Not Just Tomorrow's Leaders

I was unable to find any organization that would build computer labs in interdependent living facilities and teach seniors how to become digitally literate. So then, I took a risk.
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This is part of our new series "Gen: Change," in partnership with Youth Service America, featuring stories from the 25 most influential and powerful young people in the world. Click here to read more about Daniel and his amazing story.

Community service is becoming an increasingly integral part of primary and secondary education because educators realize that it develops youth by creating social awareness, teaching life skills, and instilling civic responsibility. And students around the world are increasingly becoming social entrepreneurs as they identify needs in their communities and then leverage their individual skills to make a difference as agents of change.

My own opportunity happened unexpectedly. It occurred when I was in middle school and a volunteer teaching elementary school children and senior citizens computer and Internet skills at my public library. One day after class, a senior citizen who I had been helping told me that he was grateful for the training that he received but that it was "a real shame" that his mobility-impaired neighbors residing in his independent living facility could not attend class and learn to email their grandchildren. I promised to help but was unable to find any organization that would build computer labs in interdependent living facilities and teach seniors how to become digitally literate.

Then I took a risk. Taking the money that I had been saving for a car to pay for incorporating as a nonprofit, I founded Net Literacy with my friends. Ten years later, Net Literacy remains a youth-managed nonprofit where students comprise 50 percent of the board of directors, write all of the grants and conduct all of the volunteering. We donate $1.4 million in services annually. Net Literacy's mission includes increasing digital inclusion and digital literacy through five student-developed programs, ranging from teaching computer and Internet safety skills to students and their parents to refurbishing tens of thousands of computers that afforded computer access to over 170,000 individuals. Internet associations representing 270,000 Internet companies on six continents have endorsed our Digital Literacy "best practices" site. Working at Net Literacy, 3,500 student volunteers have shown that we are not just tomorrow's leaders -- we're today's leaders!

Why do I have to take geometry in high school? Some students struggle to understand the relevance of some of the classes that they must take to graduate from high school. But through servant leadership, student volunteers become engaged in activities that provides tangible outcomes that we can see or touch -- whether it is a newly-formed friendship with a senior citizen who the student volunteer has just taught computer and Internet skills or by refurbishing computers that will be donated to the families of students on free or reduced lunch programs. Service learning is sometimes messy, but it's "real" and especially impactful when it takes place in "the streets."

Social entrepreneurs take unexpected journeys. Solving tough problems requires Net Literacy's team of student volunteers to take on unexpected challenges. For instance, because the digital inclusion programs that take place in "the streets" are affected by our state's and nation's leadership, we found that civic engagement was necessary for us to make a difference. First, we advocated for the Indiana General Assembly to pass several important digital inclusion and Internet safety resolutions. To help increase awareness about the importance of digital literacy and the impact of empowered youth, we created an honorary board of directors that includes our lt. governor, five members of Congress, and our state superintendent of public instruction. Finally, we wrote whitepapers that identified what we as students believed to be our nation's most important digital inclusion priorities, and the FCC cited three of our programs in the National Broadband Plan presented to Congress. These unexpected journeys had the added benefit of helping to make classes like social studies and government more relevant to students in school. When the digital generation takes on real-world challenges, it gives students a preview of life's complexity and helps us develop our critical-thinking skills.

Service is power! The Net Literacy team of student volunteers is one very small piece of a colorful international youth-empowered community service mosaic whose goals mirror those of Youth Service America. Global Youth Service Day is the annual celebration that mobilizes youth in over 100 countries and six continents. On this single day, Youth Service America donates more than $1,000,000 in grants to support 800+ projects. Since 1998, Youth Service America has demonstrated that while one person can make a difference, together we can change the world!

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