Inspired by personal experiences and stories of loved ones, these young Colorado activists, advocates, and fundraisers are tackling issues in their schools, community, and world.
Fighting for Inclusive, Empowering Education
Donning their brilliantly-colored “African Queen” dresses, four young women, students at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, read the Know Justice, Know Peace resolution to the Denver Public Schools board on September 24, 2020:
“Whereas DPS is committed to…providing all students the opportunity to achieve the knowledge and skills necessary to become contributing citizens in our diverse society…” (the district must revise its curriculum) “to lift the voices and experiences of the Black community, and systemically marginalized communities in a transformational, humanizing, anti-racist, and asset-based manner,” they read.
As Black Lives Matter protests arose in Denver’s streets, Jenelle Nangah, Dahni Austin, Kaliah Yizar, and Alana Mitchell took action at their school, a place they could safely and bravely affect change for themselves and other students of color. The foursome launched Know Justice, Know Peace: DMLK’s “The Take” podcast on July 4. On episodes of the podcast, they’ve shared accounts of stress and trauma, analyzed systemic racism, and gathered community members to talk strengths and strategies.
The resolution, written by the young women and bearing the same name as the podcast, urges a comprehensive curriculum in all subjects, going beyond “sprinkles of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and slavery,” says Kaliah.
“If I’m learning just about slavery or just about the Civil Rights Movement, that means I’ll always have to face struggles,” she adds. “If we see examples of Black kings and queens, and Black artists, and Black musicians, and Black people who have succeeded, that empowers us more to overcome those struggles that we face every day.”
The same goes for their Latinx, Indigenous, and peers of color who are under-or-misrepresented in teachings in all subjects, said Dahni during the resolution reading.
DPS Director Tay Anderson, co-sponsor of the resolution, tweeted the resolution should pass when voted on October 22.
Read an extended version of their story: Students Take the Lead in Correcting Curriculum.
Watch and listen to “The Take” at facebook.com/watch/DMLKsTheTake.
Cycling for Cancer Research
Micah Gruenwald, 12
Micah Gruenwald pushed off on a long bike ride from his home on July 12. Trained legs, the memory of young Koby Gruenwald, and the support of more than 60 companion riders powered his pedals—65 miles later, Micah completed his longest and perhaps most successful ride for the Courage Classic, benefiting Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Micah started riding for Children’s Colorado in 2017, joining the Wheels of Justice team that raises funds for the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders (CCBD) clinic. The Gruenwalds rode in support of Koby, Micah’s brother who was fighting glioblastoma, an incurable brain tumor. After Koby died in 2018, Micah set goals to break his distance records at the Courage Classic each year. He began training with the Front Rangers, a youth biking club, in 2019.
This year, though the Classic looked different with a virtual format, Micah was determined to ride longer and raise more funds in his brother’s memory. He created a 42-mile ride in and around Denver and recruited riders and donors, raising over $25,000 by the day of his ride. To celebrate, he added an extra 23 miles.
“Our family is part of a large community and everyone loved Koby,” Micah says. He sent emails and posted a website and gathered support from his cycling group and Dr. Dan Hyman, one of the administrators at the hospital. “I spoke about Koby and what the CCBD did for him and our family. So much was canceled this year due to COVID-19, and I was determined not to give up this opportunity. People like to listen to a 12-year-old with big goals and were eager to join the effort!”
During the ride, Micah enjoyed friends cheering along the sidelines and a stop at Children’s Colorado to meet nurses from the CCBD clinic. As of August 21, Micah had raised more than $42,000 for Children’s Hospital’s Courage Classic, becoming the second highest fundraiser for the entire 2020 ride.
For more information about Micah’s efforts, visit mgruenwald.wixsite.com/mysite.
Giving Abundantly in the Holiday Season
Tristan Williams, 17
It’s not going to be a planter box, or a shed, or a bench, thought Tristan Williams, who was determined to go a different route with his Eagle Scout project than his construction-minded peers. Tristan had been volunteering with Rocky Mountain Vintage Racing for seven years, and remembered the group’s annual Race Against Kids Cancer partnership with the Morgan Adams Foundation (MAF). Through them, he found his service opportunity: the 2019 Holiday Gift Drive with Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children.
