How do you get tweens to care about community service? Easy: Let them lead.
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One day in 2016, the kids of the Ridgefield Boys & Girls Club in Connecticut met to discuss some hard truths.

"We had a guest speaker come in," says Boys & Girls Club supervisor Jeff Goncalves, who organized the talk for a leadership program within the group called Torch Club.

"It was to benefit the Friends of Karen organization, which helps families of children who unfortunately are suffering from a terminal illness."


Among the topics discussed was the idea that many sick kids miss out on key experiences in their childhood because of how their illness interferes with daily life.

All photos courtesy of Torch Club/Boys & Girls Clubs of America, used with permission.

The Club's leaders asked the kids how they would feel if someone they knew, someone their age, had to skip their birthday because their medical bills were too high for them to afford to celebrate, Goncalves recalls. "That really hit home with our members."

Lots of people have a notion of "tweens" and young teens as being self-absorbed. But the Club’s reaction to the Friends of Karen organization proves that’s not so.

"Our executive board members decided to come up with a project idea," Goncalves says. But any uncreative fundraising ideas were out of the question — as Goncalves explains, "They know that I hate regular bake sales" — so they had to think out of the box.

Their answer? "A bakeless bake sale."

The kids reached out to everyone on their Club’s contact list and asked for cake ingredients, along with all of the rest of the things one might need to throw a birthday party. Instead of baking cakes to raise money, they gave kids the opportunity to have one for their birthday by providing all the tools in a "birthday bag."

"Cake mix, candles, frosting, napkins, plates — pretty much anything that could go into having a birthday party," Goncalves says.

The project was a success.

By the end, they’d provided birthday bags for almost 20 kids who would otherwise have gone without. It was so successful that they even decided to enter their project in the annual Torch Club Awards, which recognize Boys & Girls Clubs around the country for community volunteerism and service. They won first place and received a grant from Old Navy's ONward! program, which helps support many of Torch Club's activities.

What was even more surprising, though, was that this group of middle schoolers responded to a pretty heavy topic — terminal illness in their peers — in a well-adjusted and actionable way.

"That age is tough to work with in general," Goncalves says. "But when you find something, you know, a cause or a passion or something that really hits home, it brings everyone together in a way where we can focus their attention to helping, more than scaring them or making it awkward."

Torch Club has figured out the key to inspiring middle schoolers is to act. Just hand them the reins.

"The key is truly to let them lead," says Teresa Welch, vice president of program, training, and youth development services for the national headquarters of Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

"A lot of times as adults we sort of forget that. We assume that they need us to lead them," she says. "But when it’s led by youth, that’s when they’re absolutely the most successful."

The Boys & Girls Clubs' mission, through programs like Torch Club is to teach leadership and life skills to young kids, in order to prepare them for the challenges of adult life. But those leadership opportunities have advantages in the present, too.

Leadership gets younger kids engaged because it allows them to decide which issues to address, Welch says, and they can pick issues that impact their own community. She gives an example where kids who liked to skateboard got in trouble for graffiti that went up on buildings near where they skate.

"The kids will start talking about, well, we’re in trouble all the time for having our skateboards because they think we’re the ones doing the graffiti. But that wasn’t us," Welch recalls.

But instead of allowing the kids to grow resentful of the authority with which they had their conflict, Boys & Girls Clubs youth development staff encouraged them to come up with a creative solution.

"So they did a project where they actually painted over the graffiti with these beautiful murals," Welch says. In doing so, the Club both helped beautify the neighborhood and learned how to solve a problem in their community.

The Torch Club program at Boys & Girls Clubs is showing all of us that getting kids engaged young is possible — and it has nothing but positive results.

Young people who volunteer improve their community, their relationships with other kids, and themselves. Civic engagement shows kids how to take their energy and emotions and channel them into something good.

"All research shows that when young people volunteer, feel part of their community, and are engaged, that overall they will be more successful," Welch says.

"That’s a big part of the job. It's why I love working in the field that I work," Goncalves says. "To change the mindset of caring about themselves and being that self-absorbed tween to thinking outside the bubble, outside their community."

