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Children Really Can Change the World (Here Are 9 Who Did)

Getty Images / Washington Post / Melina Mara

As Florida teenagers lead the #MarchForOurLives, we look back at heroic children through history

On Valentine's Day 2018, heartbreakingly familiar news broke: a school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were killed. Their classmates and students grieved, but soon, determination grew from that grief. No student should ever die in a school shooting again, they said, and they wanted to see commonsense gun safety laws enacted to ensure it.

Stoneman Douglas students including Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg are now leading the fight that their parents and grandparents couldn't win. They took to the streets, organizing a nationwide school walkout and 17-minute vigil on the one-month anniversary of the shootings, as well as a nationwide march for all supporters of gun safety this Saturday. And they went to their lawmakers, challenging the leaders of Florida to do something to curb gun violence in their state. It worked: Three weeks after the shooting, Florida passed a new bipartisan law defining smarter gun regulations and funding school police officers and mental health services.

Throughout history, children have fought to make the world better with resolve and tenacity that few adults can match. Today, in honor of the Stoneman Douglas students fighting for a safer world, we’re shining the spotlight on a few heroic children.

 Xander Vento (Photo courtesy of Dignity Memorial)Xander Vento was only four years old when he saved a 3-year-old friend from drowning. Sadly, Xander – who was named “Most Loving” at his preschool – took in a large amount of water while helping his friend and died four days later. Xander’s parents carried on his legacy of caring by donating his organs to help another child in need.

Rachel Beckwith (Photo via The Issaquah Press)When Rachel Beckwith was eight, she learned that millions of children die due to lack of access to clean drinking water. She decided to celebrate her ninth birthday by asking, in lieu of gifts for herself, for donations to fund fresh water programs. Tragically, a month and a half after her birthday, Rachel was killed in a car crash. Friends and strangers alike came together to donate in her name, and her fresh water fundraiser has brought in more than $1.2 million, giving water access to tens of thousands of needy people.

May 1963: Policemen lead black schoolchildren to jail following their arrest for protesting racial discrimination in Birmingham, Alabama

In early May 1963, thousands of students – some as young as six – marched for freedom and equality. Led by Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and other civil rights giants, the children who marched in the Children’s Crusade endured arrest and police brutality – including being attacked with fire hoses and dogs – and still they kept marching. In addition to forcing Birmingham – the most segregated city – to begin to integrate, their efforts helped turn the tide of the civil rights movement and prompted President John F. Kennedy to begin work on new civil rights legislation that would become the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Alexandra Scott (Associated Press)Alexandra Scott began battling cancer before she had even lived a year. When she was four, she told her parents she wanted to have a lemonade stand and donate the proceeds to benefit childhood cancer research. Alex’s first lemonade stand raised $2,000. She continued the tradition and inspired others to do the same. When Alex died at age eight, more than $1 million had been raised by lemonade stands staffed or inspired by her. The Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation carries on the mission, and it has raised more than $60 million to help kids like Alex.

Iqbal Masih was only four years old when he was sold into slavery, where he was forced to work at a carpet factory for punishingly long hours every day. After years of labor, he escaped and joined the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, an organization that seeks to free other children like Iqbal. Before his death at age 11, he became a powerful advocate for children working in horrific conditions.


Mattie Stepanek (Photo via The Washington Post)Mattie Stepanek became famous for his bestselling poetry, in particular the collection "Heartsongs." He also worked for world peace while fighting a rare form of muscular dystrophy. After Mattie’s death in 2004, fellow peace activist and former president Jimmy Carter gave a moving eulogy in honor of his friend: "Mattie said he wanted to be, as an ultimate goal in his life, an ambassador of humanity and a daddy…. He wanted to leave a human legacy and family descendents, but Mattie’s legacy, obviously, is much greater than that…. 'I want to be a poet, a peacemaker and a philosopher who played.'… Mattie’s legacy is forever because his 'Heartsongs' will resonate in the hearts of people forever."

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escort the Little Rock Nine students into the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (Wikimedia Commons/US Army)

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escort the Little Rock Nine students into the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas (U.S. Army)

Jefferson Thomas was a teenager in 1957 when he became one of the Little Rock Nine – the brave students who were the first to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School. Jefferson and his fellow African-American students were blocked by the Arkansas National Guard and suffered awful treatment from classmates and neighbors as they – along with other African-American students who were the first to integrate their schools – paved the way for a more equal nation.

Jessica Joy Rees (Photo via Facebook)Jessica Joy Rees worked to bring light into the lives of children struggling with serious illnesses, even as she fought to survive an inoperable brain tumor. She created Joy Jars, jars filled with new toys and activities, that were delivered to children who needed a lift while in the hospital. Since Jessica’s death at age 12, the NEGU Foundation – named for her motivational acronym for Never, Ever Give Up – has worked to raise awareness of children's illnesses and motivate sick children to stay strong and positive.

Anne Frank (Wikimedia Commons)And of course, there was Anne Frank, who has inspired generations with her account of life in hiding from the Nazis during World War II. When she wrote her diary, sharing her hopes and fears as well as the day-to-day logistics of living life while hidden, it’s unlikely she had any idea how much she would impact the world.

The same goes for all the children we’ve profiled today, and the Stoneman Douglas students who are working for change while they grieve their losses. Whether protesting injustice, raising money to help others, or telling a story that needed to be told, they simply did what they knew to be right. And along the way, they touched the entire world.

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