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.

Stop trying to be right and think of the children

Mario Tama/Getty Images

All the outrage this week has mainly focused on one thing: the evil Trump administration and its minions who delight in taking children from their illegal immigrant parents and throwing them all in dungeons. Separate dungeons, mind you.

That makes for a nice, easy storyline, but the reality is less convenient. Most Americans seem to agree that separating children from their parents — even if their parents entered the US illegally — is a bad thing. But what if that mom and dad you're trying to keep the kids with aren't really the kids' parents? Believe it or not, fraud happens.

RELATED: Where were Rachel Maddow's tears for immigrant children in 2014?

While there are plenty of heartbreaking stories of parents simply seeking a chance for a better life for their children in the US, there are also corrupt, abusive human traffickers who profit from the illegal immigration trade. And sorting all of this out is no easy task.

This week, the Department of Homeland Security said that since October 2017, more than 300 children have arrived at the border with adults claiming to be their parents who turned out not to be relatives. 90 of these fraud cases came from the Rio Grande Valley sector alone.

In 2017, DHS reported 46 causes of fraudulent family claims. But there have already been 191 fraud cases in 2018.

Shouldn't we be concerned about any child that is smuggled by a human trafficker?

When Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen pointed out this 315 percent increase, the New York Times was quick to give these family fraud cases "context" by noting they make up less than one percent of the total number of illegal immigrant families apprehended at the southern border. Their implication was that Nielsen was exaggerating the numbers. Even if the number of fraud cases at the border was only 0.001 percent, shouldn't we be concerned about any child that is smuggled by a human trafficker?

This is the most infuriating part of this whole conversation this week (if you can call it a "conversation") — that both sides have an angle to defend. And while everyone's busy yelling and making their case, children are being abused.

What if we just tried, for two seconds, to love having mercy more than we love having to be right all the time?

Remember when cartoons were happy things? Each panel took you on a tiny journey, carrying you to an unexplored place. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud writes:

The comics creator asks us to join in a silent dance of the seen and the unseen. The visible and the invisible. This dance is unique to comics. No other artform gives so much to its audience while asking so much from them as well. This is why I think it's a mistake to see comics as a mere hybrid of the graphic arts and prose fiction. What happens between . . . panels is a kind of magic only comics can create.

When that magic is manipulated or politicized, it often devolves the artform into a baseless thing. Yesterday, Occupy Wall Street published the perfect example of low-brow deviation of the artform: A six-panel approach at satire, which imitates the instructions-panel found in the netted cubbyhole behind seats on airplanes. The cartoon is a critique of the recent news about immigrant children being separated from their parents after crossing the border. It is a step-by-step guide to murdering US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents.

RELATED: Cultural appropriation has jumped the shark, and everyone is noticing

The first panel shows a man shoving an infant into a cage meant for Pomeranians. The following five panels feature instructions, and include pictures of a cartoonish murder.

The panels read as follows:

  1. If an ICE agent tries to take your child at the border, don't panic.
  2. Pull your child away as quickly as possibly by force.
  3. Gently tell your child to close his/her eyes and ears so they won't witness what you are about to do.
  4. Grab the ICE agent from behind and push your knife into his chest with an upward thrust, causing the agent's sternum to break.
  5. Reach into his chest and pull out his still beating heart.
  6. Hold his bloody heart out for all other agents to see, and tell them that the same fate awaits them if they f--- with your child again.

Violent comics are nothing new. But most of the time, they remain in the realms of invented worlds — in other words, not in our own, with reference to actual people, let alone federal agents.

The mainstream media made a game of crying racism with every cartoon depiction of Obama during his presidency, as well as during his tenure as Senator, when the New Yorker, of all things, faced scrutiny for depicting him in "Muslim clothing." Life was a minefield for political cartoonists during the Obama era.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

This year, we saw the leftist outrage regarding The Simpsons character Apu — a cartoon representation of a highly-respected, though cartoonishly-depicted, character on a cartoon show composed of cartoonishly-depicted characters.

We all remember Charlie Hebdo, which, like many outlets that have used cartoon satire to criticize Islam, faced the wrath and ire of people unable to see even the tamest representation of the prophet, Muhammad.

Interesting, isn't it? Occupy Wall Street publishes a cartoon that advocates murdering federal agents, and critics are told to lighten up. Meanwhile, the merest depiction of Muhammad has resulted in riots throughout the world, murder and terror on an unprecedented scale.

The intersection of Islam and comics is complex enough to have its own three-hour show, so we'll leave it at that, for now. Although, it is worth mentioning the commentary by satirical website The Onion, which featured a highly offensive cartoon of all the major religious figures except Muhammad. It noted:

Following the publication of the image above, in which the most cherished figures from multiple religious faiths were depicted engaging in a lascivious sex act of considerable depravity, no one was murdered, beaten, or had their lives threatened.

