When we think of modern-day heroes to teach about in class, it’s often people who made a difference when they were well into their adult years. But young people can—and often do—make a serious impact on the world. Teaching your students about young heroes can remind them that they have the power to change the world, too, even one person or community at a time.
Here is a list of 10 modern-day heroes who have made a difference in their communities from a young age. If your students ever ask you, “Can young people change the world?” the stories of these children and young adults answer with a resounding “Yes!”
1. Malala Yousafzai
As a child, Malala Yousafzai learned in her father’s school—one of the few in Pakistan that educated young girls. A girl attending school was considered a challenge to the Taliban regime’s authority, and defying them made her a target. She was shot on her way to school by a Taliban gunman but survived to become a passionate advocate for a woman’s right to education.
July 12th is Malala Day in commemoration of when Malala spoke at the UN to present education as an international human right. If you work with students over the summer, this can be a great opportunity to teach your students how just one person can make a difference for many.
You can learn more about Malala’s story and her current projects on her website.
2. Greta Thunberg
19-year-old Greta Thunberg is an inspirational person for students who want to reduce the effects of climate change. When Greta began protesting the Swedish government’s limited action against climate change at her school, she received worldwide attention for her desire to help save the planet in any way she could.
In 2019, Greta was named Person of the Year by Time Magazine in recognition of her work as a climate change activist. In an interview with the magazine, she discussed the importance of environmentalism,“We can’t just continue living as if there was no tomorrow, because there is a tomorrow.”
Her speech at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, which you can access on YouTube, is a great way to show students that everyone—even young people—can do their part to take care of our planet.
3. Jaylen Arnold
Jaylen Arnold is another young person who has changed the world by advocating for bullying prevention. As a child, Jaylen was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Asperger’s syndrome. Due to his differences, he was often bullied by other students at his school.
Jaylen decided that instead of fighting back, he could stand up for other children who are bullied because they are different. He started the Jaylen’s Challenge Foundation, a nonprofit that educates children across the United States about how they can prevent bullying. In 2014, Jaylen was named a World of Children award honoree for his work as an anti-bullying advocate.
To teach your students about Jaylen’s mission, check out the videos and resources available on the Jaylen’s Challenge Foundation website.
4. Marley Dias
At 11 years old, Marley Dias was frustrated that most children’s books she saw were not culturally diverse. That’s why she decided to launch the #1000BlackGirlBooks Twitter campaign to collect and donate books that would help Black girls feel seen.
Marley was able to donate more than 9,000 books through the program, and at the 2017 Forbes’ Women Summit, she said of her experience, “I’m working to create a space where it feels easy to include and imagine Black girls and make Black girls like me the main characters of our lives.”
To spread the word about Marley’s vision for children’s literature, you can read her book Marley Dias Gets It Done: And So Can You! as a class.
5. Nicholas Lowinger
As a teenager, Nicholas Lowinger started a community service drive to donate footwear to children experiencing homelessness. As part of the project, he started the nonprofit Gotta Have Sole.
To date, the program has donated over 100,000 shoes to shelters across every state in the United States.
6. Sophie Cruz
When she was just five years old, Sophie Cruz gained national attention when she gave Pope Francis a letter asking him to advocate for undocumented immigrants like her parents living in the United State.
In her letter, she shared, “I have a right to live with my parents. I have a right to be happy… Immigrants just like my dad feed this country. They deserve to live with dignity. They deserve to live with respect. They deserve an immigration reform.”
Since then, she has been a young advocate for immigration rights and has spoken at Supreme Court rulings, the Women’s March, and other events across the country. To share with your class the fears that she and so many children of undocumented immigrants face, check out this speech she gave at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington.
7. Jasilyn Charger
While growing up on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, Jasilyn gained firsthand experience with the mental health struggles teenagers can face. She co-founded the One Mind Youth Movement to help youth who are a part of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe find support and resources when they’re in crisis.
Additionally, Jasilyn co-founded the International Indigenous Youth Council. This organization, which has chapters across the United States, provides Indigenous youth with a space to stand together as leaders on issues in the country and in their communities.
If any of your students come from an Indigenous background, consider connecting them with a local chapter if one is in your area. You can also inform students about Jasilyn’s work by sharing her speech “Protecting Mother Earth,” which she gave at the 2018 Indigenous Environmental Network Conference.
8. Orion Jean
11-year-old Orion Jean founded the Race to Kindness foundation in 2020. That year, his organization held a Race to 100K Meals event that provided over 100,000 free meals for families across the country.
Right now, the organization is holding a Race to 500K Books, which hosts book donation drives and free children’s book fairs where families can find and take home books. Your students can get involved by attending a Race to 500K Books Event if one is held in your area—including the Free Children’s Book Fairs!
9. Param Jaggi
Param Jaggi is a young inventor who changed the world through his passion for environmentalism. When he was just 16 years old, he created the Algae Mobile—a device that can convert carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles into oxygen. He was recognized on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for his contributions to creating clean, sustainable energy.
To inspire younger and older students alike, share his INKTalks speech: “At 19, I Think I Can Change the World.”
10. Abigail Lupi
When 10-year-old Abigail Lupi visited her grandmother in a nursing home, she became aware of the silent struggle with loneliness many nursing home residents face. To support and comfort these residents, she founded the CareGirlz organization.
CareGirlz helps nursing home patients in New Jersey feel loved and less alone by matching them with young volunteers. “I like to brighten up people’s days and help them have a fun time,” Abigail said in an interview with The Inspire a Kid Podcast. “If I do my best, they’ll have a smile on their faces by the end.”
To share Abigail’s mission, play her podcast interview or contact a local nursing home to see how your class can support their residents.
With even small steps, young people like your students can change the world for the better.