Vanessa Nunez

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caption=”Vanessa Nunez, 19, found academic success with the help of Genesys Works.”]
If Vanessa Nunez needed school supplies, she needed to buy them herself. Same went for food and clothes. She started working, busing tables at a local restaurant, to help her single mom pay the bills. Throughout high school, she went to school during the day and worked until 1 or 2 in the morning.

With all her focus on making money to survive, her school work suffered. She had little educational direction until she joined Genesys Works, an organization dedicated to teaching underperforming high school students computer skills and placing them in corporate internships. “Had I not joined Genesys, my life could have been typical: minimum wage, maybe two jobs, no benefits, no vacation, no holidays off, and a lifetime of living paycheck-to-paycheck,” Vanessa, now 19 and a student at University of Houston Downtown majoring in Management Information Systems, says.

Starting out, the training for the organization just added one more thing in her busy schedule. But, after pulling triple duty, she landed a paid IT internship at Marathon Oil that she started her senior year in high school and has continued through college. And earlier this summer, she represented the organization for the launch of the White House Office of Social Innovation. When she walked into the Oval Office to meet President Obama, she recalls he said, “Hello, Vanessa.” She remembers, “Suddenly, all of those long hours of work were worth it. The president knew my name!”

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Posted in Stereotype busters, Under 20 | 10 Comments

Kyle Taylor

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caption=”Kyle Taylor swam the English Channel to raise money for a disabled runner.”]
Like a lot of little boys, Kyle Taylor loved to swim. He was an avid swimmer until he blew out his shoulders during his first year of college. Once he started grad school in London, Kyle wanted to take up swimming again, slowly. But the “take it easy” approach lasted only until he met a boy named Harvey Perry.

Harvey was also trying to use athletics to overcome adversity, having had lost both of his legs to meningitis, he wanted to get running prosthetic legs. Even though Kyle was in pain, he pushed himself to swim the English Channel to raise money for Harvey. He trained day and night, finally swimming the the length of the coast (due to weather concerns) and raising $10,000 for Harvey to get his legs.

Kyle’s advice to other young people: “Identify what you love to do and what problems there are in your community. Try to link what you love with solving one of those problems. Stop waiting for someone else to do it. No one is coming.”

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Posted in Amazing talents, Athletes | 11 Comments

Chelsey Shannon

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caption=”Chelsey Shannon, 17, writes for the ‘Louder Than Words’ book series for teens.”]
Chelsey was 6 years old when her mom died of leukemia. She was 13 when her father was murdered. Desperate, but hard-pressed to find the resources or a way to cope with the death of two parents, she decided to tell her story.

She is an author for the “Louder than Words” memoir series, written by teens and meant for teens. “Writing gives me a really important outlet for my emotions. Especially right after my dad’s death. All I did was write. It helped me put out my feelings of extreme sadness and hopelessness and put it into something constructive,” Chelsey, now 17, says.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword, but maybe the pen also helps you deal with the sword’s might. Chelsey hopes it does for her, and that she can help other young people in the process.

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Posted in Amazing talents, Under 20, Worldwide reach | 12 Comments

Felice Gorordo

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caption=”Felice Gorordo, 26, co-founded Roots of Hope to help foster dialogue between Cubans and Americans.”]
When Felice Gorordo imagines a “perfect Cuba,” he sees young people able to gather in front of their school and discuss issues openly and freely at workshops, parties, discussions, or performances. Felice would love to see a society where young people can reflect on their hopes and fears and ultimately help each other, looking toward the future.

Felice, 26, is one of the founders of Raices de Esperanza or Roots of Hope. It’s a non-partisan organization that encourages dialogue between young Americans and Cubans. If it were up to Felice, students wouldn’t get kicked out of school because they didn’t sign referendums they don’t agree with, a story he’s heard happen in Cuba time and again.

Felice’s group is working different projects that he hopes will help do just that. A notable one is “Cell Phones 4 Cuba.” Raices de Esperanza basically collect cell phones for people on the island because they normally cost $50-$150 and the average monthly salary is $12-$15. Getting access to that financially out-of-reach gadget, Felice believes, will be a big step toward more invaluable communication.

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Posted in Community contributors, Worldwide reach | 14 Comments

Lexi Lehrman

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caption=”Lexi Lehrman, 11, has raised $25,000 for breast cancer research.”]
I recently wrote about young women tackling breast cancer early on. Never did I imagine there could be a female younger than her 20s thinking and talking about breast cancer prevention or funding. I was wrong.

Lexi Lehrman is 11 years old. For the last few birthdays, she didn’t want presents for herself. She wanted money donated to breast cancer research, something she knew would have more impact than another outfit or gadget.

Even at her young age, she spearheaded a lot of the fundraising. She launched an Art for the Cure campaign, featuring local Miami artists Romero Britto and Ferdie Pacheco. She collaborated with the artists and put her spin on the famous pink ribbon. All of the ideas for the Love Lexi Foundation come with love from Lexi herself (with driving and book-keeping help from the ‘rents). She has raised about $25,000 for breast cancer research, to date.