Of course, Occupy Wall Street is free to publish any cartoon they like. Freedom of speech, and so on—although there have been several instances in which violent cartoons were ruled to have violated the "yelling fire in a crowded theater" limitation of the First Amendment.

Posting it to Twitter is another issue — this is surely in violation of Twitter's violent content policy, but something tells me nothing will come of it. It's a funny world, isn't it? A screenshot of a receipt from Chick-fil-A causes outrage but a cartoon advocating murder gets crickets.

RELATED: Twitter mob goes ballistic over Father's Day photo of Caitlyn Jenner. Who cares?

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud concludes that, "Today the possibilities for comics are — as they've always been — endless. Comics offers . . . range and versatility, with all the potential imagery of film and painting plus the intimacy of the written word. And all that's needed is the desire to be heard, the will to learn, and the ability to see."

Smile, and keep moving forward.

Crude and awful as the Occupy Wall Street comic is, the best thing we can do is nod and look elsewhere for the art that will open our eyes. Let the lunatics draw what they want, let them stew in their own flawed double standards. Otherwise, we're as shallow and empty as they are, and nothing good comes of that. Smile, and keep moving forward.

Things are getting better. Show the world how to hear, how to learn, how to see.

People should start listening to Nikki Haley

ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

Okay. Let's take a vote. You know, an objective, quantifiable count. How many resolutions has the UN Human Rights Council adopted condemning dictatorships? Easy. Well. How do you define "dictatorship"?

Well, one metric is the UN Human Rights Council Condemnation. How many have the United Nations issued to China, with a body count higher than a professional Call of Duty player?

Zero.

How about Venezuela, where socialism is devouring its own in the cruelest, most unsettling ways imaginable?

Zero.

And Russia, home of unsettling cruelty and rampant censorship, murder and (actual) homophobia?

Zero.

Iraq? Zero. Turkey? Iraq? Zero. Cuba? Zero. Pakistan? Zero.

RELATED: Nikki Haley just dropped some serious verbal bombs on Russia at the UN

According to UN Human Rights Council Condemnations, 2006-2016, none of these nations is as dangerous as we'd imagined. Or, rather, none of them faced a single condemnation. Meanwhile, one country in particular has faced unbelievable scrutiny and fury — you'll never guess which country.

No, it's not Somalia. It's Israel. With 68 UN Human Rights Council Condemnations! In fact, the number of total United Nations condemnations against Israel outnumbers the total of condemnations against all other countries combined. The only country that comes close is Syria, with 15.

The Trump administration withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday in protest of what it perceives as an entrenched bias against Israel and a willingness to allow notorious human rights abusers as members.

In an address to the UN Security Council on Tuesday, Nikki Haley said:

Let's remember that the Hamas terrorist organization has been inciting violence for years, long before the United States decided to move our embassy. This is what is endangering the people of Gaza. Make no mistake, Hamas is pleased with the results from yesterday... No country in this chamber would act with more restraint than Israel has.

Maybe people should start listening to Haley. Hopefully, they will. Not likely, but there's no crime in remaining hopeful.

Here's a question unique to our times: "Should I tell my father 'Happy Father's Day,' even though he (she?) is now one of my mothers?"

Father's Day was four days ago, yes, but this story is just weird enough to report on. One enjoyable line to read was this gem from Hollywood Gossip: "Cait is a woman and a transgender icon, but she is also and will always be the father of her six children."

RELATED: If Bruce was never a he and always a she, who won the men's Olympic gold in 1976?

Imagine reading that to someone ten — even five — years ago. And, honestly, there's something nice about it. But the strangeness of its having ever been written overpowers any emotional impact it might bring.

"So lucky to have you," wrote Kylie Jenner, in the Instagram caption under pre-transition pictures of Bruce Jenner.

Look. I risk sounding like a tabloid by mere dint of having even mentioned this story, but the important element is the cultural sway that's occurring. The original story was that a band of disgruntled Twitter users got outraged about the supposed "transphobic" remarks by Jenner's daughter.

But, what we should be saying is, "who the hell cares?" Who cares what one Jenner says to another — and more importantly and on a far deeper level — who cares what some anonymous Twitter user has to say?

When are we going to stop playing into the hands of the Twitter mob?

When are we going to stop playing into the hands of the Twitter mob? Because, at the moment, they've got it pretty good. They have a nifty relationship with the mainstream media: One or two Twitter users get outraged by any given thing — in this case Jenner and supposed transphobia. In return, the mainstream media use the Twitter comment as a source.

Then, a larger Twitter audience points to the article itself as proof that there's some kind of systemic justice at play. It's a closed-market currency, where the negative feedback loop of proof and evidence is composed of faulty accusations. Isn't it a hell of a time to be alive?