Give Back Tennis Relay” to raise funds for cancer research at The Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. It’s the most recent endeavor for the Farmington, Arkansas, teen who has already done more community service than most adults. She has logged hundreds of hours raising funds for charities, walking dogs owned by disabled people, and producing public service announcements for drunk driving, texting while driving, finding missing children, and establishing a national database for criminal DNA. “I guess all this is an offshoot of what happened to my mom,” Teah explains. She was six when her mother died in a vehicle driven by a friend who had been drinking. Not far from its destination, their car crashed into a gully, hit a tree, and spelled her end at age 32. After the accident Teah’s grandparents adopted her, but she never forgot her mother. Though Teah didn’t realize at first exactly what had happened to her mom, she came to understand it over time. And she used her grief to serve the common good when her grandfather signed her up for video classes at age nine. For her first video, she created “DUI and Me,” which retold the story of her mother’s death and has served as a teaching tool for both Arkansas police departments and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She now reaches a broader audience at the local city station, where she has a series “My Kid’s Point of View.” And she hopes to reach even more folks when she holds a second tennis fundraiser next year. It’s a great chance to practice your serve — and the golden rule, Teah explains. “I think if everyone would live their lives by the golden rule the world be a much better place.”

Kennedy Jet Kulish (Age 16)

Kennedy longed to do something to help when her brother Kaeden was born with a hole in his heart. Though seven years have passed, the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, girl still hasn’t forgotten the sight of her baby brother hooked up to tubes and machines. “Kaeden had three surgeries in the first year of his life. I was so worried and sad for him,” she says, recalling all the hours she and her family spent in hospital waiting rooms filled with “sick children and their sad parents.” Despite her concern for Kaeden, Kennedy noticed that many of these families couldn’t afford to pay their enormous hospital bills. “I wanted to help them,” she says, and she thought of a way by the time Kaeden turned one. With help from her mom, she sent out invitations to Kaeden’s first birthday party, requesting that guests bring donations instead of gifts. She collected $2,000 and brought the money to the hospital the very next day. “It felt great,” she says. “I asked my friends if they wanted to help. They did, so we started Kisses for Kaeden.” Since then, Kennedy and her team of young “kisses” helpers have hosted bake sales, lemonade stands, auctions, and money drives that have raised $179,000 for kids with special hearts like Kaeden, now a healthy little boy. They also collect teddy bears for police to give to abused children, make care packages for soldiers in Iraq, clean and sort toys for the Boys and Girls Club, and feed the homeless on Thanksgiving. It takes a very special heart to accomplish so much, but Kennedy thinks “volunteering is really cool” and we can all do what she’s done. “Even if you’re a kid, if you’re serious about helping others, you can,” she insists. “I help others because I can!”

Will Lourcey (Age 10)

“I might be a little kid,” Will Lourcey likes to say, “but I’m a little kid making a big difference.” And it’s true. In the past three years, the Fort Worth, Texas, boy has raised more than $20,000 for his local food bank, provided over 100,000 meals for the hungry, and fed over 10,000 families. Will has also helped pack over 12,000 backpacks with food for hungry kids and inspired thousands with his motto: “Be a doer, not a watcher” — advice he’s followed since the summer after first grade. “When I was seven,” he says, “I was riding home from a Little League baseball game, I saw a man holding a sign that said ‘Need a Meal.’ Seeing this man made me feel sad, and I decided to do something to help people who are hungry. Soon he came up with FROGS — Friends Reaching Our Goals — an organization in which he and his friends find “fun” ways to raise funds for fighting hunger. “We asked local businesses if they could sponsor us,” he says, “and hosted events like lemonade stands, yard sales, and Popsicle stands. We also got businesses to sponsor soccer and baseball events and donate money for each hit or goal score.” These Kicks and Hits Against Hunger events have had a huge impact on the community, Will has observed. “I have seen how happy hungry people are when they receive food,” he says. “I volunteer serving food to hungry people, and I can see how much it means to them. I once gave food to a woman who said to me, ‘Thank you. Now my babies have something to eat. And God bless you’— words that increased his resolve to end hunger in his community by 2020. He urges both grownups and kids to join him because he knows “you’re never too tall or small to help someone in need.”

Madelyn McGlynn (Age 18)

Did you know that 350 children in Uganda die of malaria every day? Many people don’t because the media doesn’t focus on the disease. But Madelyn McGlynn has raised awareness among 40,000 volunteers who join her in fighting the disease. All it takes to save a life is a $10 bed net, as Madelyn learned when her parents invited Fr. Mujele, a Uganda priest, to lunch. Madelyn was 12 and had volunteered in the community since she was five. So she wanted to help after Mujele told the family stories about malaria and the terrible problems it caused. One of them was that it forced many students to miss months of school, as Mujele had seen at the girls’ school that he ran. At best, the students got discouraged and dropped out of school. At worst, they simply dropped dead. But each day more of them are smiling and holding bed nets, as Madelyn sees in the photos she gets in the mail. She’s been receiving them since she and her four sisters started NETWork Against Malaria and built their web of support. “We have a close-knit group of volunteers in Uganda that deliver the nets, and they explain how to set up and use the nets,” Madelyn says. “They distribute the nets through schools and provide the nets to the children and their families.” In America, NETWork focuses on fundraising and education on malaria’s deadly worldwide impact. “I have flown across the country teaching people about malaria and how easy it is to prevent,” Madelyn says. She has also shown it by distributing over 13,000 nets and saving over 45,000 lives, thanks to people who care about kids living halfway around the world. “Our organization was built on the support and generosity of those in our volunteer communities across the country,” Madelyn says. “We couldn’t have made the difference we have without them.”

