Hard work becomes second nature, an impulse, a way of life, when you do something you love and care deeply about. These teens—through their activism, entrepreneurship, artistic vision, education, and trailblazing—exemplify this.
Mobilizing Youth for Climate Justice
Phoebe Dominguez, 13, Denver
Phoebe Dominguez stood. Outside Denver’s capitol building, she held signs declaring: “There is no planet B,” and “School Strike for Climate.” From January to March 2020, each Friday afternoon around lunchtime, Dominguez, flanked by her mother, protested lack of action on the climate crisis. Her action was inspired by the three-week sit-in Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg led in 2018, which turned into the #FridaysForFuture school strike movement.
One passerby told her about 350 Colorado, a grassroots climate action organization, and set Dominguez in motion. She attended educational meetings, then tuned in to the 350 Earth Day Live worldwide conference. Soon, she became one of the younger volunteers for 350 Colorado, joining committees and speaking at events and webinars.
Although 350 didn’t have an age minimum for volunteers, Dominguez noticed there wasn’t much youth-focused work. With the help of a fellow teen organizer, she co-founded the 350 Colorado Youth Climate Action Committee earlier this year. To date, the group includes 100 youth ages 10 to 24.
Dominguez recognizes it’s hard to know if her lobbying, speeches, and monthly meetings are creating tangible change. But the intensity of climate science and what could happen if not enough people act terrifies her.
“When you’re helping something or want to get involved, you may feel obsolete and useless at times. I’ve been there,” she says. “But other people need you there. We need more people, and especially more youth.”
The diversity of voices and perspectives in the movement inspires Dominguez. “I know that this is something that I’m not going to give up on, because I know so many people who are already being affected by this; who live in low income communities, Indigenous communities, black and brown communities, and so many more communities that are being disproportionately impacted,” she says.
Her advice to anyone thinking about making a difference for the climate: Ask as many questions as you can. Start somewhere; no action is too small, and nobody is doing things perfectly. Find mentors, people that can walk with you.
Sharing the Written Word
Lindsay List, 14, Englewood
Bookworm Lindsay List understands the importance of book access and reading practice. When she was in third grade she was diagnosed with a reading disability. That hasn’t stopped her from succeeding in school, and creating her own literacy program.
Around her 12th birthday, List decided that her bat mitzvah community service project would be to collect books and distribute them to kids with limited access. She called it Lindsay’s Library. Her vision would require many donations, so she spread the word to her community through emails, posts on social media, and an article in her temple’s newspaper. She made a donation box for the temple, and her tzedakah (charitable giving) went to purchase more. List then delivered the books once a month to the Jewish Family Services (JFS) Weinberg Food Pantry, where parents and kids could read books while waiting, and take them home. More copies went to JFS’s Denver location bookshelves and their mobile food delivery service that targets areas where underserved children live.
“Kids were the focus, but I collected books for all ages, including people that had trouble reading English,” List says. “I knew that books were required to develop their reading skills, so it was not a task, but a fun experience.”
She would have continued as planned; however COVID-19 disrupted the cycle. Stocking the shelves was no longer an option, and the mobile program wasn’t taking donations. List turned to her mother, who often volunteered with the Cherry Creek School District (CCSD). They found a new distribution strategy for Lindsay’s Library. During the pandemic, List collected over 1,000 books and wiped each one down before donating to CCSD.
For her efforts, List won the Prudential Spirit Community Service Award for the State of Colorado in February 2021. Lindsay’s Library is still going strong. Over the summer, List paired with JFS and the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the National Charity League to teach girls about conducting their own community service projects. The participants have helped List gather more than 1,000 books.
“I have learned that helping others makes me feel good,” List says. “It doesn’t take much to make a difference because the little things make the biggest impact.”
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Tender Loving Crafting
Elizabeth Marr, 16, Erie
Live, from Seacrest Studios, Children’s Hospital Colorado presents: Elizabeth’s Craft Corner, an interactive art show hosted by an amiable teen, Elizabeth Marr. Twice a month on the hospital’s closed-circuit channel, patients tune in to learn how to make crafts like a wall hanging, wind chime, or fleece blanket, while following along with a craft kit.
Marr herself was treated at Children’s Hospital Colorado in 2019, after a grease fire burn. “When I was healing from my injury, I did a lot of crafts and coloring, just to get my mind off of it,” she says. Her child life specialist suggested she take her talents to the studio.
More than 30 episodes of Elizabeth’s Craft Corner have aired since June 2020, highlighting techniques from clay molding to textile work. Marr plans the airing schedule months in advance, deciding which crafts she’ll guide and what supplies each participant will need so Children’s Colorado staff can assemble and distribute kits. Whether hosting in the studio (on days she has an appointment), or via Zoom, Marr’s easy smile and detailed demonstration creates a peaceful ambiance for viewers.
“When I was in middle school, I kind of wanted to do YouTube, but I’ve always been a shy person,” she says. “My burns forced me to be talkative and communicate with doctors. That helps me kind of come out and be a little more social.”