Update: Watch the CNN.com Live interview

Posted in Community contributors, Under 20, Unsung hero | 26 Comments

Stuart Holden

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caption=”Soccer superstar scores on and off the field- ask him how!”]

His teammates call him “the chameleon.” Stuart Holden, a member of the U.S. National Team in soccer, adapts to any of his surroundings. When he’s in Houston, he talks with a Texas accent. In his native Scotland, he speaks with a Scottish one.

But the nickname also tells you how he works on the field. His coaches say he “steps up” when needed. Last week, he stepped up to score the goal that tied the clincher between the U.S. and Haiti 2-2. Stuart is aiming for the Gold Cup, while playing for the Houston Dynamo. He was part of the U.S. Olympic team last summer and has his sights set on the World Cup.

Stuart was playing soccer before he could walk. Sports are in his blood- his father was a rugby coach, a soccer fan, and Stuart’s biggest supporter. Stuart’s dad passed away in the beginning of the year, but his words still motivate the 23-year-old. “My dad always told me that if you stay grounded and you work hard and keep doing the things that have helped you succeed in the past – you can’t go wrong.”

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Posted in Athletes | 6 Comments

Becky Gulsvig

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caption=”Becky Gulsvig, 26, stars in the national tour of the musical ‘Legally Blonde.'”]
Pretty, blonde, donned in pink. Becky Gulsvig looks like the title character she plays in the musical version of “Legally Blonde,” but she says she’s only half like Elle Woods. Becky says she’s determined like her. “We have the same spirit.”

That determination took her from understudying the role in the Broadway show to snagging the role in the national tour. The determination has worked hand-in-hand with years of hard work. She made her Broadway debut as Amber Von Tussle in “Hairspray.” She also made stage appearances in “Peter Pan,” “Grease” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

The 26-year-old from Minnesota graduated a year early from high school and moved to New York to follow her dreams, like the character she now plays. These days she is living out that dream, traveling from city to city, as a rising musical theater star.

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Posted in Amazing talents, Entertainer | 26 Comments

Chase Abrams

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caption=”Chase Abrams, 18, finished high school and college at the same time.”]
To pull 18-hour days for four years and live to smile about it must mean you’re on a mission of your own choosing. And, that Chase Abrams was. His mission: complete high school and college at the same time.

“I didn’t have a lot of support at my high school, but it just made me more hungry,” Chase, 18, tells me. That hunger got him up at 5 a.m. to get to the gym during football season, then back at 6:30 a.m. to take his sister to school, then to his high school campus from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Insistent on having a “normal life,” he had football practice from 3:30-4:30 p.m., then fought Los Angeles rush hour to get to his college classes at Cal State University, Los Angeles from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., getting back home at 11 p.m. to get to bed to start it all again. A few weeks ago, it paid off when he walked across two stages, holding two diplomas. “I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” Chase says, knowing that the time he spent pulling double-duty will save his family money in the long-run.

Don’t call him “Doogie” yet. He chuckles at the comparison, but is rather intrigued by it. While most of his friends are going to four-year colleges, “I’m thinking about medical school,” he says focusing on the next mission.

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Posted in Under 20 | 19 Comments

Johnny Strange

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caption=”Johnny Strange, 17, is the youngest person to climb seven summits.”]

This is a first. I get to feature someone who beat the world record of another young person I featured. Samantha Larson was one of our first “Young People Who Rock.” She was then the youngest person to reach the Seven Summits at 18, an extraordinary feat. Now, Johnny Strange holds the the record.

At 17, he Johnny completed a journey he started with his dad five years ago. There is one climb per continent, including Mount Everest and Mount McKinley. His final summit climb was Australia’s 7,310-foot Mount Kosiuszko.

Johnny didn’t leave the tallest for last. He says that was because he wanted to appreciate the lone experience and not just part of the seven summit goal. At the end, he sent an email to his friends and family saying, “Never let anyone stifle your dreams no matter the feat, for if you have the heart and the courage, impossible is nothing.”

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Posted in Adventurers, Amazing talents, Under 20, Youngest in the class | 3 Comments

Jaclyn Murphy

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caption=”Jaclyn Murphy, 14, and her dad started the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation to match ill children with sports teams.”]
Clad in Wildcat purple, you’d think she was another player . Jaclyn Murphy, 14, is too young to be a player. But, she’s definitely part of the women’s lacrosse team at my alma mater, Northwestern University.

After being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, she spoke to the team in Chicago. So moved by her story, they “adopted” her. The relationship was symbiotic. The team gave her hope through her medical treatments and Jaclyn gave the team something to play for. And play, they did. I remember watching Jaclyn rush the field when “her team” won their first national title in 2005. And, the ladies continue to win. Jaclyn has celebrated all five straight national titles with the players.

After seeing how she and the team thrived together, Jaclyn and her dad started The Friends of Jaclyn Foundation. It’s an organization that matches up other kids like Jacyln with sports teams across the country. So far, 100 kids have been matched with 300 teams on a wait list.

Update: Watch the CNN.com Live interview

Posted in Community contributors, Under 20 | 51 Comments