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Sean Nathan, 15
In December 2007 Sean, who plays violin, and his younger brother, Neil, who plays cello, volunteered to play Christmas carols at a local homeless shelter. Afterward Sean found out that some of the children there didn't get to have birthday parties. That was unthinkable to him. "It's important for kids to get to celebrate with their families and make those happy memories," he says. So he decided to organize monthly communal parties for the kids at the shelter. Their first gathering, celebrating the children whose birthdays were in January, was such a big hit that Sean and Neil have been throwing the parties once a month ever since.
The children get to play games and eat birthday cake. "My favorite part, though, is when we sing 'Happy Birthday' to each child individually," says Sean. He and his brother have been playing paid gigs at events like weddings for several years and now use that income to pay for these parties. They also got their local Domino's to supply pizza at a discount. Sean's even thinking ahead: To make sure the parties will go on after he goes to college, he plans to recruit his high school's Key Club to continue the work.
Rachel Haas, 14
Even as a little girl Rachel had a big heart. She convinced her second-grade Brownie troop to forgo a trip to Disney World and donate their cookie money to a troop member in need of a bone marrow transplant. Now she wants to raise awareness about autism and other disabilities, a passion inspired by her cousin Matthew, who's autistic. "Once you get over their little quirks," says Rachel, "kids with autism are really just the same as you and me."
During the school year she volunteers for the Special Olympics as a bowling partner to Diego, a 12-year-old autistic boy. And every summer Rachel helps out at a local program for children with special needs. She also started a chapter of the advocacy group Autism Speaks at her school. Rachel understands chronic illness: In 2008 she was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. It's a painful condition, but she won't let it stop her. Pamela, her mother, thinks that when Rachel helps others it helps her, too. "On tough days, if I get her talking about her volunteer work, she perks up instantly."
Evan Ducker, 15
Kingston, New York
Evan was born with a birthmark known as a port-wine stain on his face. As a little boy he asked his mother, Donna, why none of the characters in the books she read to him had birthmarks. She didn't have an answer. After searching the local library, Donna found a few birthmarked characters, but each was depicted as an outcast. So she and Evan decided to write their own story, Buddy Booby's Birthmark, about a booby bird with a beak birthmark. "The book's message is that you should look past people's differences and see who they really are," Evan says. "Otherwise you may never get to know what a great person they are."
After years of trying to find the right publisher, the Duckers self-published the book when Evan was 12. Their hard work paid off: The response from families of kids with birthmarks was great and they donated part of the proceeds to the Vascular Birthmarks Foundation. Evan and his mom even traveled to Ireland, where Evan spoke to more than 100 families. Now he reads his book to children at area schools and talks with them about tolerance and sensitivity.
"A lot of kids with birthmarks have self-esteem issues because they get picked on," Evan says. "When I read, at first some kids aren't sure what to make of me. But by the end I think they really get the message."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2010.