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Teens Take On Washington, Tackle Tough Issues Through Service

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This week, I met 18-year-old Caleb Dunn. A child of Appalachian Eastern Kentucky, Caleb grew up in extreme poverty. He told me about the knotted stomach, sore throat, dry mouth and especially the burning anger that comes from being hungry every day for the first seven years of your life. Caleb looked me in the eye, and told me that hungry kids need more than just a meal. What they need is hope.

Caleb has a plan to bring hope to the thousands of kids in Eastern Kentucky that go hungry when school lets out for the summer. That's why he'll spend the next year mobilizing his community, leading a public awareness campaign and aggressively fundraising, with a goal to meet the basic needs of every child in Appalachia in summer 2013.

It's an ambitious goal, but one I know he'll achieve because Caleb is one of 51 National Child Awareness Month Youth Ambassadors. This newly formed, nationwide network of youth change-makers has committed to leading social action campaigns that create positive change in the lives of young people. 2012-09-20-NCAMYouthAmbassadorsSept2012

The Youth Ambassadors--one from each state, plus the District of Columbia-- gathered in our nation's Capital this week to celebrate September's National Child Awareness Month and begin planning year-long service projects. Ranging in age from 16 to 22, many arrived nervous, full of dreams to do good for others, but not really sure what would be possible.

Ostensibly, the Youth Ambassadors were here in Washington to learn about the people and tools that will help them as they begin their journey. But in reality, the adults learned more from them.

We learned about resilience: Like Caleb, many of the Youth Ambassadors have experienced hardship at an early age. Sixteen-year-old My Nguyen became one of Kansas City's 1,200 homeless teens--most of whom, My explained to us, identify as LGBT. As a Youth Ambassador, My is working to make sure that every single homeless teen in his city has a warm bed and a voice in policies that affect them.

We learned about peer-to-peer mentorship: Daniel Lyons, 17, and his friends have experienced the devastating effects of bullying, so they're organizing a bus tour across the state of Michigan to raise awareness and provide their peers with resources to deal with the issue.

We learned about teamwork: Already, the Youth Ambassadors have pledged to help each other reach their goals. They've formed an online Youth Action Center, to stay in touch, share ideas and challenge each other to realize their dreams. The network that these Youth Ambassadors have formed, online and offline, will allow them to support each other, and extend the reach of their state-based work to other youth leaders across the nation.

To help them on their way, YSA and Festival of Children Foundation are providing all 51 Youth Ambassadors with funding, training and ongoing support. At a reception in their honor on Capitol Hill, we introduced many of the Youth Ambassadors to their elected officials in the House and Senate--leaders who, just like the Youth Ambassadors--believe in service to others.

Hats off to Senator Casey of Pennsylvania, who at the end of a long day came to chat with 16-year-old Hope Wallace, who is organizing a supply drives for needy kids. Many thanks to Senator Inouye of Hawaii, who shared words of encouragement with his young constituent Keagan Sakai-Kawada, who will lead a literacy campaign in Hawaii. Congressman Reyes of El Paso, Texas, offered his support to Meghan and Justin Churchman, who together are building homes for homeless families in El Paso, working to end cycles of poverty. Countless legislative aids and issue-area experts had real conversations with these young people, promising to work with them to improve the lives of children in their areas, and offering tips on working with their offices.

The Youth Ambassadors are the embodiment of the idea that service is power. While think of each one as exceptional, we envision a day where youth leaders are not the exception, but the norm. These Youth Ambassadors are finding their voice, taking action, and inspiring others to do so as well. They are the leading edge of creating a culture where young people have the permission, the power and the opportunity to give back to others.

This afternoon, these newly minted Youth Ambassadors said their goodbyes, and flew back to their respective states. They now have new-found confidence, a powerful network of supporters, and a path forward to begin their work to create change through service to others. Let's wish them well as they begin their work as the leaders of today.

View a photo gallery of the Youth Ambassadors as they arrive in Washington and begin their terms of service.

National Child Awareness Month is an initiative spearheaded by Festival of Children Foundation to raise awareness about children's issues, and encourage the nation's youth to take action. The National Child Awareness Month Youth Ambassador Program is a joint program of YSA (Youth Service America) and Festival of Children Foundation.

Steven A. Culbertson is the president and CEO of YSA (Youth Service America), a nonprofit that improves communities by increasing the number and diversity of youth involved in service and service-learning. www.YSA.org or on Facebook.