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Rachel, a senior at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, N.Y., came down with a painful intestinal ailment that forced her to miss the entire 2006-2007 school year. So she decided that even if she couldn't go to school, she could still help other kids who wanted to.
From her sickbed, Rachel sold T-shirts and solicited contributions to build a 316-student elementary school in the rural village of Srah Khvav, Cambodia. Borrowing an idea from university fund-raising, she offered naming opportunities: For $25, donors could buy chairs to be named for them. All told, she raised $57,000, which was channeled through an aid group, American Assistance for Cambodia.
Now Rachel is mostly healthy again and back in school. Last winter, she traveled to Cambodia to cut the ribbon at the R. S. Rosenfeld School.
"The children were all so grateful and well-behaved," Rachel says. "It truly was a life-changing experience."
College students used to be the activists, but increasingly they're joined by high school students and even younger children. Even though the spotlight is often on billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates, one of America's healthier trends has been the rise of piggy-bank philanthropists.
In 2006, two high school students at the Northfield Mount Hermon School in MassachusettsAna Slavin and Nick Andersonstarted Dollars for Darfur, a nationwide campaign that has raised $420,000 from 440 high schools.
Humanitarian prodigies like Ana and Nick are laudable for going beyond simple protesting to help their causes. Today's young social entrepreneurs come across as more constructive than previous generations of student activists, and more savvy about how to accomplish their goals cost-effectively.
Climate change in particular has galvanized high school studentsperhaps because it's their world that we're cooking. Taylor Francis, 16, a student at Crystal Springs Uplands School in Hillsborough, Calif., has been speaking around the country about global warming. After some training by former Vice President Al Gore, he has set up his own Web site and traveled to China to give a dozen lectures there.
"There's an enormous outpouring of young people who are trying to do community service," Taylor says. "Unfortunately, a lot of that is probably just to get into college."
As a junior at Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy in Melbourne, Fla., Allyson Brown organized a school Valentine's dance, with the proceeds going to fight malaria in Africa. That dance grew into Stayin' Alive, a campaign that has attracted more than 100 schools in 31 states to raise money to buy bed mosquito nets that cost $10 each and can protect a family from malaria.
The goal of Stayin' Alive, which is run by a group called Malaria No More, is to buy bed nets to protect 2 million children. Allyson, who graduated from Holy Trinity in May, remains very involved in the program.
It's true that some of the activism may have less to do with humanitarianism than with bolstering college applications. But even greedy cynics who take on a worthy cause for their own selfish motives can learn and grow from the experience.
"I've seen some people who just want to bump up their résumés," Allyson acknowledges. However, she says that most participation seems heartfelt.
Should Public Service Be Required?
"A lot of people say that teenagers aren't thinking about the greater good," Allyson adds. "But when you give teens a chance to help, and they know their contributions will make a difference, then they help a lot."
Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut has pushed for a requirement of 100 hours of public service in high school. Although there's a risk that a mandate undermines the virtue, on balance I'm in favor. Colleges should also encourage young people to take a "gap year" of public service abroad.
In keeping with thousands of years of tradition, I should be wringing my hands about adolescents these days, so lazy and degenerate compared with my own upstanding generation.
But when I see high school students working energetically to save the lives of people half a world away, before they're even allowed to drive, I'm reduced to mumbling admiration. They are truly inspiring.