Tristan visited schools, businesses, and other community locations to set up collection boxes. He gathered donations in follow-up visits and emailed even more folks to get involved. In the end, he raised $2,100 and more than 1,000 gifts were collected and purchased. Almost 200 families were served that holiday season with gifts for pediatric patients and their parents; and there are still gifts ready for distribution when needed.
“As a person with significant special needs myself, this project was an excellent opportunity to get involved in the community, helping other kids who are sick,” Tristan says. “I did get lots of help from my family and Boy Scout community to make this project the success it was.”
In total, Tristan and his helpers logged 500 service hours for this project, far exceeding the average 130, he says. Each volunteer worked with a smile spread across their face, and each patient had “beaming light emitting from them when they got to choose their toys and gifts,” Tristan says.
Having completed his successful Eagle Project, Tristan feels he raised the bar—even changed the bar—for future troop projects. He’s also considering another gift drive effort with MAF and Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children this year.
Breaking Through Mental Health Stigma
Kate Hartman, 12
The feeling of shame should never exist around mental health issues, says Kate Hartman, who receives psychiatric services and occupational therapy at the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado. Kate loves drama and aspires to be on TV or in movies, but when it comes to her anxiety, sensory integration disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), she’s all about full transparency; no acting.
“We should all be able to talk about it,” affirms Kate. “When there’s a stigma, then people are less willing to talk about their feelings, and that could mean more suicide attempts.”
In elementary school, Kate experienced relentless bullying by some classmates and, despite her parents’ best efforts, she got to the point of thinking about suicide. Kate was nine years old. Specialists at Children’s Colorado helped Kate’s parents create a safety plan alongside managing her mental health conditions.
Since her hospital visit at age nine, nearly three years ago, Kate’s been on a mission to mend the mental health system and inspire other kids to find their voices and get help. She’s shared her story with physicians at Children’s Colorado, and even took her story to the state capitol, addressing the Senate Health and Human Services Committee in support of the SB 18-195 bill, which passed and helped establish Colorado’s Behavioral Health Task Force.
“When I spoke to the Senate, I realized this is what I am meant to do,” she says. “I have learned how much impact I can have on the world and people at a young age. It helps one to find out their strengths and grow as a person, but the most important thing is the impact on the community.”
As a patient ambassador for Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation, Kate continues to share her story. She’s also witness to the power of vulnerability in her friendships, finding them strengthened when sharing about mental health challenges.
“If everyone was comfortable asking for help, our society would realize the significant need to treat mental health as importantly as we do physical health,” says Kate. “I want to encourage families to speak up for what they believe. I want them to stay true to themselves, [and] take care of themselves.”
Providing an Affordable Sports Camp
Dante Lechuga, 12
More than 1,000 smiling faces; that’s why Dante Lechuga organizes an annual, affordable two-day sports camp for kids. Camp Found has served that many young people over the course of five years, becoming a significant event in Dante’s town of Firestone.
It all started with a day at the park. An agility course Dante’s father set up with balls, cones, and ropes entertained them so much, they had to do it again—and bring lots more friends. Soon, Dante and his family were partnering with an athletic organization and their local church to help with registration, facilities, funds, and insurance.
Dante and his sister, Ava, hand out fliers to businesses, network with friends, and gather volunteers each year. Their father, Geno, is a businessman and has helped along the way.
“We have grown a good brand and companies have accepted our mission,” Dante wrote in his essay to the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, which he won as a 2020 state honoree. “Throughout the years, we have received many emails from parents expressing their gratitude toward our camp and how much our camp impacted their lives.”
Campers engage in two days filled with soccer, lacrosse, football, and agility. They also receive a T-shirt, Chick-Fil-A meal, and access to top coaches in the area. By offering camp for $12 per child, Dante’s team tries to make cost a nonissue.
“I have learned that I really enjoy helping others and sports can be more than just for yourself, it can be helping others,” says Dante. Being a camp leader is by far the most fun part, he adds; he gets to make immediate connections with kids at school and in the community.
