LOS ANGELES— While most teenagers in the United States spend their time juggling school, home and friends, there are a few who are choosing a different life. They are charting their own path to make a difference in the world. They recently gathered in Los Angeles to discuss their work and what makes each of them unique.
Fifteen-year-old Winter Vinecki has accomplished more than most people have in a lifetime. “I recently completed a marathon on all seven continents and became the youngest person in the world to do so. I really was doing this for my dad,” she said.
Vinecki’s father was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of prostate cancer when she was nine. He died 10 months later.
”When he was first diagnosed, I immediately knew I had to do something to help him. That’s when I formed Team Winter for prostate cancer research and awareness," said Vinecki.
Through Team Winter and social media, Vinecki has raised close to $500,000. From Kenya to Mongolia, she has taken prostate cancer awareness worldwide through her marathons on seven continents. In the U.S., she travels constantly to give talks about prostate cancer and inspire others.
At the recent Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles, Vinecki was one of several teenagers who addressed a panel about youth who are living extraordinary lives.
Another panelist was Jack Andraka, who invented an inexpensive sensor for pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers when he was 15.
“Without Google, Wikipedia, I would have never been able to learn all this stuff I needed for this project. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was before developing my test for pancreatic cancer,” said Andraka.
He currently is filing patents for his latest inventions: inexpensive water-quality devices that help detect and filter out heavy metals and pesticides.
“I hope to see them employed in developing nations such as Bangladesh and parts of China and India, especially as well in parts of Africa where these heavy metal and pesticides and other industrial effluents are a major problem,” he said.
Sixteen-year-old youth activist Mary-Pat Hector saw a problem in her own community. She said too many youth die from gun violence.
“It was seeing my friends hurt; it was seeing it on the television constantly. It kind of made me feel like I had to do something about it,” said Hector.
She became the national youth director of one of the largest civil rights organizations in the United States, the National Action Network. Hector also started a campaign which educates youth on the issue of gun violence.
“My 8-year-old brother drives me, I think, about how innocent he is. I just want the world to be a better place for him and my children,” she said.
Hector, Andraka, and Vinecki say a combination of supportive parents, the Internet and social media have helped them succeed; but, what’s most important comes from within, said Vinecki and Andraka.
“I think the biggest thing for kids and adults is to never let age and gender be a barrier and to not just dream but dream big,” said Vinecki.
“Never let anyone else tell you no," said Andraka. "Always keep going for your dream, and think if a 15-year-old could do it, just think what you could do.”
They say with that kind of thinking, anything is possible.