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Photo courtesy Laura Mahoney Photography

Colorado Kids Making a Difference

If today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders, then we’re in good hands with these Colorado kids.

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Ranging in age from five to 18, they spend their free time speaking up, cleaning up, gathering, and sharing, and making a positive impact on their schools, communities, and sometimes, even the world.

Speaking for strength

Hailey Balczarek, 11, Golden

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You wouldn’t know it just by looking at her, but 11-year-old Hailey Balczarek was born with drugs in her system—cocaine and marijuana, among others—and was eventually diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Basically, this means her brain was damaged by alcohol while her mother was pregnant.

“I’m a 30-second kid in a 5 second world,” Hailey explains. The 4-H and horseback-riding enthusiast is sharp, witty, and charismatic, but she processes information differently than the average kid because of her condition. From learning disabilities and speech delays to anxiety, Hailey had a hard time in school, not just academically, but socially.

After being bullied by her peers for years, Hailey was tired of hiding her disorder. In third grade, she stood up in front of her entire class, and gave a speech she’d created about FASD.

“I wanted to tell people about me, so they would get to know me a little better and understand that I have some difficulties,” Hailey explains. “Maybe they won’t bully me if they understood.”

Hailey’s speech went so well that she ended up joining her local 4-H chapter, and began speaking out about FASD through that network, winning a Grand Championship award at the county fair last year. Now, Hailey uses every opportunity she gets to talk to people about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy.

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In the course of her short public speaking career, Hailey has created a television spot with Governor John Hickenlooper for Pass It On and a poster about FASD for Illuminate Colorado, an organization dedicated to building brighter childhoods. The nonprofit uses Hailey’s poster as a teaching tool for college students at the Auraria Campus. Hailey was dealt more lemons than most kids, but she’s using her positive attitude and powerful stage presence to make lemonade.

Thinking Environmentally

Abbie Weeks, 18, Centennial

When she was still in high school, Abbie Weeks—now in her freshman year of college at CU Boulder—created a nonprofit called Ecological Action that provides solar energy to underprivileged communities. The whole thing started as an after-school club in 2014, because Abbie—a high school sophomore back then—was perturbed by waste that Styrofoam trays were creating in her school’s cafeteria. After tweaking the school’s recycling program, Abbie and a few other club members began working with the Mayor of Greenwood Village on an ongoing initiative to put a tax on plastic bags.

From there, Abbie’s after-school club began to take on a more global focus. “My club’s sponsor, (AP science teacher) Jeff Boyce, was friends with the founder of the Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project in rural Uganda,” Abbie says. “The hydroelectric grid most of Uganda runs on is not reliable.”

After identifying a need for solar electricity in a school in Uganda, Abbie led her after-school club in a fundraising initiative. When the group raised enough cash, they flew to Uganda in 2016 and installed solar panels in an area school, working with local electricians, training them in order to make the system 100 percent sustainable.

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Abbie and other club members were so inspired by their trip to Uganda, that they decided to supplement their work with a domestic project. Partnering with GRID Alternatives Tribal Program, another Denver nonprofit, Abbie’s nonprofit set up a similar solar panel system at an elementary school on the Pine Ridge Native American Reservation in South Dakota.

For her work, Abbie won the 2017 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, a national award recognizing young people who make a difference. Now, she’s busy in college, but she continues to manage her nonprofit while double majoring in international affairs and environmental engineering.

Cleaning Up Our National Parks

Gus Bower, 5, Denver

Five-year-old Gus Bower earned his first National Park Service Junior Ranger badge last year at the Grand Canyon. He became one of the NPS Junior Ranger program’s youngest participants, and arguably one of the organization’s most fierce advocates.

Since his trip to the Grand Canyon in 2016, Gus has earned four more Junior Ranger badges, one each at Rocky Mountain National Park and Philmont Scout Ranch, and two at Mesa Verde National Park. So what’s a Junior Ranger badge anyway? “It’s a badge you earn by doing things that are special at the park,” says Gus. “I had to pick up a lot of trash for one of my badges.”

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The NPS Junior Ranger program is an activity-based curriculum offered in almost all of our country’s national parks. Participants complete a series of guided activities to earn a variety of badges. Last year, more than 800,000 children nationwide became Junior Rangers. Gus, who started the program when he was four, is unique because the vast majority of Junior Rangers are between the ages of five and 13.

The NPS Junior Ranger program has rubbed off on Gus. Even when he isn’t wearing his ranger badges or the park ranger uniform he picked up at Mesa Verde National Park, Gus picks up trash just about everywhere he goes. “It’s just my job,” he explains with a smile.

Gus has commissioned his mom to carry around a trash bag at all times—that way, whenever he sees litter around his neighborhood or at a public park, Gus can pick it up on the spot. Gus might be little, but he isn’t afraid to remind bigger people to pick up their trash, too.

