Meet PEOPLE’s Girls Changing the World in 2020

Meet the Girls Changing the World

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Promoting Social Justice in Schools: Kahlila Williams, 16

Kahlila Williams is too young to vote in this year’s election, but that hasn’t stopped her from getting involved.

“There are 40 million young, eligible voters this year. And most of them don’t know how the pandemic or police violence has disproportionately affected Black and brown Americans,” she says. “I want people who can vote to know the facts.”

So Williams is doing plenty to get the word out and spark change: She’s given speeches with the Black Lives Matter Youth Vanguard at protests in her hometown of Los Angeles. At Girls Academic Leadership Academy, where she’s now a senior, she founded the school’s Black Student Union to support minority students and has called for an end to police practices like random searches and the use of pepper spray, which are used disproportionately on students of color. “People have been doing this for years, and I’m just getting started,” she says. “But we have to continue the work.”

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Protecting Endangered Species: Bella Lack, 17

When Bella Lack was 11, she learned that the mass destruction of the rain forest was posing an existential threat to the orangutan, her favorite animal. “It set me on the path,” says the Brighton, U.K.-based student.

Lack took to social media to speak out against deforestation and helped organize a climate strike, eventually attracting the attention of charities like the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust and wildlife organizations like the Born Free Foundation and the Jane Goodall Institute, which recruited her last year to appear alongside the renowned primatologist in an upcoming documentary. “This work isn’t about highlighting the crisis,” Lack explains. “It’s about looking for the solutions, which already exist.”

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Honoring the Elderly: Ruby Chitsey, 13

Three years ago, while visiting the elderly care facility where her mother, Amanda, works as a nurse, Ruby Chitsey of Harrison, Ark., asked seniors what they hoped for. “I thought they’d ask for a Lamborghini or an island vacation,” she says. “But they wanted strawberries, pillows, shoes.”

The interactions inspired the seventh grader to launch Three Wishes for Ruby’s Residents, a nonprofit devoted to improving lives in small yet meaningful ways. To date, Chitsey has raised more than $300,000 to grant requests at five area nursing homes. “Ruby does so much for us,” says Marilyn Spurlock, 76, of Somerset Senior Living at Mount Vista in Harrison, Ark. “She’s a blessing from God.”

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Helping Immigrants Feel at Home: Sarina Krishnan, 18

Sarina Krishnan grew up hearing stories about the cultural barriers that immigrants face—her father came from India and her mother, of Indian descent, from Scotland. “They told me how important it is to make others feel comfortable,” says the Poway, Calif., native and Princeton University freshman. In middle school Krishnan began tutoring Syrian and Congolese refugees in English, but she wanted to reach more families. So in 2016 she founded Pathways to Assimilation, a nonprofit offering ESL education, résumé help and job-prep services. “There’s no better feeling than working with families,” says Krishnan, who, with her 10-person team, has assisted more than 1,000 people in the San Diego area. “You see them gain confidence, and then they want to help others.”

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Fighting Plastic Polution: Hannah Testa, 17

Hannah Testa has a theory: “Nobody wants to be a polluter,” says the Cumming, Ga., high school senior. “We just don’t know any better.”

If education is the key to saving the planet, Testa is happy to oblige. A Facebook page she launched at age 10 to raise awareness in her community has ballooned into Hannah4Change, a nonprofit dedicated to tackling issues like plastic pollution and corporate sustainability. Testa now travels the world giving speeches and even introduced the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 on the House floor in February. “I haven’t shut up,” Testa says of her advocacy. “But it’s not going to be one person who changes the world—it’s going to take all of us.”

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Championing Global Literacy: Melissa Khasbagan, 18

Five years ago, after visiting family in Inner Mongolia and observing a lack of resources, Melissa Khasbagan returned to Austin and gathered books to send to her cousins. “I collected 10,” recalls the Stanford University freshman, “then 100, and after that, I thought, ‘Why not a thousand?’”

It was the beginning of 1000 Books; today, in addition to books, her nonprofit provides English language curriculum to 400 teachers in nine countries, benefiting 35,000 students. “Teens don’t always think they can change the world,” she says. “But I encourage them to take that leap of faith.”

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Destigmatizing Mental Health: Micah Palacios, 18

At 9, Micah Palacios lost 75 percent of her hair due to alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease. She turned to her San Antonio 4-H group to assist with the ensuing anxiety and depression, and their embrace inspired her to share her mental health struggles with others. Since then, she’s led 4-H community workshops, spoken to elementary school students and starred in a PSA with actress Sophia Bush.

“People say my story has helped them,” says Palacios. “I never thought I could change people’s lives.”

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Making Tech Accessible: Danielle Boyer, 19

The daughter of an artist mother and electrical engineer father, Danielle Boyer found a middle ground designing circuits and animatronics— but quickly realized that STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) education isn’t available to everyone. In January 2019 the Troy, Mich., native founded the STEAM Connection to provide affordable, accessible materials to underserved students. The flagship program: a robot that costs less than $19 to make and that has been distributed to 4,000 kids free of charge. (Its name, EKGAR, stands for Every Kid Gets a Robot.) Says Boyer:“I want girls to know they can find their superpowers, pursue what they love and help others.”

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Spreading Joy Through Music: Irene Yoo, 16

The mission of Las Vegas Arts, Music & Education, the 11-piece orchestra Irene Yoo founded in January 2019, is simple: bring together instrumentalists of all ethnicities and cultures to spread the magic of music. And though the past seven months have made it difficult to perform for their usual audiences—the elderly at senior facilities (above) and patients at children’s hospitals—the two-time all-state viola player doesn’t mind improvising. The group is currently recording a CD with songs ranging from traditional Korean folk music to Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson covers to give to their fans until they can play for them again. It’s a day Yoo eagerly awaits. “I love seeing their warm smiles,” she says.

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Promoting Healthy Eating: Haile Thomas, 19

To the picky eaters out there: Haile Thomas believes it’s not you, it’s how the food is prepared. “I don’t blame kids for hating dried pieces of broccoli or soggy spinach,” says the certified health coach from Chester, N.Y.

When Thomas was 8, her father was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes; as her family cut out red meat and added greens to their diets, she found she had more energy and performed better in school. Seven years ago she founded HAPPY (Healthy Active Positive Purposeful Youth), which promotes wellness through holistic education, including culinary adventure camps for kids. Thomas has worked with 40,000 young people, teaching them to read labels and eat seasonally, and she published her first cookbook, Living Lively, in July.

“It’s powerful for kids to know that change in the world starts within,” she says. “That’s what makes our work important.”

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