3 Young Visionaries with Innovative Solutions to Drive Our Future
By Diane Pham
When Thomas Edison was just 12 years old, he was already tinkering with electricity. He created a curious cockroach-control system that would zap the critters before they could become household pests. Alexander Graham Bell spent countless hours at age 14 inventing a rotary brush device that removed the husks from wheat. While these days you probably won’t find most kids toiling away at anything more than their Facebook pages, there are some influential young people who have found significant pursuits beyond their smartphones. Though not all of them are old enough to drive, these young visionaries are changing our world with innovative ideas, bold actions and model-worthy examples.
Below are three exceptional kids from across the country who are acting today to shape tomorrow. From a teen who devised an incredible system that uses algae to treat waste to a young lady who went from growing one cabbage to serving up hundreds of fresh meals to the hungry, these impressive kids are on a mission to change the world.
Texas native Javier Fernández-Han could easily be considered the Edison of the Millennial. He was only 15 years old when he entered “Invent Your World 2009,” a competition aimed at designing for the 90 percent worldwide who live on $1 a day. Nearly 300 youths from 30 countries responded to the challenge, but Javier, one of the youngest entrants, took first place for VERSATILE (Village Energy Reactor Solar Algae Technology Integrated Life Enhancement), a system of new and existing technology that uses algae to treat waste, produces methane and bio-oil as fuel, grows food and traps greenhouse gases. He won a $20,000 scholarship and a trip to a global roundtable on climate change at MIT.
Several years later he founded an organization called “Inventors without Borders,” which he created as a platform to bring innovative solutions to problems in rural poverty-stricken areas. As part of this initiative, Javier is working with scientists to further refine VERSATILE for widespread use.
What originally inspired him? On a visit to the Museum of Science in Boston, Javier found himself particularly drawn to the exhibit of Dr. Ashok Gadgil, a senior scientist at Berkeley’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division. Dr. Gadgil was also the inventor of UV Waterworks, a water-purification system designed for those who lack access to clean water. Javier’s father contacted Dr. Gadgil via email and asked if he would meet Javier in person. During their meeting, Javier asked Dr. Gadgil to autograph a copy of the UV Waterworks patent, which Javier has kept in his room as his source of inspiration ever since.
Javier’s hard work has deservedly garnered him top honors and praise from institutions and leading thinkers across the globe. Just last year he was named one of “Forbes’ 30 under 30.”
In 2008, Katie Stagliano of Summerville, South Carolina, brought home a tiny cabbage seedling from the Bonnie Plants 3rd Grade Cabbage program, created to cultivate a love of gardening in kids nationwide. Little did she know the seedling would change her life and the lives of countless others for years to come. With a little TLC, Katie turned it into a gargantuan 40-pound cabbage, and she knew she had to do something special with it. She decided to donate it to a local soup kitchen. That same year she founded Katie’s Krops, making it her mission to continue to grow vegetables to feed those in need.
Now 13 years old and a 2012 Clinton Global Citizen Award winner, Katie has planted five gardens in her community, and enlists her school friends to help tend the plots. Katie’s gardens have produced more than two tons of vegetables, which she often hand delivers to families in need. Her dream is to make Katie’s Krops a national effort, with a minimum of one garden in every state.
Sixteen-year-old Dylan Mahalingam’s small-town roots haven’t kept him from seeing the global picture. Raised in Derry, New Hampshire, Dylan has been traveling with his parents to India since he was a child, and the poverty he witnessed was eye-opening enough for him to take action. In 2004, while still in elementary school, he launched Lil’ MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) with a mission of children helping children worldwide, through volunteerism and partnerships with like-minded people and organizations. Since its inception, it has enrolled kids from 34 states and 40 countries, tackling issues from HIV to improving education. It has raised $780,000 for tsunami relief and more than $10 million for hurricane relief. It has built a dormitory in Tibet, a mobile hospital in India, a school playground for AIDS orphans in Uganda—and still more projects are in the pipeline!
Dylan is also chief strategist for Under the Acacia, where he’s working with teams all over the world to build hospitals, drinking water and sanitation facilities, solar-powered Internet kiosks and schools such as Loita Hills Academy in Kenya.
As Dylan told The Huffington Post, “After seeing how small actions can help the most marginal and vulnerable kids worldwide to realize their full potential, I am inspired to continue to provide the tools and resources they need to make their dreams come to fruition.”
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Diane Pham is a New York-based writer and a senior editor at Inhabitat.com.