Giving to Kids in Need

Lillie Sheppard, 9, Denver

Nine-year-old Lillie Sheppard gained some local notoriety earlier this year when she was featured on Fox31 after working with the Denver-based nonprofit KidsGiving365 to raise $19,000 in just two weeks—enough cash to pay off lunch debt for 3,264 students in Denver Public Schools.

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Thanks to Lillie and all of the children who participated in the KidsGiving365 lunch debt initiative, every DPS student can expect a hot meal from now on, regardless of their ability to pay. Lillie’s profound involvement with the project earned her one of KidsGiving365’s 2017 Junior Philanthropist awards.

By then, she’d already been volunteering with the organization for three years, since she signed up to give Christmas presents to families in need through KidsGiving365’s annual “Santa’s Elves” program. Lillie was surprised to learn that not all families can afford to give their children gifts. Even though she’d always had plenty of holiday joy, Lillie could really sympathize with the children she served.

Lillie, you see, has dyslexia. “Sometimes I feel like it’s a bad thing to be different,” she says. Lillie didn’t ever want other kids to have to feel different because of their financial circumstances, so she threw herself into volunteer work, single-handedly collecting 206 pairs of new shoes from neighbors and local store owners. In August, she handed out the shoes to Colorado kids who were getting ready to go back to school.

“It makes me feel happy when I give,” Lillie says. She’s going to continue volunteering through KidsGiving365, and she and her family have another project they’re working on, too: “blessing bags” for the homeless. The Sheppards stuff disposable bags with snacks, tissues, socks, and toothbrushes, and keep a few in their family car to hand out whenever they pass a person in need. This winter, Lillie’s thinking about putting hot chocolate mix in the bags. “Sometimes you just need hot chocolate on a cold day,” she says.

Helping All Generations

Andrew and Sofia Titarenko, 7 and 9, Lakewood

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“I’m a first-generation American, and my parents are teaching me how to be grateful for this country,” says nine-year-old Sofia Titarenko. Sofia and her seven-year-old brother Andrew have been volunteering with Volunteers of America since 2015, participating in dozens of projects ranging from cleaning up parks to eldercare.

Last year, the siblings made 12 different trips to housebound seniors, brightening their days with conversation, songs, and a few of Andrew’s infamous magic tricks.

“One time we got to meet a grandma who is 101, and she told me that she was a Girl Scout—just like I am,” Sofia gushes.

“It feels very good and helpful, and it’s fun,” Andrew adds, when asked about why he likes to volunteer. He and Sofia have picked up trash in parks in Lakewood, handed out blankets to veterans, and done yard work for seniors at local retirement homes. Recently, they worked with a team of volunteers to pack 300 backpacks with school supplies for children.

Sofia has also been working on her own project: She’s installing a mini-library in a Denver-area homeless shelter. Sofia’s dad is building the library during his free time on the weekends, and Sofia is acquiring books to fill it. Why a library? “I love to read,” says Sofia. “That’s my main hobby.”

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The Titarenko kids are having a substantial impact on many different people in their community, and their work has not gone unnoticed. Last year, Sofia won a Mayor’s Inspiration Award, recognizing the individuals who make an extraordinary contribution to the Lakewood community. Many hands make little work, and Sofia and Andrew are perfect examples of that philosophy in action.

Bringing Warmth to Her Community

Kinara Young, 13, Denver

When she was six years old, Kinara Young was driving through downtown Denver with her aunt when she saw a woman holding up a sign, asking for change. Kinara didn’t have any money to give out, but the encounter sparked a different kind of change.

“I just got this feeling on my heart that I needed to do something,” Kinara says. After racking her brain—and getting input from her aunt, uncle, and mom—Kinara decided to collect blankets for the homeless. “Everyone at least deserves to be warm,” she says.

For the past seven years, Kinara has gathered donated blankets during the months of November and December. She personally hands the blankets out to the homeless on Christmas Eve, near the Denver Rescue Mission.

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The first few years, Kinara set up a bin at her church, and made announcements to her entire congregation, supplementing the blankets she received from church members with blankets she and her family bought at the store. Kinara’s project has gotten bigger and bigger every year, and the young philanthropist estimates that she’s distributed at least 600 blankets since she started collecting them in 2010.

“In elementary school,” she says, “I got my school to allow me to set up bins.” And last year, in 2016, Kinara teamed up with Ladies of Value, a nonprofit organization that gives out gloves and socks to those in need.

Beyond helping people through her direct service, Kinara has inspired others to give back by speaking out about her efforts at local schools, churches, and charities. In 2014, she made history as the youngest Kohl’s Department Stores Kohl’s Cares award recipient in Denver.

“It makes me feel proud that I’m able to do something for my community,” says Kinara. “I’m going to try to keep doing it for as long as I can.”

Small Ways To Make a Difference

These kids prove that no matter what your age or available resources, you can make a difference. Although there can be age restrictions on some organized volunteer projects, there are many simple things that anyone can do. Here are a few ideas:

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