Sydney Pepin (Age 14)

Sydney Pepin wants new cancer patients to know they’re not alone. So she has done something to ease the pain and fear that cancer brings. During the past three years, Sydney has provided over 150 care packages to new chemotherapy and radiation patients in Sanford and Biddeford, Maine. Her mom was once one of them, as Sydney recalls. “My mom had cancer five years ago and the teachers at her school gave her a care package. It made her very happy and it even had stuff in it for me. I know how it made me feel.” She also saw how happy those packages made her mom and she didn’t forget when her mother recovered. Soon afterward an aunt and uncle were diagnosed with cancer, and she and her mom brought them care packages as both began treatment. When Sydney saw how grateful they were, she decided to take action. “I thought I might like to do something like that for everyone who has to undergo treatment and my project blossomed from there,” Sydney says. She wrote to area businesses asking for donations and began collecting bottles of juice, crossword puzzles, ChapStick, toothpaste and lotions, cough drops, stuffed animals and notebooks. They all go in pretty gift bags, along with a note saying, “This bag was put together especially for you by Sydney Pepin. Everything in the bag was donated by area residents and businesses. She would like you to know that someone is thinking of you as you begin your journey” — a trip that’s especially hard when you’re alone, as Sydney understands. “I know that some people who get cancer might not have a support system that can help them, and for them the bag might be all the support that they get. I just hope it might lift their spirits enough to get them over their fear of the first day.”

Jesse Sheldon (Age 18)

Jesse Sheldon provides helping hands for the basic needs of babies. As founder of Inland NW Baby, he gives hygiene items, gently used clothing, and diapers to babies in three Washington State counties. Families need all of them, Jesse realized four years back after reading an article about families that had to reuse soiled diapers because they couldn’t afford any more. Did moms around his home in Spokane have the same problem? Jesse wondered. After some research, he found out that very few programs supply diapers and those that did provide only 12 a month per child. His heart ached when he learned that many families had to decide whether to put food on the table or diaper their children — a “haunting situation,” as he puts it. Unable to forget their plight, he began recruiting volunteers to help him collect diapers and dollars. Then he coordinated two “Stuff the Bus Community Diaper Drives” that gathered more than 35,000 diapers and nearly $1,000 in cash. As word of his efforts spread, Jesse found himself the butt of some name calling and jokes. “The first label I was given was that of ‘Diaper Boy,’” he recalls. “Even some of the news media referred to me that way in the beginning. I was also labeled as unconventional, persistent, and unyielding in my desire to see a diaper bank succeed.” But that only increased his desire to do more, especially when he distributed the diapers. “Families started asking for clothes, toys, books, and equipment,” Jesse recalls. “We knew we could make so much more of an impact if we did more than diapers,” he explains. “Diapers are our number one priority still; we’re just doing other things to help” — and that’s a lot since Jesse has raised $100,000 in donations and served over 1,200 children. Their parents are surely grateful to him for curing their baby blues.

Ashlee Smith (Age 14)

It usually looks like Christmas at Ashlee Smith’s home. You’ll find her in the living room surrounded by hundreds of toys. But the Sparks, Nevada, teen doesn’t plan on keeping a single one. All the toys are for Ashlee’s Toy Closet, an organization she founded when she was eight. Since then, Ashlee has collected and distributed 175,000 toys to young victims of fires and natural disasters. She knows how they feel because her own home burned down when she was five. Everything they owned was destroyed, including Ashlee’s favorite toy — a stuffed horse. Then in 2008, her father, a firefighter, battled a large blaze in South Lake Tahoe, California. “He sent us pictures of destroyed houses and all included burned toys in the yards,” Ashlee recalls. “I knew right away how the kids were feeling, and I knew I had to help.” Soon she was on the phone with television and radio stations, newspapers, and local businesses, asking for toys. As donations came pouring in, she spent her summer organizing the toys, posting fliers, and appealing for more donations. With added support from toy companies, Ashlee filled an 18-wheeler truck with toys and delivered them to the kids in South Lake Tahoe. Ashlee has gone on to provide toys for kids affected by a tornado in Joplin, Missouri, by floods in Fernley, Nevada, and by the earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010. She started a birthday closet for kids whose parents can’t afford to buy presents and she adopts whole towns of children during Christmas. She spends vacations, school breaks, and almost every day in between collecting and distributing toys. She packs boxes for kids after a single house fire or sends cases of toys after floods. And you’d think all that work would turn Ashlee’s world upside down, but “seeing other people happy makes me happy,” she explains. “I like turning kids’ frowns upside down.”

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