Before they finish middle school, some precocious youngsters are taking on bigger problems than getting the go-ahead for a sleepover, winning a soccer game or scoring an "A" on a test.
Take, for example, Katie Stagliano, 13, Olivia Bouler, 12, and Leah Prager, 13. On the one hand, they are normal kids who like animals, swimming and soaking up the summer sun. On the other, they've collectively raised more than $350,000 for charity and founded their own nonprofit organizations. Their passion for serving the community is bringing neighborhoods together and inspiring other children to get out and make a difference, too.
Katie Stagliano, 13
For Katie, it all started with a cabbage.
To wrap up a unit about plants, Katie's third-grade teacher passed out cabbage seedlings. Katie didn't know much about gardening, but she took one home, planted it and watered it each day. The cabbage grew and grew and grew until it weighed 40 pounds.
Forty pounds of cabbage was too much food for one 9-year-old girl and her family, Katie knew. So, inspired by her father's daily lectures about cleaning her plate because "there are starving children," she decided to give it away. With her parent's help, she contacted a local soup kitchen and delivered the monstrous vegetable. Two days later, after the cabbage had been cooked up with some rice and ham, she put on an apron and proudly helped serve some 275 meals.
Katie was on top of the world.
"I was Superman that day," she said.
She wanted to hold onto that feeling, so she decided to plant more vegetables.
"One vegetable helped feed 275 people," she thought. "Imagine if I planted a bunch of vegetables. How many people would that feed?"
Soon, all the flowerbeds and flowerpots in her parent's backyard were converted to vegetable gardens. Her dad said "enough" when she asked to plant tomatoes in the front yard, but Katie still wasn't satisfied. She went to the headmaster of her K-12 school and asked for land to plant a garden. He gave her permission to use an empty lot adjacent to the playground. She borrowed tillers from neighbors, got donations from local nurseries, recruited the help of her classmates and planted a few rows of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash.
That first crop was small, but now Katie oversees eight gardens in Summerville, S.C., where she lives. After becoming an official nonprofit organization in 2010, Katie's Krops, as she named her venture, started giving grants to children across the United States who want to grow vegetables for the needy. The gardens — 49 in all, spread among 22 states — have produced thousands of pounds of okra, squash and other fresh vegetables to soup kitchens.
"It's pretty amazing to watch her in action," said Cory Fuller, director of education for Katie's Krops and Katie's former sixth-grade teacher. "She directs everything. This is all her idea, her dreams. We're all just along for the ride."
Olivia Bouler, 12
Olivia, who lives in Islip, N.Y., was inconsolable when she heard about the oil spill in the Gulf Coast in 2010. She had spent many vacations there with her grandparents, watching the birds. She knew it was nesting season. She knew the birds were going to suffer.
Her parents felt helpless, watching their little girl sob.
"How could we comfort her?" said Olivia's mom, Nadine Bouler. "There is no comfort. We knew it was true."
So they prayed together.
"Please let us find a way to help," they prayed.
Olivia lit up like a light bulb. She scampered upstairs and penned a letter to the National Audubon Society. The society authored the dog-eared field guide she toted around on her bird watching adventures and she had recently taken a tour of the nonprofit environmental organization's Florida location. If anyone could help, she was sure the Audubon Society could help.
An aspiring artist, Olivia offered to hand draw pictures of birds in exchange for donations to the clean-up effort. She signed the letter, "11 years old and willing to help."
After several national and international news outlets got wind of Olivia's project, requests for bird drawings started rolling in. She pledged to make 500 paintings. They were all called for within three weeks.
Olivia spent the next three months filling the orders. Using watercolor, she painted pelicans, ducks, hummingbirds and red-breasted robins. She painted when she got home from school until she went to bed at night. She painted on the weekends while her friends were swimming and making brownies.
"At times I just wanted to play," Olivia said. "But ultimately, I knew this was an amazing opportunity to make a difference and have my voice heard."
She's no longer passing out paintings for donations, but Olivia hasn't given up her environmental activism. Last year she wrote and illustrated a book about birds to raise money for conservation efforts. This year, she has a traveling art exhibit and an environmental column in the Huffington Post.
So far, she's raised more than $200,000.
"Every one of us has a great gift we can use to help the earth," she wrote. "Everyone, at any age, can do something, whether it is picking up trash along the side of the road, filling a bird feeder, or bringing reusable bags to the grocery store. For me, I used my artwork."
Leah Prager, 13
Leah has been involved in fundraisers from the time she was a toddler. At first, she was just underfoot while her parents, who live in Dallas, rushed around, organizing telethons and charity banquets to raise money for muscular dystrophy research. But, at 6 years old, after forging a friendship with a boy with the disease, she told her parents she wanted to make her own contribution.
Her mother suggested the little girl put together a few games and hold a mini carnival.
"I put one together as a child and I think I made $50," Erica Prager, Leah's mom, said. "It was a lemonade-stand type of thing."
Leah liked the idea. But she was thinking bigger. She'd watched her parents do plenty of auctions. "I want an auction," she told her mom.
Leah went from business to business asking for food to sell and items to auction. She was a shy little girl, but on one thing she was adamant, "You wait in the car. I'll go in and ask."
That first year, Leah raised $4,000 for muscular dystrophy research. The next year, donations doubled.
"At that point, I felt like I couldn't really stop," Leah said. "I just really enjoyed the feeling of knowing that I was a part of helping find a cure."
When she was 7 years old, Leah made a goal not to quit throwing carnivals until she had raised $100,000 for charity. Seven years later, after raising more than $140,000, she had to make a new goal.
"I want to continue my carnival until I graduate high school," she said. "At least."
Over the years, Leah's carnival has become something of a community affair. Most merchants are eager to help out, she said. In addition to items to be auctioned, businesses donate food, train rides, games and clowns. Her school friends help her build games, set up the carnival and man the booths.
"I think that anything you do to try to make the world a better place is good," Leah said. "No matter how much or how little, what matters is that you are giving from your heart."
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