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June 25, 2015 10:45 AM

Seventeen-year-old Brittany Amano knows what it’s like to go hungry.

When the Hawaii native and her mother were displaced from their home when she was 8 years old, they had to move into a friend’s basement, while her grandmother moved into a homeless shelter.

With her family split and resources severely lacking, they were often left hungry.

But Amano wasn’t going to allow her dire circumstances to become her new life.

When she was 9 years old, Amano started a food drive at her school, raising 500 lbs. of food for those in need.

“It showed me even though I was only 9 years old, influence was possible without affluence,” Amano tells PEOPLE. “You can make a difference no matter how young you are.”

The success of the food drive eventually led to an even bigger idea – Hawaii s Future Isn t Hungry, a nonprofit she started when she was 12 years old.

“It was a small organization whose mission was to mentor and support youths living in homeless shelters, as well as foster youth and feed nutritious meals to the hungry and promote literacy,” Amano says. “We do everything from giving brand-new shoes and school-supplies kits in the fall to Christmas presents during the holidays.”

Five years later, Amano is now helping to feed the rest of the country.

The organization, now called The Future Isn’t Hungry, currently has more than 450 youth volunteers with branches in Hawaii, Florida and Wisconsin. Together, they are aiming to donate 250,000 bags of food, which will impact 625,000 lives in 2015.

Brittany Amano
Courtesy Brittany Amano

Along with packing bags with nutritious shelf-stable foods, Amano says they also provide recipes for healthy meals so they can use the food they’re given to cook.

The teen recently won the Jefferson Award’s national contest called LEAD360, which finds the most innovative, impactful ideas of young people to change the face of hunger and poverty, health and wellness, and education and literacy. Amano took home the award in the hunger and poverty category.

“When we find young people like Brittany who managed to create the level of impact that she has had, what is most exciting to me – and us as an organization – is being able to arm them in as many ways as we can to create exponential impact,” Hillary Schafer, executive director of the Jefferson Awards Foundation, tells PEOPLE.

“They didn t just give me an award and say congratulations and a pat on the back,” Amano says. “They said, ‘You know, you have a really innovative idea that can be expanded to all 50 states.’ ”

Amano, one of the youngest people to make Pacific Business News‘ “40 under 40” list, says she is looking forward to continuing her work with the organization while attending post-graduate school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in the fall.

Amano says she missed out on a lot of high school and only went to class one or two times a month.

“I didn t really get the high school experience doing all this stuff,” Amano says. “I really just focused on my nonprofit and what I was passionate about, so now I want to be a student for a year.”

In 2016, Amano will attend Duke University to study public policy and international comparative government.

She chose Duke because the school’s surrounding area of Durham, North Carolina, has several food banks that could use her assistance.

After college, Amano wants to go back home to Hawaii to continue making a difference.

Schafer says Amano could’ve easily been a victim of her own circumstances, but she turned herself into a victor.

“It’s such a privilege for us to have young people like Brittany and take something she’s done on her own and really take it to a scale she couldn t have dreamed of,” Schafer says.

And Amano says she s proud to prove the notion that you re never too young to make a difference.

“It’s pretty cool to see the small idea I had at the age of 12 grow, she shares. Coming from Hawaii, which is so far from everything – being able to impact the whole country is incredible.”

Know a hero? Send suggestions to heroesamongus@peoplemag.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine

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