This year’s camp was canceled due to the pandemic. Next year, however, Dante hopes to have more obstacle courses and invite athletes such as Colby Ross (Coloradan and point guard for Pepperdine University) to come and help out. Potential volunteers, sponsors, and participants—kids between kindergarten and fifth grade—can contact Rocky Mountain Christian Church at 303-652-2211 or rocky.church for more information.
Speaking Up for Kids in Foster Care
Aerith Braverman, 9
“I love my new mom, and it was a big relief when she adopted me,” says Aerith Braverman. “But it was also a lot of other emotions, too. I was sad, and angry that I had to be adopted. If I could go back to my bio family, I’d totally go any minute.”
Aerith was in foster care for 910 days. She spent time in four different households until being adopted in January. In a video shared by Foster Source, a local organization that educates folks in the foster system and the general public, Aerith describes the disorientation of being disconnected from everything and everyone before entering the system: school, neighborhood, friends, pets, house, family. She first experienced this just before her sixth birthday.
With self-assurance, humor, and honesty, Aerith speaks on behalf of children in the system, sharing what those kids might want their foster families to understand, even if it’s hard to hear.
“We’re not lucky to be with you, even if your house is very big and you have lots of toys for us, even if you think your neighborhood school is the best, and your family and friends are ready to love us up,” she says in the video.
Mental health services, patience, privacy, and an awareness of the trauma of foster care could help kids adjust, emphasizes Aerith.
“[If you] help me understand that I’m not the only one having big reactions and behaviors, I will feel less alone,” she says. “Sometimes I might throw things or yell, or even run away. I may not want to do those things, but my red brain takes over because I feel unsafe. Sometimes I might need space, sometimes I might need you. Sometimes you have to be a good mommy or daddy detective. I know you can do this.”
Foster Source posted Aerith’s speech on their Facebook page in May, during National Foster Care Month. Renee Bernhard, founder of Foster Source, and her team take Aerith’s comments into serious consideration as they work to improve the child welfare system.
“Aerith’s outreach efforts are extra special because it’s so rare that we get to hear from [a] child in the system who is that young who is able to articulate so well what her experience was,” notes Bernhard.
Find more information at fostersource.org.
Baking for Friendship and Hope
Dana Perella, 10
First, there was Cookies4Mila. Dana Parella started on her seventh birthday, selling cookies around her neighborhood out of a red wagon; she raised $1,000 in three months for her friend, Mila, who had a rare disorder of the nervous system called Batten disease. By the end of the year, she had accumulated $56,000 with the assembly of more kid bakers, multiple sales, and a GoFundMe. The money helped fund the first ever treatment for Mila’s form of Batten disease.
Next, there was Cookies4PANS. Dana’s friend Ollie had been diagnosed with Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome (PANS), and she knew how she could help. Alongside friends, Dana baked again, raising more than $30,000 to help the Stanford PANS Clinic hire a new postdoctoral researcher.
Cookies4Cures, Dana’s nonprofit, was soon established.
In 2020, Dana launched Cookies4SMA to fund research into spinal muscular atrophy, a rare disease that her friend, Ben, has. She met him at the Global Genes RARE Patient Advocacy Summit where she was honored as the Rising Star Champion of Hope. This summer, Dana started Cookies4Sophie for a new friend who has a rare bone disease called Multicentric carpotarsal osteolysis syndrome (MCTO).
Her dream is to someday have a campaign for every rare pediatric disease.
“Each campaign starts with a kid and a story,” Dana says. “They are real people and real friends, and each one means the world to me. When I’m hanging out with them, I focus on being a good friend and I don’t think too much about their disease. If I think too much, I get really scared and sad. I know I could lose them, but I don’t dwell on that. I prefer to focus on hope and action.”
Dana loves talking to folks at cookie pop-ups, telling patrons to, “Take what you want. Leave what makes your heart feel good.” Word has gotten around; people are reaching out for help starting their own Cookies4Cures campaigns.
“Changing the world means making the impossible possible,” Dana says. “It means having a vision, setting big, scary goals, and accomplishing them. It means believing in yourself no matter what.”