Editor’s note: In this issue, Reporter Newspapers presents its first
“20 Under 20,” a special feature adapted from our sister publication
Atlanta INtown. We asked leaders of local public and private schools to
recommend students who have gone above and beyond the norm to
improve their communities. We received an impressive list of nominees
and selected the 20 profiled on the following pages, young
people who strive to make their world a better place.

Haley Hooper, 15
The Lovett School

Growing up with dogs, Haley has always loved animals. When she was 9, Haley decided she wanted to help homeless pets, so she created the Kingswood Fun Run to benefit the Atlanta Humane Society (AHS). With the support of her parents, Tim and Christy Hooper, the sixth annual run was held last August and raised $15,000. She has raised more than $25,000 for AHS since starting the run. When she went to turn in the 2015 event’s donations, she was honored by the AHS staff and told that her contributions had saved 70 dogs from a puppy mill earlier that same week. “Making a difference in an animal’s life is such a rewarding experience,” Haley said. “I knew, along with my parents, that all the hard work and participation of dozens of people, was paying off to help improve the lives of hundreds of sweet animals.  I cannot wait to start planning for next year’s race on August 13, 2016!”

Vajraang Kamat, 18
North Atlanta High School

During the past four years, Vajraang, the son of Samir Kamat and Bindu Balakrishnan, has volunteered more than 2,000 hours in local, national and international projects for Embracing the World, a United Nations-recognized international humanitarian organization. Locally, he volunteers in the Atlanta chapter, participating in park cleanups, shelter kitchens and fundraisers. He’s also the coordinator of the Southeast chapter of Ayudh, the youth wing of Embracing the World. Nationally, Vajraang tours the U.S. every summer and Thanksgiving break, traveling to 14 cities to participate in various humanitarian activities and fundraisers. Internationally, he shadows Ammachi labs in south India, which focuses on technological humanitarian projects. As chief designer for the North Atlanta Robotics Team, he merged his work in Ayudh with robotics to design and build a tree-planting robot. Vajraange and his teammates shut down their laptops to help clear Standing Peachtree Park along the Chattahoochee River. “Once our robots are built, we hope to bring them to the park and put them to good use here,” he said. “Though what we do is small, we plan to keep it alive. We hope to keep working on and maintaining this park, and, with the help of our robots, show how technology and service can go hand in hand for the betterment of society.”

Natalie Peek, 17
Riverwood International Charter School

In March, Natalie Peek organized a group of her fellow students to travel to Selma, Ala., to mark the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” a day student Civil Rights activists were beaten by state troopers and police during an attempted march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. That confrontation was part of the campaign that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Natalie put together a program that included a visit to the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, a screening of the movie “Selma,” and the trip to Alabama to take part in the anniversary march across the Pettus bridge. She says she plans to return this year to join the 2016 commemoration.
“The combination of learning, watching and then experiencing civil rights in action was truly amazing,” Natalie said. “To walk with 100,000 other people, 32 out of the multitude from Riverwood, for the same hope of marching closer to equality, empowered the students on the trip.”
Natalie now is raising money to buy works by Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta), who led the 1965 march, for ninth grade English classes. Natalie is the daughter of Tim Peek and Helen Ingebritsen.

Evan Mercer, 18
The Lovett School

Evan has single-handedly run Lovett’s six-week Habitat for Humanity build for the past two years – volunteering himself and getting his peers involved. Evan became interested in Habitat for Humanity after going on a Lovett service trip to New Orleans, where he worked on housing restoration projects. “Habitat has opened my eyes to a lot of things,” Evan said. “I have been able to work with families and help them attain one of the basic necessities of life while gaining exposure to the technicalities of home construction. I have also been able to experience the communities I live around, which has familiarized me with the socioeconomic and racial divisions in Atlanta.” Evan, the son of Claire and Todd Mercer, said the biggest reward is the dedication of the home. “At the end of each build, Habitat for Humanity dedicates the house, and it’s great to see how appreciative the homeowner and his or her family are. It feels good to see our impact and the result of our hard work.”

