When I was in 8th grade, I helped start a nonprofit organization, after first becoming interested in social action work because of my involvement in the Baha’i Faith.
The Baha’i writings say:
… the honor and distinction of the individual consist in this, that he among all the world’s multitudes should become a source of social good. Is any larger bounty conceivable than this, that an individual, looking within himself, should find that by the confirming grace of God he has become the cause of peace and well-being, of happiness and advantage to his fellow men? No, by the one true God, there is no greater bliss, no more complete delight. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, pp. 2-3.
A friend of mine also wanted to make a difference in her community—but we weren’t interested in a simple service project for a weekend. Instead, we had a burning passion to do something bigger and more impactful. As fourteen-year-olds, we decided to start a nonprofit organization for the homeless.
It took us almost three weeks to establish a mission and vision. From three-hour-long Facetime calls to after-school meetings in the cafeteria, my friend and I passionately dedicated ourselves to constructing an organization that would benefit many.
Then, in a case of excellent timing, our middle school hosted a dodgeball tournament and decided that the funds raised would go to a charity the student body selected. Excited to hear this news, my co-founder and I began a campaign to win the votes of the student body. We decorated lockers, handed out candy at lunch, and made announcements in almost every one of our classes about our organization—and, after a week of difficult, strenuous campaigning, the students selected our charity.
I still recall the thrill and excitement my friend and I felt when we heard the news. All the hard work we had done would allow our vision to become a reality.
Unfortunately, one roadblock remained.
After waiting almost a month to receive the funds, my co-founder and I went to the principal’s office to check on the status of our donation. As we entered his office, we chatted about how excited we were to start our project. But before we could finish sharing our excitement, he looked at us and laughed. He explained to us that he didn’t trust kids with money, and that we had no business trying to do something like this, especially for homeless people.
Our enormous smiles turned into frowns, and, without knowing what to do, we left the office and went to the cafeteria to cry. But, as the Universal House of Justice, the supreme administrative body of the Baha’i Faith, wrote:
… To define the fruitful years of youth exclusively as a stage of preparation would be to overlook the creative energies which are available to youth in such abundance. – The Universal House of Justice, February 1995.
We took heart, resolved to keep going, and were not deterred. Three years later, after learning all about tax forms, fundraising, and licensing, my co-founder and I created an organization called Helping the Homeless Colorado, with a three-pillar approach of advocacy, education, and alleviation. It allowed us to serve more than 10,000 homeless individuals across the state, educate 50,000 people about the causes and issues surrounding homelessness, and, just this year, pay five homeless students’ college tuition.
But despite all this success, my 8th grade principal was not the only one who didn’t believe we could do it. I had countless conversations with individuals who told me that our organization’s efforts were “cute” or “far-reaching.” Today, I still confront many people who cannot grasp the idea that youth can lead a movement. But part of my motivation through these hard times comes from the teachings of the Baha’i Faith. The Faith’s special emphasis on the value of service urged me to continue:
For service in love for mankind is unity with God. He who serves has already entered the Kingdom and is seated at the right hand of his Lord. — Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 186.
Our society continually rejects the idea of welcoming youth’s passion and ideas, overlooking the capabilities of 24% of our global population. We are not lazy, selfish, and undetermined. I am just one of thousands of youth in my country who have created organizations, built businesses, or dedicated their lives to making a difference. Youth have new ideas, perspectives, and innovative methods of problem-solving that can help solve our society’s greatest problems.
The teachings of the Baha’i Faith emphasize the “opportunity” that youth have “to contribute to the latest stage in the unfolding process that is to transform the life of humankind.” – The Universal House of Justice, July 13, 2013. In Helping the Homeless Colorado, we made it our policy that all programming, administration, grant-writing, and leadership must be done entirely by youth. We find it critical to create an open space for young minds to grow, develop, and express their ideas.
By working with young people, our society can not only learn to gain insight and inspiration from the vast energy of younger generations, but motivate them to become as involved as possible in their communities and make the biggest impact they possibly can.