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Twelve-year-old Gitanjali Rao of Lone Tree. Photo courtesy Eliza Donley Nolte

6 Colorado Kids Making a Difference

Meet six remarkable Colorado tweens and teens who are making a positive impact in their community.

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Ranging in age from 11 to 17, these adolescents and teens weren’t content waiting on the world to change. So they’re changing it themselves, leaving the world a little better than they found it, and brightening their communities through direct service and creative fundraising initiatives.

A Push for Safer Water

Gitanjali Rao, 12, Lone Tree

“I heard about the Flint water crisis, and it was appalling to me,” says 12-year-old Gitanjali Rao (pictured above). While the rest of us were wishing for better, this eighth grader took action, inventing a device that would help protect families, should a similar catastrophe happen again.

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“I wanted to create something affordable that could be used worldwide,” Gitanjali explains. But first, there was one little obstacle to overcome. “I didn’t know anything about this stuff when I first started!” she says.

Determined to make lead detection easier, Gitanjali buried herself in research, exchanging hundreds of emails with a slew of scientists and professionals. “From each expert, I got one piece of the puzzle, and eventually I put that puzzle together,” says Gitanjali.

She learned that nanotechnology is used to detect harmful chemicals in the air. Applying the principle to lead, Gitanjali created an easy-to-use, inexpensive device that detects lead contamination in water with carbon nanotube technology.

“The device includes a disposable cartridge that you dip into water, and then it measures lead content using a microprocessor,” she says. That microprocessor sends data to a smartphone app Gitanjali created, generating clear results almost immediately. “Ideally, we should all be testing our water twice a month,” Gitanjali notes.

Still in its research and development phase, Gitanjali’s device currently costs $20 to produce. “If manufactured for mass production, it would be significantly cheaper,” she says. “I really want this to be something every household can use, because testing water is something we take for granted.”

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For her efforts, Gitanjali was named the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist of the Year in 2017; and this year, she receives the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, a national award honoring 25 outstanding leaders ages eight to 18.

Speaking Up Against Cancer

Addison Kleinhans, 14, Broomfield

It’s hard to believe Addison Kleinhans is only 14. The charismatic and articulate high school freshman has captivated crowds, delivering more than 150 speeches to raise money for pediatric cancer. When Addison doesn’t know what to say, he reminds himself that all you have to do is speak from your heart.

“When I was five, I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which is a type of blood cancer,” Addison explains. He spent the next 38 months in treatment. “Every day I had chemotherapy,” he says. “Sometimes I couldn’t leave the house, other days I felt like a normal kid, even though I wasn’t normal.”

When a doctor asked Addison if he’d share his story with a group of nurses, the then-seven-year-old agreed. He was already a professional actor who’d played Tiny Tim in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production of A Christmas Carol, so public speaking felt natural. “They wanted me to speak to nurses about how a kid felt throughout treatment,” Addison says. “I said a few sentences, and that was it.”

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Before long, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society was asking Addison to speak at its fundraising events, sometimes to audiences as large as 4,000. That seems like a lot of pressure for a kid, but Addison says, “I don’t think I’ve ever been nervous in front of a crowd.”

Addison has helped raise tens of thousands of dollars to combat leukemia and lymphoma, and he has started giving speeches at high schools to motivate others. “A lot of teenagers get caught up in the little moments,” he says. “One of the things I focus on is that somebody is always having a worse day than you.” So stay positive in the face of adversity—that’s Addison’s mantra.

Giving Veterans a Voice

Addy Tysdal, 17, Lone Tree

Addy Tysdal had already been recruited to play lacrosse at the United States Naval Academy when she wrote an argument paper about women in combat roles for a class assignment. Conducting research for the paper opened Addy’s eyes. “Women aren’t always respected in combat roles,” she says.

What’s more, many female veterans struggle to reintegrate into society after they’ve served. While there are a number of organizations supporting male veterans, Addy could only find a couple bolstering the 18,000 women who exit the military each year. So she started a charity designed to fill that void.

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She Served aims to uplift female veterans by giving them a platform to voice their experiences. In September, Addy organized a She Served fundraising event through her field hockey team. Fifteen female veterans attended the special field hockey game in Highlands Ranch, where an announcer gave a brief overview of the veterans’ unique stories. “Some of the women were Naval Academy veterans, a few were formerly homeless,” Addy says, noting that the event was impactful for everyone in attendance.

In addition to raising awareness about the plight of female veterans, Addy has raised $2,000 in cash through T-shirt sales and a Go Fund Me page. She Served is an extension of another organization Addy founded during her sophomore year of high school, Sport-A-Kid, which donates sports jerseys to kids in need.

When it comes to philanthropy, Addy thinks it is important to let your interests drive your endeavors. “I started Sport-A-Kid because I love sports,” Addy says. She loves wearing the jerseys of her favorite players and teams. “I figured if something as simple as a jersey could make me happy, then it could make other kids happy.”

