Feedback
News

Peace First prize rewards youth who are making a difference

2:14

Update: Peace First has announced the 10 winners of their peacemaking prize, one of whom -- Nicholas Lowinger -- was profiled above by "Nightly News." Click here to read about how they are making a difference in their communities

By Craig Stanley, NBC News

Brooklyn Wright, 11, was in second grade when she first decided to do something about all the litter people leave in their neighborhoods.

"I was in a club called Earth Savers," Brooklyn said. "All they wanted to focus on was the three R's: reduce, reuse and recycle. But I wanted to focus on litter too."

To get kids to listen to her and support her cause, the Atlanta native created Earth Saver Girl -- a superhero -- to spread awareness about litter prevention.

She's now one of 50 students nominated for the Peace First Prize, an award offered for the first time this year that recognizes young people who are inspiring positive change within their communities.

"When we think about peacemakers, we think of Dr. King and Gandhi, and Mother Teresa," said Eric Dawson, founder of nonprofit Peace First. "What we want to do is take that idea of greatness and bring it down to the level of young people."

A national call for young peacemakers -- "those who have confronted injustice, crossed lines of difference, and had the courage and compassion to create lasting change" -- resulted in thousands of applications from across the nation. From the 50 finalists, 10 winners will be selected on Sunday, each receiving a $50,000 two-year peacemaking fellowship.

"We want to say to young people that peacemaking isn't something that you do and are recognized for when you are 70 or 80," Dawson said. "It's something that you do today."

Below, we profile three of the student finalists, including Brooklyn Wright. Check back on Sunday to find out who the winners are. 

VOLUNTEEN NATION

Growing up in St. Louis, finalist Simone Bernstein grew up surrounded by volunteers.

"When I was 12 years old, my dad was deployed in the military, and there were so many people in our community that were driving us places, delivering meals," Bernstein said. "I was so appreciative of what they were doing for my family, and what my dad was doing for our country, so I wanted to give back as well."

Finding the right opportunity, however, wasn't easy. 

"I continued to approach organizations and they refused to allow me to volunteer," Bernstein said. "They claimed that I wasn't old enough, due to safety security and liability concerns. So I eventually found one project to volunteer at, and then later realized that I wanted to help kids who were frustrated, searching for volunteer opportunities find organizations within their communities through Volunteen nation"

1:35

At 13 she created St. Louis Volunteen, a website for kids to tap into one of the 55 local organizations listed. And she didn't stop there.

"[My brother] utilized his technological skills and his coding skills to work on the web development side, and I decided to work with other organizations and gain followers and partners throughout the nation," Bernstein said. “It was a project that we worked on together and then ultimately grew by including more youth on our team to be able to support our efforts."

They created Volunteen Nation, a website which features more than 7,500 volunteer opportunities for youth nationwide. The website also serves as an inspiration forum, with ideas for people to start their own volunteer service projects in their communities.

"Our generation wants to give back, and we need to make it an effort for youth to realize that at any age, they can complete a project," Bernstein said. "It doesn't matter what it is, whether its five minutes of your time, an hour of your time. If you're doing something not make the world a better place we want to encourage that and motivate people to do that."

Bernstein, now 21, is a senior at St. Bonaventure University in West New York, where she's managed being a college student -- and getting into medical school -- while running a nonprofit organization. She hopes Volunteen Nation will expand internationally -- with or without her.

"Volunteen nation will not go away once I go to medical school," Bernstein said. "Our idea is that we want it run by a young person, and, we define a young person as anyone under the age of 25. Once I reach 26, I really want other people to experience [running] a non-profit organization."

GOTTA HAVE SOLE

Nicholas Lowinger, 15, created a nonprofit that has donated shoes to more than 10,000 kids in 21 states across the US. NBC News

Nicholas Lowinger, 15, was named a finalist for the work he does for children in homeless shelters across the nation, inspired by a visit to a shelter at 5 years old.

"Imagine: there were kids my age, who can't go to school every day, can't be with their friends, can't play sports, and those kids can't really be kids," Nicholas said. "A lot of that had to do with the fact that they didn't have shoes that could fit them, or didn't have shoes that were in good condition."

Nicholas began to donate his own shoes to kids in local shelters, and later started collecting donations to send them to kids across the nation. With the help of his parents, he developed a nonprofit organization called Gotta Have Sole, through which he's donated shoes to more than 10,000 kids in 21 states across the US.

Nicholas operates Gotta Have Sole out of his garage at home in Rhode Island, where thousands of shoes are stored. He regularly navigates his shoe collection to fill orders that pour in from homeless shelters across the nation. He has one rule -- the shoes must be new, and something that the kid may actually like.

"A lot of people think that if someone's in a homeless shelter, they'll be happy to get anything, [and] they'll be able to get a used pair of shoes," Nicholas said. "'Cause that's more than they would have had before. That's a terrible mindset, in my opinion."

"When a child has something that's brand new that they get to call their own, they feel better about themselves. Their self-confidence goes up."

Nick plans to expand his nonprofit organization to provide resources for veterans and disadvantaged youth.

"I feel amazing, that I'm able to make it such a big impact at a young age," Nicholas said. "Every time I keep on believing in myself and moving forward, it keeps on getting better. I'm able to help more and more people."

EARTH SAVER GIRL

1:13

"I didn't know how kids would take me asking them to help me pick up litter, but I realized it's a thing I need to do," Brooklyn Wright said. "I decided to make the superhero 'cause I thought kids would listen to a superhero besides an ordinary girl like me."

With the help of her mom, Brooklyn published "The Adventures of the Earth Saver Girl, Don't be Litterbug" -- a story based on the superhero who encourages and empowers kids to make change in their community, and pick up after themselves.

Today, Brooklyn travels to schools and events, and performs interactive litter prevention skits for school children, based on her book. She's performed for more than 1000 kids.

"My first mission is to rid the Earth of trash and pollution, but my whole mission together is to save the Earth and have a clean and healthy environment for future generations to enjoy," Brooklyn said.

In addition to being an environmentalist, Brooklyn says she's a peacemaker.

"I consider myself a peacemaker 'cause I started a movement in my community that has kids and adults doing their part to save the earth." She added, "I think it's good that I started working on my mission at a young age, so I can work on it for a lifetime."