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Creating Heroes out of High Schoolers

Like many kids in America, I grew up spending a couple of Sundays a year doing local community service. I restocked food pantries, replanted gardens, and repainted old buildings. I was fine with the repetition as I knew each act helped community members in need, yet thought there had to be a more long-term solution than the Band-Aids my community, like thousands across the country, were applying year after year. I wondered if instead of continually restocking that same food pantry, we found ways to more cost effectively make food available to people in need, bring gardens into cities, or even convert food waste back into edible food.

Shortly after starting high school, I read a book by Dr. Peter Diamandis, founder of Xprize, an organization that incentivizes the world to fix problems that governments, philanthropists, and the private sector haven’t solved. I was inspired by the central theme of the book, that many of the world’s greatest challenges are overcome by a combination of innovation and growing access to technology.

And so, I set out to find local students who shared similar, quixotic ideas like my own. The result was High School HeroesX, a platform for students to solve local problems through incentivized competitions. Founded during my freshman year of high school four years ago, we have since led challenges such as narrowing the education gap in Philadelphia, increasing food safety in Beijing, and a statewide challenge to improve the environment in Pennsylvania.

You may be wondering how we seemingly sprinkle some fairy dust on students, and age-old community problems are solved. Well…it doesn’t exactly work that way. I love when students take the initiative to reach out to me about possibly leading challenges, with our help, in their cities or countries. After we have then zeroed in on an area, we recruit at least five schools to work on a challenge. We then help them design a challenge around solving a problem, not about reaching a specific solution. Next, we assist them in assembling an advisory board of experts in that field to guide the students.

It is truly an honor to be selected as a 2016 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award recipient, and I’m humbled to be awarded this grant from the Helen Diller Family Foundation. This money is already being put to good use: we are using it to finish the funding for our Beijing challenge, and will soon be announcing challenges in Europe, and another in Asia. Receiving this award validates the idea that youth are not too young to innovate, and are able to break this old, mythic, and rigid barrier that childhood is to study and adulthood is a time to solve big-world problems. This award also allows me to continue on my personal mission of doing my part in repairing the world and inspiring others to make a difference: a term coined by tikkun olam in Judaism, and common in any belief system.

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