Preserving Local Trails

Mirabai Herz, 13, Centennial

Hauling lumber toward the summit of a 14,265-foot mountain might give the average person pause. Not 13-year-old Mirabai Herz who, earlier this year, linked up with Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC) to construct an elevated pathway on Quandary Peak, one of the state’s heavily trafficked 14ers.

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“That was the toughest trail I’ve done,” admits Mirabai. Herman Gulch Trail (in Arapaho National Forest) was Mirabai’s favorite project—“Because it was so beautiful,” she says. “It’s cool to be able to help maintain trails that I’ve walked on so many times throughout the years.”

From Summit County to the San Luis Valley, and all along the Front Range, Mirabai has spent 168 hours improving Colorado trails since she started volunteering in 2016. That year, when she tagged along with her dad on one of VOC’s family volunteering projects, her interest was instantly piqued.

“I really liked helping out, so the next year I decided to get even more involved,” she says. In 2017, Mirabai helped build and restore trails on six projects, earning her VOC’s 2017 Young Volunteer of the Year Award. This year, she completed nine projects, graduating from full-day jobs to overnight weekend projects.

Building a trail involves “clearing stuff out,” as Mirabai puts it—moving big loads of dirt and loose rock, leveling slopes to create flat terrain, and building accessible structures. It’s high-intensity work, and Mirabai can’t get enough. She especially loves being outside and working with teams of like-minded philanthropists.

Like most middle school students, Mirabai’s schedule is jam-packed. Sometimes it’s hard squeezing in volunteer hours between fencing, skiing, school events (Mirabai is on her school’s event planning committee), and National Junior Honor Society. Mirabai’s life is only going to get busier as she matures. Even so, she says, “I’m definitely planning to continue this work.”

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Supporting Sick Newborns with Art

Adelyn “Ady” Wall, 12, Englewood

“A lot of people have great ideas, but they feel like they can’t really make a dent,” says 12-year-old Adelyn Wall. “If you have an idea, and you’re passionate about it, don’t let it go.” Words of wisdom from a girl who founded her own charity, Art by Adelyn, when she was only seven years old.

For as long as she can remember, Adelyn loved to draw and paint, leaning toward nature for inspiration. On her way home from an art class one night, the then-seven-year-old asked her mom to pull the car over. There was a man on the side of the road begging for help, and Adelyn wanted to give him a piece of her artwork. In that moment, Adelyn says, “I realized I wanted to use art to help others.”

As a newborn, Adelyn spent a week in the NICU at Children’s Hospital Colorado. Her mom had the idea to call Children’s Hospital Colorado to see if Adelyn could sell her art to benefit their neonatal intensive care unit.

Children’s Hospital Colorado happily gave Adelyn permission to use its logo, and for five years, she has created 10 pieces of original artwork annually. The paintings are turned into cards, which she sells at a variety of local stores, including Barnes & Noble, Tattered Cover, Alfalfa’s Market, and the gift shop at Denver Art Museum, where her cards have been sold since 2014.

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Adelyn has sold more than 1,000 cards. She donates 100 percent of the proceeds to Children’s Hospital Colorado and she’s raised more than $25,000 for the nonprofit hospital. The NICU has a special “Art by Adelyn” account, and the artist is invited in, often, to see her contributions. Adelyn plans to continue her work indefinitely.

No Child Left Behind

Hannah Kutnick, 11, Denver

When Hannah Kutnick read about a girl who’d created her own charity, she knew she wanted to do something similar. So in lieu of holiday presents, Hannah—a third grader at the time—asked her parents and extended family for cash. She planned to use the money to buy back-to-school supplies for children in need. “I love shopping for my school supplies,” she says.

Initially, Hannah figured she’d donate items to a specific family or school. But as she was stashing away money, she stumbled on Lunchbox Express, a program administered by Jewish Family Services. The food delivery service provides lunch to underserved youth in the summer and collects backpack donations for the children receiving Lunchbox Express meals.

With a little help from her mom, Hannah realized there was a big opportunity to supplement Jewish Family Services’ backpack drive, by tapping into the organization’s established network, and donating backpacks filled with a year’s worth of supplies.

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In 2017, Hannah put her “Backpack Bonanza” into action, with a goal of collecting and filling one hundred backpacks. But she exceeded her own expectations, producing 180 fully stocked backpacks. While that success might have been enough for some children, Hannah knew she could do better. This year, she donated 300 backpacks, all furnished with back-to-school supplies.

Since launching Backpack Bonanza, Hannah has raised approximately $4,600 dollars, mostly through her personal network of family and friends. The young philanthropist negotiates discounts with a number of local retailers in order to stretch her dollars further. After procuring supplies, Hannah asks friends and their families to help stuff backpacks. The best part is handing out the finished product. “I feel so happy seeing my work pay off,” she says.

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