Nineteen-year-old Katie Curran was born months after Princess Diana‘s death in August 1997. However, the late royal has always been an inspiration to the young entrepreneur: Her mother, who was pregnant with Curran when Diana died, would often tell her daughter about Diana’s legacy, and the charitable work she did throughout her life.
It was fitting, then, when Curran of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, became one of last year’s Diana Award recipients for her work with her very own non-profit, Project Next Generation (also known as ProjectNextGeneration.org). The Diana Award is given out in the late royal’s name to young role models, aged 9-18 from across the world who are transforming the lives of others. To nominate a young changemaker for this year’s Diana Award, which will be presented at a ceremony in London this May, click here.
“I feel like it was meant to be that I received the Diana Award,” she tells PEOPLE. “Her selfless and tireless work for the sick and the poor has motivated me to give back.”
Curran, who received the award in the Diana Courageous Citizen category last year, founded the non-profit organization Project Next Generation when she was just 15 years old. Since then, she has been hosting tuition-free workshops for middle school students around the country, funded by grants.
“I founded [the organization] with zero dollars and a dream,” Curran says. “We want to engage and inspire the next generation of young global leaders to create positive change worldwide.”
The workshops are focused on the social sciences, each focusing on a theme, like applying for college, public speaking or running for public office. The hope is that the students will develop leadership skills and be able to connect with like-minded young changemakers. Since the first workshop in 2013, they’ve expanded from Curran’s Massachusetts hometown to four continents, as well as an online initiative, to reach tens of thousands of students.
“I saw a need in my community for civic engagement — in a way, like Princess Diana, I saw a need to help others,” she says. “I wanted to give students in my community the confidence to reach their dreams.”
Curran chose to gear the workshops towards middle school students because she feels they’re at age where they’re inspired to create change, but may not yet have the tools to do so.
“It’s a great age,” Curran says. “They’re catalysts for change, they see the needs and have so much positive energy. I’m looking to give the confidence and skills so they can translate the positive energy and enthusiasm for service into real world projects and tangible solutions.”
In the workshops Curran hosts, some of the participants have rarely experienced life outside their state or community, let alone another country. She hopes that through attending the workshops, they can gain a greater knowledge and awareness of the world around them.
During one of her first workshops, she was working with a group of students who previously didn’t know much about life outside of their own cultures. After participating in an exchange program with Japanese students, Curran brought a traditional dance she learned there to share with students in a workshop. The students’ enthusiasm for learning about another culture, she says, inspired her.
“Middle school students, no matter where they’re located, want to make a difference,” she says. “So this is about making a universal platform. This commitment to service and cross-cultural understanding is universal.”
Diana’s memory remains in Curran’s mind when leading workshops and directing the organization. Especially since receiving the Diana Award last year, Curran hopes to encourage students to honor her legacy.
“I always tell my students that you’re never too young to create change. I tell them to look to Princess Diana’s work to be active, involved, confident, and most of all, be yourself,” she says.
Curran, now a freshman at Columbia University, says that balancing Project Next Generation’s growth (which has only multiplied since receiving the Diana Award) with her studies isn’t a challenge.
“Balance comes easily when you’re doing something you love,” she says. “When every moment you’re involved, it feels so rewarding, it never feels like a struggle to balance.”
Nominate your young hero for the Legacy Award in memory of Princess Diana. If they’re chosen they could be one of twenty winners from around the world sent to London to receive their award in May! Nominate here by March 17th, 2017 5:00 pm GMT