03/14/2012 09:28 am ET Updated May 07, 2012

Random Idea to Run With: St. Louis Youth Create Big Change

How do you create BIG change? I wouldn't know. In the first pilot project we designed for this purpose working in partnership with Ashoka's Youth Venture, we ended up with something much bigger than big.

It began with a simple realization as I was playing with numbers while making a Power Point one afternoon. I was trying to figure out what happens when we give youth seed funds to launch their ideas for a better world -- something I have been doing through my organization RandomKid since 2005. As I began to build a graph I could see that every dollar given had yielded somewhere between a 300 and 1000 percent return for that youth's cause. What do you call something like that? I decided to call it 'The BIG Return.' It sounded better than 'Microloans on Steroids.'

Armed with that powerful realization, my team at RandomKid considered the question -- could we turn this concept into a city strategy that transforms communities? We decided to give it a go. Back in November 2011, we started with 247 St. Louis students who wanted do something, anything, to make their communities better. Then we brought in local corporations like Build-a-Bear Workshop, Centene, Trimaco and Guard Industries to seed their ideas. We also approached city government, enlisting St. Louis Mayor Frances Slay and County Executive Charlie Dooley to bring their leadership and enthusiasm into the mix.

To kick the pilot off, we gathered the youth at Build-a-Bear Workshop Headquarters, and we began the process of teaching them to think big, to think together, to think fun, to think in solutions and to think in relationship to their communities.

Except they didn't listen. They thought enormous.

On March 1, 2012, just four months later, we gathered again with these same youth at City Hall to learn what happened. In that small window of time, they ended up rallying 25,000 more youth. Equally remarkable, they took our investment in them and turned it around into a 900 percent return for their causes -- over $70,000 -- affecting the lives of more than 100,000 people. The youth used those funds to benefit organizations that included St. Patrick's Center, Stray Rescue, Humane Society of Missouri, The Mission Continues, and St. Louis Children's Hospital. They raised the funds to build a new playground for a local area elementary school without the resources to build their own. They created a pen-pal program where they recognize the service of the children of military men and women by sending them encouraging letters or support. They are organizing a Million Minor March on May 5 at the St. Louis Gateway Arch, encouraging 1 million youth to perform an act of service and march together in unity for a better tomorrow. (They also pied two teachers and duck-taped one principal to the wall.)

This small pilot program did not act like a small pilot program -- because great ideas cannot be contained, and the youth of today pour with them. Our goal now is to take this to all 50 states over the next five years, and tie this into a "competition of excellence" as cities partner with both local corporations and students to do great things -- for a better America and a better world.

The random idea here is about unbridled possibility. When you give someone the space to imagine, and you back it with resources, the outcomes can be exponential.

It's a random idea -- 'The BIG Return.' Take it and run with it. To learn how, contact

Talia Leman is a junior in high school, and one of the founders of RandomKid, a place where any random kid can find the tools, resources and support they need to launch their ideas for a better world.