Saachi Datta, 16
The Galloway School

Saachi was chosen as a Giving Point Institute member this year because of her work creating an organization called Manāna, which collects donations to throw birthday parties for underprivileged kids. When asked about her most memorable moment giving back, Saachi said, “It is hard to choose just one memorable moment because the last two years with Manāna have been unforgettable. However, there was one event, the memory of which I will always cherish. Walking into the Agape Center to set up for our second celebration, the volunteers and I were excited to surprise the children who did not know that we were returning. When they realized that we had come back, their shrieks of delight were piercing and their enthusiasm was infectious. A little girl, barely 5 years old, came flying up to me, nearly knocking me over, and gave me the tightest hug she could. ‘I remember you! I’m so happy! I just turned five!’ she said. That one large smile on her face went straight to my heart. It made me appreciate that we do have the power to affect others, whether it be one smile or many smiles. I realized then that Manāna’s mission – to celebrate children’s lives – had come to fruition, and my commitment to the cause was sealed.” Saahi is the daughter of Jaydip Datta and Sarita Kansal.

Tiffany Wills, 17
Marist School

A wide range of volunteer work decorates Tiffany Wills’ resume. She’s volunteered at Marist, at Feldwood Elementary school, at a senior citizens’ community, with Kiwanis International K-Kids, Hands on Atlanta and Habitat for Humanity. As a Girl Scout, she focused her efforts on helping younger girls feel better about themselves and succeed in life.
As part of a year-long scout project she called “Looking Past Society’s Image,” she worked with a group of fifth graders to discuss the impact of society’s views on their self-images. “One of the most memorable moments was when I had the girls go home and talk to female role models about self-image and self-esteem,” Tiffany said. “When they returned, I could see the impact of our discussion and the work they created to help themselves the next day. I was truly empowering these girls, and I could see that I was making a positive change in their lives.” Tiffany is the daughter of Teresa Dallas-Wills.

Will Epperson, 17
Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School

A Type 1 diabetic, Will has not let that define him. Instead, he has worked hard to raise money for JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation), and to help make HIES the top-grossing school in the nation for seven years in a row in the JDRF Fall Walk. With Will as captain of this year’s walk, HIES raised $93,000 for JDRF. When HIES began collecting bottles of clean drinking water for victims of flooding in South Carolina, Will was one of a handful of students who not only helped to load two trucks and a bus, but also went to the state and helped unload the water. He also volunteered at Camp Hope, a weeklong camp for the children of those who are incarcerated, and at AYUDA Inc., a nonprofit that delivers diabetes education to those in the Dominican Republic and other countries. Will, the son of Natalie and Tom Epperson, was a volunteer, fundraiser, mentor and camp counselor for AYUDA this past summer for three weeks, raising $7,000 for the program, and being promoted to mentor for the summer of 2016. One of his most memorable moments was spending last summer in Latin America to educate those living with diabetes. “I was thanked by people who I had never seen before nor spoken to,” he recalled. “It really showed me how much it meant to the campers and their families that we were there to teach them about how to live with diabetes.”

Sofia Broffman, 18
Atlanta Girls’ School

Sofia Broffman began raising funds in 2014 for the Fistula Foundation, after learning more about the long-term effects of obstetric fistula, a birth injury that afflicts women who do not have access to maternal healthcare. Fistula occurs in the world’s most destitute countries and causes permanent incontinence. Fistula surgery is not glamorous, but it can save a young woman from a lifetime of shame. Sofia, the daughter of Neal Broffman and Elisa Gambino, has raised enough money for eight repair surgeries. Last summer, Sofia interned at the nonprofit, youthSpark, and developed a national art competition called stART 2 END, in an effort to inform her peers and address the issue of child sex trafficking. “I have come to realize the injustices that are the hardest to talk about often reflect where the need is greatest,” she says. “I will continue this work because needed change does not evolve from silence.”

