It starts with an idea, a goal of doing something good to help someone else. But then the idea grows and soon has widespread reach. And it inspires others to act.
This is what happened to the three Austin kids who were recently honored by the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, which each year selects 25 North American kids ages 8 to 18 for the work they are doing.
Melissa Khasbagan, 18, was 10 when she decided to collect books to help her cousins in Mongolia learn to read English. She set out to collect 1,000 books for her cousins and their friends, and that became the birth of 1000 Books For, her nonprofit organization that has established roots in nine countries now.
Melissa works with teachers and students to establish libraries, but she’s also grown her organization beyond collecting books.
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Now the Westlake High School senior is working with youth organizations around the world to create summits and workshops around entrepreneurship. In August, during the first weeks of school, she was in Austin while 1000 Books For was holding its first Global Youth Changemaker Conference in West Africa for 160 students. She joined by video conference around her school hours.
Melissa estimates she spends about two hours a day working on 1000 Books For, and she has plans to expand it to podcasts about teen entrepreneurship, more conferences and audio curriculum for teachers and students. She’s creating a teen entrepreneurship tool kit that can be used in 195 countries.
“1000 Books For started as book program to help my cousins, but it shifted to empowerment through education and entrepreneurship,” she says.
“It’s more of a movement inspiring youth,” she says. Her goal is to make it more of a global movement, and that might come with a name change to better reflect its mission.
Ian McKenna, 15, was in fourth grade when his sister’s first-grade teacher began talking about how some kids aren’t as fortunate for the holidays. His sister’s first-grade class planned a Christmas party for a child.
That’s when Ian, now a junior at Liberal Arts and Science Academy, first began to understand that there were kids at his school, Oak Hill Elementary, who relied on school lunch and breakfast for their daily food.
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That Christmas, Ian wanted to find a place to volunteer to help someone else, but he hit roadblocks with organizations not wanting a kid as a volunteer.
“Even with my mom working with me, I couldn’t volunteer,” he says.
Yet Ian, who was 8 at the time, had a secret talent. He was really good at gardening. He got his school’s support to start Ian’s Giving Garden, which would grow vegetables and herbs that could be given to kids at school who needed food. A counselor distributed the food to the students who needed it.
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Ian has since spread the idea to gardens at three other schools, as well as a garden in his backyard and an acre donated to him at Austin Orchards. The schools distribute the food to their students. The food grown in his backyard and at Austin Orchards gets distributed for free at pop-up farm stands Ian holds and at food pantries and food banks. He estimates he spends about $1,000 annually in supplies to distribute about $3,000 worth of fresh food.
One of the things Ian does is educate families about the advantages of fresh vegetables as well as how to cook what he’s grown. He likes those personal interactions. “I like to see the impact that it makes,” he says.
Ian hopes to expand Ian’s Giving Garden outside of Austin.
Last spring, Kate Gilman Williams, a fourth grader at Trinity Episcopal School, released a book inspired by an African safari trip she took two years before. “Let’s Go on Safari!” incorporates Kate’s experience on her trip, with facts from her safari guide and co-author Michelle Campbell.
Kate’s goal was to teach kids about the threat of animal poaching and extinction as well as what they could do to help.
“We have a big crisis,” Kate told us last spring. “If we act like every day is Earth Day, kids can help save our planet.”
She set up a website, kidscansaveanimals.com, to give kids concrete examples of what they can do. The book also benefits the Jane Goodall Institute, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Global Wildlife Conservation.
“I always tell kids, ‘Advocacy has no age limits,’” she told us last spring. She hopes that after kids read her book, they will find a way to help animals.
The book is now in its second printing, and Kate has been received attention nationally for her work.
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