Teens who decided to help the world
For Shawn Henry, it was hearing a teacher read a book on community gardens. For Erin Rosen-Watson, it was learning that many foster children have only the clothes on their back. For Katharine Kendrick, it was watching a film on the 1994 killings in Rwanda. For Annalise Blum, it was hearing Guatemalans talk about surviving civil war horrors. For Matthew Rich, it was seeing bare dirt where a forest had stood. For each of them, it was the moment they decided to act.Skip to next paragraph
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The park in Shawn Henry's neighborhood in East Flatbush, N.Y., was not much of a park. It was filled with car tires, rusted washing machines, and gang members. But when a teacher read "Seedfolks," a novel by Paul Fleischman, to Shawn's 10th-grade class, Shawn was inspired by the story of volunteers creating urban gardens. He wondered if he could do the same thing in his own neighborhood. He imagined that sad local park transformed into a place where people could relax, read a book, and play chess.
"We decided to take the park back and clean it up," says Shawn. He recruited other young people to join him in a group they called the Garden Angels. Some were high schoolers. Others came from the junior high next to the park. Shawn applied for grants to help pay for the park's transformation. The kids also held book sales and bake sales to raise money.
The garbage dumped in the park was gathered up and hauled away. Overgrown plants were dug up or trimmed. Broken benches were repaired or replaced. After nine months, the blighted park was a different place.
The Garden Angels continue to take care of the park. They have begun other community projects, too. The Angels started a chess program and a hip-hop group at the local library. They also do library fundraising. Eventually, they hope to help open a local community center.
Shawn is now 18. He studies business management at a community college in Manhattan. His work with Garden Angels won him a Barron Prize, which honors outstanding young leaders around the country. Shawn says his experiences have taught him a lot about the power of youths. "If you give young people a voice, and they feel passion," Shawn says, "they can do what it takes to bring about change."
Erin Rosen-Watson was just 13 when she started her community- service organization, Erin's Helping Hands. Erin had learned that children often enter foster care without any belongings at all. When she began her project, the teenager from Natick, Mass., hoped to collect 200 afghans for foster children. She soon added an "essential care packet" project. Erin donates bags filled with books, stuffed animals, underwear and socks, and toiletries like toothpaste and shampoo. At last count, Erin had given away 6,390 handmade afghans and blankets and more than 6,500 care packages!
Erin's Helping Hands actually has 1,000 hands. In the past four years, 500 people have helped by donating goods as well as sewing, crocheting, and packaging. Social workers distribute the blankets, afghans, and packages to foster kids. "My mother is my biggest volunteer," says Erin.
Erin's dad helps, too. When a local business offered to donate leftover blanket fleece, he rented a truck and filled the family basement with bags of remnants. It took all summer for Erin, her parents, and 100 volunteers to cut and sew the fabric into blankets. Donated stuffed animals and books were added. Erin donated 1,618 "care packets" to children at 52 homeless shelters.
Seventeen-year-old Erin is now a college freshman. "I want to do the projects as long as possible," Erin says, noting that about 25 children enter or re-enter foster care in Massachusetts every day. "What I learned is that it is amazing how many people you can reach - and not just with those who get the donation. Many elderly people who sew and crochet for me tell me how much it helps them, by giving meaning to their lives."