Julie Street, 15
The Westminster Schools

In seventh grade, Julie found the perfect outlet for her love of serving in the National Charity League (NCL), a mother-daughter service organization committed to community service and leadership. Through NCL, she has volunteered hundreds of hours to help organizations such as Operation Gratitude, Agape, Furkids, Buckhead Christian Ministries, Ronald McDonald House, Hospice Atlanta, Atlanta Food Bank and the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Julie, the daughter of Randy and Holly Street, is a particularly devoted volunteer for Operation Gratitude, which sends care packages to veterans and active duty military personnel. Over the past 18 months, Julie has devoted over 150 hours serving Operation Gratitude, and has been involved from the beginning of the partnership between NCL Buckhead and Operation Gratitude. Julie researched paracord bracelet materials, determining where they could be sourced most economically, and created hundreds of ready-to-assemble paracord kits so that the local members of NCL could weave bracelets for the care boxes. She personally wove over 300 bracelets. Speaking about Operation Gratitude, Julie said, “This organization sends over 150,000 care packages a year to active duty military. Reaching out to them was really meaningful for me because four generations of my family have served the U.S. forces in the past century, including my own uncle who has spent five years in both Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Zack Leitz, 19
University of Georgia

Disturbed by the homelessness he saw in Athens and Atlanta, Zack, a recent Dunwoody High School graduate and the son of Jane and Barry Leitz, founded a Georgia nonprofit called The Backpack Project. People working with the project fill backpacks with over 40 items of food, clothes and toiletries, and then deliver the backpacks to homeless people, “establishing a personal connection in the process,” he says. So far, he says, the project has delivered more than 350 backpacks. “Every person we meet has a different story to tell, but I will share one that has impacted me the most,” Zack said. “A man named Tony, homeless on the streets of Athens, was the second of many to receive a backpack from us…. As we walked back to the car to pick up another load, we passed by Tony again.  By this time, he had had several minutes to look through the backpack and its contents. Tony stopped us, and with tears in his eyes, he thanked us and explained that everything he owned had been stolen from him the previous night. He shared with us that the backpack we gave him replaced almost everything that was taken from him. That experience, along with many others since then, makes me confident about the work that I do with The Backpack Project.”

Haley Todd, 18
Mount Vernon Presbyterian School

At Mount Vernon, Haley Todd plans each of the Upper School’s chapels and oversees spiritual organizations such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Young Life. As president of the Creative Writing Club, she led a letter-writing initiative for healthcare workers in impoverished nations. Outside school, Haley volunteers frequently with Families of Children Under Stress (FOCUS), where she works with children who have special needs. “A really cool opportunity I had recently was at a middle school church retreat. Another small-group leader announced that his group had a boy in a wheelchair, and he was seeking advice. Because I also volunteer with children with disabilities, I offered suggestions about the best way to navigate hills and about being comfortable lifting people out of their wheelchairs.”  Haley is the daughter of Amy and Russell Todd.

Casey Gentry, 16
North Atlanta High School

Casey has volunteered for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, cleaned cages for FurKids, prepared and served meals at Ronald McDonald House, made paracord bracelets for military members for Operation Gratitude as well as volunteered at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Chastain Therapeutic Riding Program, City of Refuge and Northside Shepherd Senior Center. Casey also received the President’s Volunteer Service award for National Charity League (NCL), a mother-daughter service organization. The daughter of Kathy and Boyd Gentry, Casey said one of her cherished memories was one night when she volunteering at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta where she met a young patient who spoke no English and whose family had returned to Mexico. “I stayed with him for the rest of the night, learning about how his family went back to their home in Mexico and wouldn’t see him for another month,” she said. “This experience opened my eyes to my affect on others and made me feel more useful than many other days in my life. Volunteering has shaped who I am and given me my identity that today I can be proud of.”

