PEOPLE's Girls Changing the World in 2021

In honor of International Day of the Girl on Oct. 11, a celebration of young innovators and trailblazers making a difference in their communities and beyond

01 of 08

Taylor Richardson, 18

Girls Changing the world
Renee Parenteau

Known to her online followers as Astronaut Starbright, Richardson has always had a fascination with the cosmos. But at 9, while attending space camp, she realized she was the only Black girl — a pivotal moment that sparked a commitment to diversifying STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. "Other girls need to know they can be astronauts," says the high school senior from Jacksonville, Florida. To date she has raised more than $325,000 to introduce young women of color to science via space camp scholarships, book drives centered on Black authors and subjects, and tickets to films like Hidden Figures.

02 of 08

Naudia Greenawalt, 12

Girls Changing the world
Meg McKenzie

When Greenawalt's friend Linkin Eger (right) needed chemotherapy for a brain tumor in 2017, she decided to write a book about him to cheer him up and help them both better understand the journey ahead. Greenawalt and her family published and sold 1,000 copies of My Friend Linkin to schools, libraries and their neighbors in New Berlin, Wisconsin, raising $5,000 to assist with Eger's medical bills. The success inspired them to launch the nonprofit My Friend Linkin; she and Eger (whose condition is currently stable) have now published five books, adopting a pay-it-forward model in which the subject of the previous book, if able, authors the next.

03 of 08

Sammie Vance, 12

Girls Changing the world
Courtesy Heidi Vance

Four years ago Vance discovered a surefire way to find your purpose: Ask yourself what breaks your heart. "For me, it's seeing people who need a friend," says the seventh grader from Fort Wayne, Indiana. "I've been lonely myself. I don't want others to feel that way." After speaking to her principal and pitching the PTA, she launched Sammie's Buddy Bench Project, a community-wide drive that collected 1,600 lbs. of bottle caps, which were recycled into three buddy benches. Today her efforts continue, with more than 200 benches donated to schools and parks in the U.S., Mexico and Australia.

04 of 08

Harshini Anand, 17

Girls Changing the world
Alyte Katilius/The Ann Arbor News

While researching a community service project for school, Anand read about a woman buried in medical debt from a car crash. "She wished she'd never made it out of the hospital," recalls the high school senior from Ypsilanti, Michigan. "It was so jarring to see the system pushing people to those negative thoughts." When the pandemic hit, the school assignment was canceled — so Anand forged ahead on her own, fundraising, writing letters, calling local businesses and reaching out to friends. In June she hit her $15,000 goal, which the national nonprofit RIP Medical Debt used to help erase $1.8 million in her home state.

05 of 08

Brooke and Breanna Bennett, 14

Girls Changing the world
Adeyela Bennett

The twin sisters from Montgomery, Alabama, remember the "heartbreaking" moment they first recognized "period poverty," the inadequate access to feminine hygiene products. Waiting for their mother where she taught school, they saw students ask for pads and tampons, because otherwise they had to resort to socks or tissues. After doing more research and learning that one in five young women in the U.S. struggles to afford menstrual products (which are not covered by welfare programs like SNAP), the Bennetts, now Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes award winners, founded Women in Training, Inc. Through personal and corporate donations, the nonprofit has delivered 10,000 WITKITS — bags filled with a month's supply of personal hygiene products, as well as soap, shampoo and toothpaste — to girls and young women in schools, homeless shelters and runaway centers.

06 of 08

Vivian Wang, 18

Girls Changing the world
Courtesy Vivian Wang

In 2014 Wang of Yorba Linda, California, learned that hotel sheets and towels with the slightest imperfections — a coffee stain or stray pen mark — usually end up in landfills. So she and her sister May, now 21, founded Linens N Love to give those items new purpose at homeless shelters, veteran centers and animal rescues. Supported by 500 volunteers across the U.S., Canada and Singapore and assisted by chains like Marriott hotels and Embassy Suites, the organization has salvaged 45,000 items, and Wang earned the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes for her work.

07 of 08

Jacqueline Teague, 17, and Amelie Beck, 15

Girls Changing the world
Martha Work

After scheduling COVID-19 vaccine appointments online for their grandparents, cousins Teague and Beck of Louisville found their teenage tech savvy in high demand. "We started helping older family friends and realized the problem was universal," says Teague, a high school junior. She and Beck, a sophomore, formed VaxConnect KY, an operation that has helped more than 2,000 senior citizens safeguard themselves in a state where inoculation rates have lagged and hospitalizations are on the rise.

08 of 08

Sahana Vij, 18

Girls Changing the world
Sahana Vij. Shawn Vij

When Vij was 5, she and her mother made enchiladas for a Seattle shelter and then shared the meal with the families there. "Food helped connect us even more than words," recalls the Redmond, Washington, native and freshman at the University of California, Irvine. The experience also planted the seed of an idea: a cookbook that could bring people together and combat hunger. This month she'll publish Bake Away, a collection of 20 desserts, with all royalties going to the nonprofit No Kid Hungry.

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