"It's remarkable, and we see it all the time," he adds. "It's why a lot of people in our field stick with it for life."

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan
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Growing up in Indonesia, Farwiza Farhan always loved the ocean. It's why she decided to study marine biology. But the more she learned, the more she realized that it wasn't enough to work in the ocean. She needed to protect it.

"I see the ocean ecosystem collapsing due to overfishing and climate change," she says. "I felt powerless and didn't know what to do [so] I decided to pursue my master's in environmental management."

This choice led her to work in environmental protection, and it was fate that brought her back home to the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, Indonesia — one of the last places on earth where species such as tigers, orangutans, elephants and Sumatran rhinoceros still live in the wild today. It's also home to over 300 species of birds, eight of which are endemic to the region.

"When I first flew over the Leuser Ecosystem, I saw an intact landscape, a contiguous block of lush, diverse vegetation stretched through hills and valleys. The Leuser is truly a majestic landscape — one of a kind."

She fell in love. "I had my first orangutan encounter in the Leuser Ecosystem," she remembers. "As the baby orangutan swung from the branches, seemingly playing and having fun, the mother was observing us. I was moved by the experience."

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan

"Over the years," she continues, "the encounters with wildlife, with people, and with the ecosystem itself compounded. My curiosity and interest towards nature have turned into a deep desire to protect this biodiversity."

So, she began working for a government agency tasked to protect it. After the agency dismantled for political reasons in the country, Farhan decided to create the HAkA Foundation.

"The goals [of HAkA] are to protect, conserve and restore the Leuser Ecosystem while at the same time catalyzing and enabling just economic prosperity for the region," she says.

"Wild areas and wild places are rare these days," she continues. "We think gold and diamonds are rare and therefore valuable assets, but wild places and forests, like the Leuser Ecosystems, are the kind of natural assets that essentially provide us with life-sustaining services."

"The rivers that flow through the forest of the Leuser Ecosystem are not too dissimilar to the blood that flows through our veins. It might sound extreme, but tell me — can anyone live without water?"

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan

So far, HAkA has done a lot of work to protect the region. The organization played a key role in strengthening laws that bring the palm oil companies that burn forests to justice. In fact, their involvement led to an unprecedented, first-of-its-kind court decision that fined one company close to $26 million.

In addition, HAkA helped thwart destructive infrastructure plans that would have damaged critical habitat for the Sumatran elephants and rhinos. They're working to prevent mining destruction by helping communities develop alternative livelihoods that don't damage the forests. They've also trained hundreds of police and government rangers to monitor deforestation, helping to establish the first women ranger teams in the region.

"We have supported multiple villages to create local regulation on river and land protection, effectively empowering communities to regain ownership over their environment."

She is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year. The donation she receives as a nominee is being awarded to the Ecosystem Impact Foundation. The small local foundation is working to protect some of the last remaining habitats of the critically endangered leatherback turtle that lives on the west coast of Sumatra.

"The funds will help the organization keep their ranger employed so they can continue protecting the islands, endangered birds and sea turtle habitats," she says.

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen. Do you know an inspiring woman like Farwiza? Nominate her today!

Jennifer Lawrence

After being a Hollywood staple, Jennifer Lawrence vanished from the public eye following the release of "X-Men Dark Phoenix" in 2019.

Sure, the pandemic had something to do with that … in addition to the usual way our society treats Hollywood "it" girls, once it grows accustomed to the flavor. But in a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Lawrence opens up about some other reasons she chose to step away for a time.

Lawrence went from being a highly sought-after Oscar-winning actress to starring in less-than-successful films like "Passengers," "Mother!" and "Red Sparrow." The films were not only poorly received among critics, but commercially as well.

"I was not pumping out the quality that I should have," she told VF. "I just think everybody had gotten sick of me. I'd gotten sick of me. It had just gotten to a point where I couldn't do anything right. If I walked a red carpet, it was, 'Why didn't she run?'"

