Christopher Yao's resume reads like that of any established humanitarian nonprofit official. He's organized local fundraisers, helped found educational programs around the world, been written about in numerous publications and collected awards from two U.S. presidents.
"My biggest inspiration is the impact I see being made," Yao said. "Once you see one person's life being changed, you can't just stop there. They're thankful forever and they'll remember you forever ... and you know that there are other people waiting for your help and you just can't stop."
What makes these achievements particularly remarkable is that Yao is a mere 14 years old -- though he'll celebrate his 15th birthday on Sept. 18, just weeks into his sophomore year at Jericho High School in Jericho, N.Y. Yet what Yao lacks in years, he makes up for in experience as the founder and executive director of Kids Change the World and chief executive officer of Kids Change America, organizations that aim to "encourage, motivate, inspire and enable" young people around the world to take action in their communities through humanitarian work.
"These days, people my age are so focused on college and academics they forget about community service and volunteering," Yao said, acknowledging the challenges in getting teens excited about humanitarian work. "But I think the whole purpose of life is to do your best and make the greatest impact on your community. If you have a strong passion for something, you should do it."
Yao's flair for advocacy began when he was just 10 years old as the result of what had first been seen as an physical impediment. A few years earlier, he has been diagnosed with an under jaw bite -- and although he later recovered with the help of a doctor he says he felt motivated to help other children with oral problems more severe than his own. Despite these great intentions, he soon discovered he faced yet another hurdle: his age.
"I began to search for organizations that would let me fundraise for them," Yao recalled. "In the beginning, everyone was a bit doubtful. Many of the organizations thought I was too young and inexperienced, and I didn't have a lot of resources." Even his parents were skeptical: "They just weren't interested in investing thousands of dollars in case my work wasn't successful."
He eventually paired up with The Smile Train, an organization dedicated to raising money for children requiring cleft lip surgery in developing countries, and in 2007 helped organize his first fundraiser: a local read-a-thon which ended up raising thousands of dollars. Given that event's smashing success, Yao launched Kids Change The World later that same year, with Kids Change America emerging as a sub-organization shortly thereafter, with the support of teachers and other school officials.
The group aims to provide various resources, such as information on start-up grants, to budding student philanthropists. Chief among Kids Change the World's budding partnerships is a relationship with the Daos Children's Center, which focuses on youth affected by the local HIV/AIDS pandemic and post-election violence in and around Mombasa, Kenya. Yao and his groups' participants are now actively involved in a fundraising campaign that will see the competition of Mombasa's largest freshwater well, which will be built at the center. "We're trying to help the most underprivileged people and people who don't get as much attention from other organizations," Yao noted.
Yao's work has earned him a series of prestigious awards, including the President George W. Bush Daily Point Of Light Award in 2009 and President Obama's Presidential Volunteer Service Award a year later.
Despite his numerous accolades, one gets the sense that Yao -- who cites both his grandfather Yulin and Fred Rodgers (of "Mister Rodgers' Neighborhood" fame) as personal heroes -- is taking both those national and international recognition in stride. "I believe everyone should have a passion for helping others," said Yao, who plans to study medicine when he's older. "When you empower kids, you multiply impact by infinity. Stand up for what you believe in, even if you're standing alone."
For more information on both Kids Change The World and Kids Change America, click here.
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