Samantha Daly, 16
Dunwoody High School

One of Samantha Daly’s passions is reading, her mother says, and when Samantha found out Covenant House, a residence for troubled youth in Atlanta had no library, she decided to pitch in. She created a lending library by renovating and furnishing a room to house it, and collecting and cataloging 1,753 donated books to fill it.
Samantha, daughter of Donna and Jack Daly, has been involved in other charity works – donating her hair to Locks of Love, volunteering to serve meals at a homeless shelter, raising money for Haitian hurricane victims – but says “this was my most memorable moment of volunteerism because having the ability to see first-hand the impact that I made on the young adults’ lives was overwhelmingly rewarding.
“I was able to speak to the youth and staff, and hear them talk about how excited they were about the library. It made all of my hard work worthwhile,” she said. “The purpose of volunteering is to better other peoples’ lives, and being able to see that you have made a significant difference is truly a life-changing experience.”

Prashanth Kumar, 16
Pace Academy

For the past four years, Prashanth has traveled to Tirunelveli, India, to volunteer at Galaxy Hospital and Kidney Care Center, where he translates for doctors during procedures and helps comfort patients. This work also led to hosting blood drives in the small town and other places in India. He also teaches at a local Tamil school every Sunday, teaching the Tamil language to children and serves as a peer tutor for Pace’s Academic Resource Center. Prashanth, the son of Krishnan Kumar and Sundari Ganesan, is also a counselor for the Middle School MathCounts program and Lower School chess team. He said that his trips to India each summer have inspired his career path. “Going to volunteer in India solidified my aspiration to be a doctor, as it is clearly a job that would immensely change the lives of any community,” he said. “[The trips] nourish my internal drive to help make the world one in which all people, irrespective of what country they are in, have the same chance to thrive.”

Madeleine Howell, 17
Atlanta International School

Madeleine, daughter  of Dean and Janice Howell, takes action against human trafficking. As co-leader of AIS Against Human Trafficking, she’s put together a panel discussion on the issue, helped organize a fashion show that raised $2,000 for the cause, and spoken at an international conference.
“The most memorable moment I’ve had during my time volunteering with Atlanta International School Against Human Trafficking (AISAHT), was when a few of my fellow members and I were invited to speak at a Global Issues Network conference in San Francisco this past fall,” she said. “We presented on human trafficking, the measures that we’ve taken to combat it, and how we’ve helped victims and people at risk of being trafficked. Any time I make a presentation on the issue, it’s always amazing to know that I’m spreading awareness on such an important issue. What made this even more special was presenting to a group of individuals who seemed to be so affected by what we were saying and were inspired to join our efforts in fighting human trafficking.”

James Pastan, 18
The Westminster Schools

James is the founder of Trading Smiles, a nonprofit organization that seeks to spread happiness and a sense of comfort to homeless kids through trading cards. He collects old trading cards, either from donations from other kids or by buying them in bulk online, and repackages the cards and donates them to the Atlanta Children’s Shelter (ACS). Since the inception of Trading Smiles, James has donated more than 4,000 cards to homeless children in Atlanta. The organization was presented at a Yale Young Global Scholars information session in Vietnam as an example of what Yale Young Global Scholars do in their communities. Since then, he has received emails from students in Vietnam who are interested in getting involved. James, the son of Stephen and Elizabeth Pastan, hopes to reach 10,000 cards donated before he graduates in May. He is working to establish a relationship with a trading card manufacturer or sports team in order to always have a consistent supply of cards and to expand the organization national and internationally. James said meeting and playing with the kids at ACS is a reminder of why he started the nonprofit. “Every time I drop off a donation at the ACS, I look at the playground and remember why running Trading Smiles is so rewarding: every card is an invitation to play.”