So then, why do it? As any workaholic would know, it's about so much more than money.

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Courtesy of Ms. Lopez
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Marcella Lopez didn't always want to be a teacher — but once she became one, she found her passion. That's why she's stayed in the profession for 23 years, spending the past 16 at her current school in Los Angeles, where she mostly teaches children of color.

"I wanted purpose, to give back, to live a life of public service, to light the spark in others to think critically and to be kind human beings," she says. "More importantly, I wanted my students to see themselves when they saw me, to believe they could do it too."

Ms. Lopez didn't encounter a teacher of color until college. "That moment was life-changing for me," she recalls. "It was the first time I felt comfortable in my own skin as a student. Always remembering how I felt in that college class many years ago has kept me grounded year after year."

It's also guided her teaching. Ms. Lopez says she always selects authors and characters that represent her students and celebrate other ethnicities so students can relate to what they read while also learning about other cultures.

"I want them to see themselves in the books they read, respect those that may not look like them and realize they may have lots in common with [other cultures] they read about," she says.

She also wants her students to have a different experience in school than she did.

When Ms. Lopez was in first grade, she "was speaking in Spanish to a new student, showing her where the restroom was when a staff member overheard our conversation and directed me to not speak in Spanish," she recalls. "In 'this school,' we only speak English," she remembers them saying. "From that day forward, I was made to feel less-than and embarrassed to speak the language of my family, my ancestors; the language I learned to speak first."

Part of her job, she says, is to find new ways to promote acceptance and inclusion in her classroom.

"The worldwide movement around social justice following the death of George Floyd amplified my duty as a teacher to learn how to discuss racial equity in a way that made sense to my little learners," she says. "It ignited me to help them see themselves in a positive light, to make our classroom family feel more inclusive, and make our classroom a safe place to have authentic conversations."

One way she did that was by raising money through DonorsChoose to purchase books and other materials for her classroom that feature diverse perspectives.

Courtesy of Ms. Lopez

The Allstate Foundation recently partnered with DonorsChoose to create a Racial Justice and Representation category to encourage teachers like Ms. Lopez to create projects that address racial equity in the classroom. To launch the category, The Allstate Foundation matched all donations to these projects for a total of $1.5 million. Together, they hope to drive awareness and funding to projects that bring diversity, inclusion, and identity-affirming learning materials into classrooms across the country. You can see current projects seeking funding here.

When Ms. Lopez wanted to incorporate inclusive coloring books into her lesson plans, The Allstate Foundation fully funded her project so she was able to purchase them.

"I'm a lifelong learner, striving to be my best version of myself and always working to inspire my little learners to do the same," she says. Each week, Ms. Lopez and the students would focus on a page in the book and discuss its message. And she plans to do the same again this school year.

"DonorsChoose has been a gamechanger for my students. Without the support of all the donors that come together on this platform, we wouldn't have a sliver of what I've been able to provide for my students, especially during the pandemic," she says.

"My passion is to continue striving to be excellent, and to continue to find ways to use literature as an anchor, depicting images that reflect my students," she says.

To help teachers like Ms. Lopez drive this important mission forward, donate on DonorsChoose.

Courtesy of Ms. Lopez

Looking for some good gift ideas that wont break the bank? We've got you covered with these five suggestions available at our very own Upworthy Market! You can feel good about your purchases, too. That's because every item you buy from the Upworthy Market directly supports the artisans who crafted it.


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Photo by Vanessa Garcia from Pexels

A professor's message to students has gone viral.

If you know any teachers, you probably know how utterly exhausted they all are, from preschools all the way up through college. Pandemic schooling has been rough, to say the least, and teachers have borne the brunt of the impact it's had on students.

Most teachers I've known have bent over backwards to help students succeed during this time, taking kids' mental and emotional health into consideration and extending the flexibility and grace we all could use. But teachers have their own mental and emotional needs, too, and at some point, something's gotta give.

A college student posted screenshots of a professor's message on Twitter with the comment "someone PLEASE check on my professor." It's simply incredible.

The message reads:

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