American Dreamers: Extraordinary Kids Taking Charge and Making Change

By Lu Hanessian

“I think we can get so caught up in social media, we lose the bigger picture….we need to spend some time away from the screen finding our passion and pursuing it.” – Katie Stagliano, 13, Katie’s Krops

Picture this. You plant a tiny cabbage seedling. You never imagine that it will grow into a forty-pound cabbage. You don’t call Ripley’s or Guinness; you don’t want to win a contest.

You want to feed the hungry.

You donate your cabbage to a local soup kitchen, where you personally serve and feed 275 people. There, you begin to imagine feeding a whole nation.

Meet Katie Stagliano. Her goal is to wipe out hunger in America. When she won a Launch My Dream! t-shirt design contest in 2009, part of the Amazing Kids!’ Launch My Dream! initiative, she began donating proceeds from the sale of the shirt to grow gardens. She and a master gardener, mentor and a group of volunteers have planted and tend several thriving gardens, and continue to donate all produce to those in need. Now, at 13, Stagliano, founder and Chief Gardening Officer of Katie’s Krops, based in South Carolina, is a growing a dream. When she planted that first seedling just four years ago, she was nine years-old.

We are living in complex times, an increasingly fast-paced world, in a country where many children are not thriving. Lack of food, suboptimal care and family support, little or no resources or safety create chronic stress for millions of today’s youth.

In addition, growing numbers of kids are at risk of becoming alarmingly disconnected in an age of 24/7 connectivity, what some researchers are calling “overwired.” Current studies show the average American youth is spending up to eleven hours online and on their devices each day, with teens approaching four thousand texts a month.

Neuroscientists are concerned that today’s kids may actually care less because their brains are changing. According to a recent 30-year study by researchers at the University of Michigan involving 14,000 subjects, college students after the year 2000 have 40% less empathy (our capacity to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes) than their predecessors and a whopping 48% drop in sympathy (our capacity for empathic concern).

Katie Stagliano has something to say about spending hours a day online. “I know that we spend a lot of time on technology, but I think that we can get so caught up in social media, we lose the bigger picture. We get caught up in the drama. Social media is a good tool, but we also need to spend some time away from the screen finding our passion and pursuing it.”

She has clearly found hers. Her goal is to have at least one garden growing in every state across the country that will donate its whole harvest to feed the hungry.

Stagliano may be the exception, but she’s not alone.

Shannon McNamara, who, at 19, is the founder of an organization, Share In Africa, that supports students to go to (and graduate from) school in Tanzania.

Adele Taylor, 15, is empowering thousands of kids through her literacy campaign, Adele's Literacy Library.

Olivia Bouler, 13, was so distraught over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill that she donated 500 original bird paintings to the Audubon Society, wrote a book “Olivia’s Birds: Saving the Gulf,” and has raised more than $200,000 for the organization to support the recovery of coastal birds.

Over the last few months, I’ve met and interviewed each of these young change-makers, among many others, in GBTV’s Liberty Treehouse studio in New York. During this week, we are kicking off “Project Treehouse,” our ongoing initiative to search the country for kids making a difference, to shine a light on their efforts and their causes. In this weekly segment series, we will be highlighting powerful stories of today’s youth who are taking a stand and making change in the world, offering them, in effect, a world stage on which they can share their messages of hope and purpose.

Illiteracy. Hunger. Cyberbullying. Pediatric cancer. Endangered wildlife.

One key factor I noticed in each of their stories is that these kids feel called to make a difference. They don’t want to make change in order to be leaders; they become leaders in order to create change and make a difference for others. They lead, because they believe they must.

Two potent catalysts in the individual and collective efforts of these young dreamers are their families and a growing community who are inspired to share and help fulfill their visions.

Shannon McNamara has grown up with parents who organized “family vacation service trips,” from Peru to Tanzania, where she was inspired to create SHAREinAfrica. To date, SHARE has created fully functioning school libraries and organized after-school reading programs; collected 33,000 donated books, thousands of school supplies, and dozens of used laptop computers and e-readers; installed electricity and solar power in three schools; and built a dining hall that seats more than 700 students.

“That first trip to Tanzania when I was 15 really moved me. I decided that I wanted to empower girls there to believe they can learn and do whatever they dream of doing and have access to whatever they need to realize it,” explains McNamara, who has expanded her non-profit’s mission to include a scholarship program in a country where only 5% of girls graduate from high school. She is not only empowering girls in Tanzanian schools, but also inspiring her peers.

This is how the tide turns, how kids who feel disengaged from their dreams might just realize that they do have a voice and a calling.

Bouler explains, “Every kid has this talent in them, even if they haven’t unlocked it. It’s about having the initiative to go out and try it.  Get out. Immerse yourself in nature. Go places.  Travel. Read about causes that you want to devote yourself to. Don’t look at the negative. You may miss things that captivate you.”

“Find a niche,” adds Stagliano. “Have a great time and help others at the same time. That would motivate more kids to want to make a difference. I don’t think I’m extraordinary. I think anybody can do this.”

But if anybody can, why isn’t everybody doing it?

“It’s about motivation,” she says, without hesitation. “If you have great motivation, you’re compelled and inspired to say ‘hey there’s a need and there’s something I can do.’ My cabbage was my motivation.”

To that end, Stagliano is giving out grants to other young people across the country so they can start their own vegetable gardens to donate their harvests.

These are our nation’s change agents. Young people who are showing us that it doesn’t actually take a village to raise them, but takes them to raise the village. To raise awareness and resources. To raise the bar on service. These kids may be the exception, but they’re also exceptional for their efforts, passion, determination and sense of purpose.

Not to mention their humility.

“I’m not quite sure if I’m a leader,” says Stagliano. “I couldn’t lead without all the people helping me. I have a lot of people supporting me. I couldn’t do this without them.”

Lu Hanessian is co-host of GBTV's Liberty Treehouse, author of the acclaimed book “Let the Baby Drive: Navigating the Road of New Motherhood” (2004) and "Picnic On a Cloud", award-winning journalist, former NBC anchor/host (“Real Life”; “Unsolved Mysteries”) and Discovery Health Channel host of “Make Room for Baby,” international parent educator, founder of Parent2ParentU and WYSH Wear Your Spirit for Humanity. For five years, she hosted The Science Show, syndicated in 110 countries.

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Disclaimer: The content of this clip does not provide medical advice. Please seek the advice of local health officials for any COVID-19 and/or COVID vaccine related questions & concerns.

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