Youth making a difference

There is an innocent nature in youths that adults should celebrate and encourage, for it is that quality that gives the rest of us hope for the future.

As part of our duties on the board of the Ontario Community Newspaper Association, we attended a gathering in Toronto for 12 worthy recipients of this year’s OCNA Junior Citizen of the Year.

It was a great afternoon starting with lunch at the Royal York Hotel and ending with formal presentations of the awards by the Honourable David C. Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. Along the way, the entourage at Queen’s Park had a brief meeting with Premier Dalton McGuinty, who thanked the youths for helping others. TD Bank Group and Direct Energy were again sponsors this year.

The award winners are from across Ontario and we include their accomplishments to show how varied interests and calls to action can be. Perhaps some of the ideas might compel others to try their own good deeds.

Alysha Dykstra, 7, Guelph: At age 4, Alysha was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. In January 2009, Operation Alysha was formed as a social action group to promote and build awareness of the need to donate blood and to register potential stem cell donors with OneMatch. At such a young age, she has battled her way to remission and consistently hosts blood donor clinics and OneMatch swabbing events to help others with the disease.

Madelaine Frank, 13, Whitby: After hearing about the tragic Oshawa Humane Society fire in 2008, Madelaine decided she wanted to help raise funds for the major rebuilding effort. She designed and sold fridge magnets at fundraisers, schools and stores. She has produced and sold over 3,000 magnets and over $6,000 was raised.

Sarah Lewis, 11, Windsor:  At age 7, Sarah developed a campaign called Socks Warm Your Heart. Her brother at the time was selling candy canes to buy sleeping bags for the homeless as part of a school social justice project. Sarah was inspired after she helped deliver sleeping bags to a local homeless shelter and met a man who said they could use warm socks. To date she has donated almost 3,000 pairs of socks to the shelter. She will continue to help the homeless until it is history in the community, she says.

Rebecca Marsh, 16, Burlington: It is evident Rebecca’s heart is in the right place. She is dedicated to helping her community and active in a diverse range of projects. She helped raise $11,400 towards a sustainable clean water system in Kenya, is co-leader of Tumaini Toronto (a fundraising arm of Free the Children), is a member of her school’s Leaders Against Bullying group, and volunteers at her local hospital for four hours a week.

Kalem McSween, 17, Toronto: Kalem is a very generous person, inspired by his diverse and urban community to show that anyone can make a difference. He has been an active member of the Catholic Student Leadership Impact Team representing students at the Toronto Catholic School Board for the past year. He is Director of Equity and his goal is to ensure students have a voice and can express their concerns about issues related to mental health wellness, racial and ethnic relations, anti-bullying and anti-homophobia.

Stephanie Murchison, 17, Sarnia: Stephanie is a well-rounded individual representing all categories of the award. She is visually impaired, suffers from anxiety, OCD and Asperger’s. Despite overcoming many challenges, she is a hero who is greatly involved in her community. She had the courage to risk a friendship by calling the police when she recognized a friend showed signs of suicide. She continues to volunteer with many organizations, including Autism Ontario, Pathways Health Centre for Children and CNIB.

Mackenzie Oliver, 12, Barrie: Makenzie recognizes the importance of self-esteem. She started the I Love Me club at her school through which she sells T-shirts and blankets and has raised $25,000 for local charities. The charities she chooses to help primarily focus on the betterment of children through peer and emotional support. In addition, Mackenzie speaks to different groups about the importance of feeling good about yourself and passing the feeling on to others. She is currently fundraising to go to Kenya.

Breanna Pede, 11, Sarnia: Breanna has a sharp eye and good instincts. She rescued two friends within a week of each other from drowning, all while suffering with a broken leg. In one case a girl was having a seizure and Breanna was able to get her into the proper position and call for help. Since those incidents, she has been proactive and made it her mission to spread the word on the importance of swimming lessons and how to recognize when someone is having an epileptic seizure.

Andrew Sigmaringam, 17, Toronto: Andrew was born deaf and has defeated many obstacles in order to participate and contribute to his community. He has successfully raised $5,000 for Free the Children, assisted children with autism and continues to present and appear as a guest speaker at numerous different workshops to talk about his personal experiences. He looks past his own needs and works hard to make his community a better place to live.

Stephanie Simmons, 17, London: In 2010, Stephanie spearheaded a campaign for childhood cancer awareness. Her dream is to see a gold ribbon, the symbol of childhood cancer, on a Canadian postage stamp. In 2011, more than 30,000 letters from across the country were collected in support of Stephanie’s campaign. Stephanie has suffered from three brain tumours.

River Wong, 16, Thornhill: Having to cope with a new learning system after moving to Canada from Hong Kong, River learned to enjoy school and became a caring and patient tutor in grades 7 and 8. In grade 9 he was diagnosed with a dangerous bleeding disorder. Despite difficulties, he is confident, resilient and has a great outlook on life. River has volunteered well over 800 hours in his school and community for his passionate causes, which include raising funds for United Way, the Scarborough Chinese outreach committee and World Vision.

Isabelle Wilson, 12, Kincardine: Currently, both of Belle’s parents and her brother are battling cancer. Despite difficulties at home, she is still a happy and is very involved in her community. She is a member of the Helping Hands committee at her school, has participated in fundraisers to support her school’s Clean Water Project in Kenya and spearheaded a fundraiser for Make a Wish which raised over $1,100.

We note too this week there are some local heroes in our coverage area helping to raise funds for friends and family dealing with cancer.

They are Madison Atchison, 11, of Clifford, who has organized a fundraiser for a cancer stricken friend; and Mapleton Township’s Tate Driscoll, Abby Wiens, Brittany Culling and Jana Bieman, who are all selling bags to help the family of Sheyanne O’Donnell, a friend in Arthur who also has cancer.

The endearing element of these youths is they are sacrificing their own time to make a difference in their communities – and for all the right reasons.