Morgan Robinson, 17
Riverwood International Charter School

Morgan has always given of her time to her community by volunteering with many groups and organizations. Whether it’s helping to build playgrounds with Kaboom, traveling to Birmingham, Ala., for school cleanup projects, planting a community garden for the needy, or holding leadership positions with Sporty Girls, you can always find Morgan giving of her time. Morgan also volunteers with Alive Ministries, an organization whose mission is to eliminate hunger for at-risk students in local schools. She also participated in the Haiti Care Mission’s “Threads of Love” project, a 2011 initiative to collect and donate 5,000 pillowcases for the purpose of making “pillowcase dresses” for infants and young girls in need in Haiti. The daughter of Scott and Nathalie Brandon-Robinson, Morgan also collected knitted hats for donation to the neo-natal intensive care unit of Children’s Hospital at Egleston as part of the Middle Years Program Project. “As I toured the NICU and saw the precious bundles of joy to whom my hats would help, I believe my heart was warmed most of all,” she recalled. “Despite being hooked up to countless machines and tubes, the babies had so much life and strength in their little bodies. Ultimately, it was one of the best feelings to know that my actions were possibly adding a sense of comfort to a mother’s life, and most of all, showing them that they were not alone.”

Anna Kibler

Anna Kibler, 18
Atlanta Girls’ School

Anna has organized and raised more than $6,000 since 2013 for causes such as AID Atlanta and Jerusalem House. Her efforts have included email campaigns to friends and family, as well as on-campus recruitment of AGS community members. Anna was also selected to be the service club leader at AGS, where she organizes and plans service projects for the school’s student community. “I chose to volunteer and raise funds for Jerusalem House in the AIDS Walk over the last three years,” she said. “Jerusalem House is the oldest and largest organization providing permanent housing and supportive services for low income and homeless individuals living with HIV/AIDS. I am passionate about supporting people living with HIV/AIDS because my family has lost dear friends to this horrific disease.  …  In addition to raising money, I have chosen to expand awareness through my school’s community through participation in the annual AIDS Walk and through a neighborhood dining-out benefit to raise additional funds. It gives me immense satisfaction that I am able to help others in need in my community.” Anna is the daughter of Janet Kibler.

Josie Barton, 17
Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School

Ever since she was a young girl, Josie has been a volunteer at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. In 2012, Josie became part of girlFriends, a volunteer group of ninth-to-12th-grade girls dedicated to fundraising throughout the school year for Children’s. She is now co-president of girlFriends, which raised more than $30,600 last school year. Josie, the daughter of Jim and Diane Barton, also creates cards for sick children through Holy Innocents’ Send-a-Smile Club, tutors at-risk students at Sandy Springs Mission, and serves as an acolyte and vacation Bible school counselor for St. Martin’s Episcopal Church. “One of my most memorable moments was a few years ago while I was volunteering at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Heart to Heart Christmas party,” she said. “I was running the Build a Bear station, helping the heart patients stuff their animals. There was a little girl and her grandmother having trouble, but none of the other volunteers could help them. None of the other volunteers could help because the girl and her grandmother only spoke Spanish. I was nervous at first, but once I began speaking to them in their native language I could see a wave of relief wash over them. As I helped the little girl stuff her bear, I spoke to them and learned she had received a heart transplant as an infant and had had multiple surgeries since. I was so grateful I was able to use my Spanish to help her, especially after everything she had been through.”

Max Rubenstein, 15
The Galloway School

As well as being active at school – including creating a mentorship program, working on an anti-bullying campaign and working as a teaching assistant in the elementary school music program – Max also serves on the 21st Century Leadership Youth Council and created a charity called Game Givers that delivers video games to sick children at hospitals throughout Georgia. He also mentors youth to host gaming tournaments to raise funds and awareness. In addition, Max is a board member for E.P.I.C Kids Foundation, a nonprofit that provides children with opportunities for personal development. He also served on the Teen Jam board for the Atlanta Jewish Community Center, leading and implementing community service projects around the city. The son of Ali and David Rubenstein, Max said a special memory is meeting a patient named Davis who had spent 21 months at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta as part of Game Givers. “After spending some time with him, I was able to really understand the impact that my charity had,” Max said. “Davis and I will be getting together soon at one of my upcoming charity video game tournaments, and I look forward to getting to know him better. There are many days I feel grateful that I started Game Givers, but on that day I know I truly lived my mission: helping sick kids in the hospital.”

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.