Marr learned to advocate for herself. It can be stressful when adults are talking about treatments you don’t completely understand, she explains. Volunteering has given her a way to make sense of hospital operations and help others get along in their healing. On Craft Corner, Marr has guided kids through activities that address their fears, for example, using syringes (sans-needles) to paint pumpkins; this makes medical supplies seem less scary. As a member of Children’s Colorado’s Youth Advisory Council, Marr also helps plan events like “prom” for kids in long term care, and chats with burn patients about what they can expect in treatment.
“Volunteering makes me so happy to give back to the kids and the hospital in general,” Marr says. “I got to do something positive with how tragic my burns were. That really helped me.”
Entrepreneurial Spirit with a Big Heart
Stephen Zhang, 17, Englewood
At a young age, Stephen Zhang is getting used to handing off big checks and mounds of donations. In the past three years, he’s organized fundraising events that have collected more than $80,000 to support various causes in Colorado.
Zhang started his company, Youth Creates, in 2018 as a ninth grader. Having noticed kids around him with talent in visual arts, music, and math, Zhang built a website to showcase their achievements and motivate others to pursue their passions.
“My teammates are all fabulous teens,” he says of the Youth Creates staff. “They are not only extremely talented, but they are also very kind and generous. Some of them are great initiators and create opportunities to serve.”
One major project by Youth Creates is the annual Gala for a Cure fundraising event. In the summer of 2019, Zhang hired youth artists and professional performers to entertain hundreds of viewers. In 2020 and 2021, the event went mainly virtual with online workshops, presentations, and contests, many led by youth. Altogether, the Gala has raised $24,500 for the Cancer League of Colorado.
Youth Creates’ board of advisors includes Zhang’s past teachers from elementary and Chinese school, a connection made at a regional Toastmasters conference, and fellow Asian American community leaders; all educators and business owners who offer guidance. “They are my backbone,” Zhang says.
“My biggest advocate and supporter is my mom,” Zhang says. “She takes care of taxes and insurance, she helps remove obstacles whenever possible. She always encourages me to have a big heart and not to dwell on trivial things.”
Denver Chinese School, under the leadership of then President Mr. Huiliang Liu, partnered with Youth Creates early in the pandemic to gather personal protective equipment for healthcare and first responder workers. With the help of local Chinese Americans who had connections with manufacturers overseas, they raised money and purchased thousands of N-95 masks, surgical masks, and protective gowns.
“The thank-you notes we later received were very touching,” Zhang says. “They remind me how each of us could make a positive impact on our society.”
Zhang also hired friends and retired teachers to give online classes in response to education and camp disruptions. The course list included competitive math, AP and honors Spanish, and computer science. Youth Creates gave a discount or free tuition to financially challenged families. The team is now launching a homework help program, through which kids can schedule study time with their favorite Youth Creates tutor, free of charge.
Breaking Molds and Serving Community
Carissa Sigler, 18, Highlands Ranch
The first day the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) welcomed girls to their ranks, February 1, 2019, Carissa Sigler was already living out the organizations’ motto: Be prepared. Sigler’s father became an Eagle Scout at age 14; her brother did the same at 13. It was her turn.
“Although I couldn’t beat them in age, I could beat them in overall time,” Sigler, now 18, says. She and 15 other Colorado girls rose through the Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class, Star Scout, and Life Scout ranks in just two years, becoming the first local class of female BSA Eagle Scouts in February 2021. According to Mark Truax of the National Eagle Scout Association, only about eight percent of those who enter the program earn the highest rank.
Sigler and a close friend, plus their moms, worked for months planning their own troop; the first registered all-female troop in the Denver Area Council. Organizing this community and platform for the young ladies who joined was one of the biggest tests of Sigler’s leadership, patience, and time management skills.
“Many of the girls and parents who joined had never been involved in scouting, so everything was started from square one and it took a lot of time from my whole family to teach everyone what they needed to know,” Sigler says.
The inaugural female Eagle Scout class has collectively completed thousands of volunteer hours and dozens of community projects, including a greenhouse build, emergency medical aid, and a dog obstacle course.
Sigler spent 98 hours and launched Project Never Alone, a mental health awareness and training website, for her Eagle-earning venture. In response to rising suicide rates in correlation with pandemic quarantines, Sigler created this resource so people could recognize warning signs and respond appropriately. She partnered with The Happy Crew and the U.S. Air Force’s Arnold Air Society to host a virtual training last fall (now available on YouTube). As a freshman at the Air Force Academy, Sigler has joined the Arnold Air Society Squadron and plans to help with their joint national projects in spreading suicide prevention and awareness.
To achieve what she has in BSA, Sigler has relied on her family and community. “The other female Eagles are so supportive of each other,” she says. “You can’t do it alone. It takes so much peer and adult help. I couldn’t have gotten Eagle without the support of my troop and my family.”
Sigler also understands her journey is not over. There’s more to it than earning patches, she explains. “When people hear that you are an Eagle scout, their perspective of you changes, and those standards that pop into their head, you have to be ready to meet and exceed, not just for yourself, but also for the other Eagles before and after you.”