Meet PEOPLE's Teens Changing the World in 2021
From cutting-edge innovations to simple acts of kindness, these 10 young men and women are improving lives in their schools, communities and beyond
Joy Ruppert, 16
Adopted from Chongqing, China, when she was a year old, Joy Ruppert has encountered her share of racial insensitivity.
“People pulling their eyes back or trying to speak Japanese to me,” says the sophomore from Encinitas, California. “Those things shouldn’t be happening today, but they are.”
Determined to end racial discrimination, Ruppert joined Encinitas4Equality, organizing protests as a youth leader for the local community group. She then honed that message as student body vice president of her school, spearheading a coalition that has lobbied the district for a more diverse curriculum and anti-racist amendments to the student handbook.
“Everyone should feel heard, welcomed and represented,” she says. “That’s my goal.”
Jordan Mittler, 17
Five years ago Jordan Mittler gave his grandparents smartphones — gifts that initially created more problems than they solved.
“I wasn’t expecting them to be so confused,” he admits.
Sensing that other seniors could benefit from his tech tutorials, the high school junior from New York City (center) visited a local nursing home and volunteered assistance to anyone who wanted it. He soon expanded his operations, now called Mittler Senior Technology, launching a free, 10-week course to seniors at his synagogue.
Last year, when the pandemic rendered in-person meetings impossible, Mittler made a logical pivot, taking his classes virtual for more than 2,000 participants and updating his curriculum to include practical yet essential skills: FaceTiming, ordering from Amazon, accessing online newspapers and learning Zoom etiquette.
“Social isolation is a huge problem, especially during COVID,” he says. “Technology is the answer.”
Nijel Murray, 17
Four years ago, after a new foster brother arrived at Nijel Murray’s home holding only a trash bag of ill-fitting clothes, the fashion-loving high school senior had an epiphany.
“I really felt for him and the other kids who have to go through that,” says the Las Vegas native. “I thought I could do something to change things.”
With the help of his parents, he launched Klothes 4 Kids, a nonprofit that supplies clothing, toiletries, books, toys and other essentials — all stuffed into brand-new duffel bags — for children in foster care. In partnership with local social service agencies, Murray has distributed more than 2,000 bags.
“It’s made me more grateful for what I have,” says Murray, who plans to study business at UNLV and hopefully expand K4K’s reach. “And it gives me joy to provide for others.
John Michael Stagliano, 18
Five years ago, while volunteering at a local shelter, John Michael Stagliano learned that permanent housing is a blessing — but for formerly homeless people, it’s often bare-bones, without furniture, kitchenware or other essentials.
“It was absolutely heartbreaking,” recalls the high school junior from Summerville, South Carolina.
The discovery inspired Stagliano to collect beds, silverware and more from family and neighbors to furnish the newly rented home of three men who had recently left the shelter. He dubbed the project Home Again, and today Stagliano and his team of 10 volunteers have furnished new homes for 461 men, women and children. Many are veterans, including Walter Edwards, 68, of Charleston, who was sleeping on his floor for two weeks before Home Again swooped in.
“What they are doing is a blessing to everybody,” says Edwards.
Isha Clarke, 18
As a child, Isha Clarke listened to her grandfather’s stories of activism in the 1960s. “It was so personal,” says the Oakland native, who will attend Howard University in August. “I felt like I had this in my blood.”
She found her own calling as a climate justice activist during freshman year in high school, after protesting the construction of a coal terminal in West Oakland, a predominantly Black community. In 2019 she was among a group of young people who attracted worldwide attention when their plea to Sen. Dianne Feinstein to join the Green New Deal went viral.
A founding member of Youth vs. Apocalypse, a group fighting for equitable and sustainable climate policies, Clarke has spent a gap year giving presentations to high schoolers, lobbying lawmakers and strategizing for new campaigns.
“We are fighting to build a world in which all living beings can thrive,” Clarke says. “I believe we can do that in this generation.”
Jordan Reeves, 15
Born without the bottom half of her left arm, Jordan Reeves sees opportunity where others might see only limitations. At 10 she invented a 3D-printed glitter-blasting prosthesis featured on Marvel’s Hero Project.
“When people hear about disabilities, they think, ‘Oh, that’s so sad,’ ” she explains. “But this turned it into something joyful.”
Since then the freshman from Columbia, Missouri, has designed a “Swiss Army” arm with various tools attached and, in collaboration with Microsoft, a prototype guitar that people with physical disabilities can play.
Reeves’s message: “Believe in yourself. If you have something you like, follow the journey—see where it goes.” It’s a mantra she and her mother, Jen, reinforce through their Born Just Right nonprofit, which offers online STEM education and design resources for people with limb differences. “The goal is awareness,” Reeves says, “so people who make things make those things work for everyone.”
Hollis Belger, 16
A competitive soccer player from 8 to 14, Hollis Belger knew that practicing juggling — keeping the ball aloft with controlled kicks — would improve her on-field skills. She also found a way it could save lives.
Introduced to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital by her mother and inspired to help, the high school junior from Larkspur, California, launched Juggling for Jude in 2014 to solicit charitable sponsors for her emerging talent.
Gradually, Belger expanded to clinics, public speaking engagements and an ALS Ice Bucket-style challenge, in which participants film themselves juggling, tag friends on social media and donate $10 to St. Jude. Last month Belger topped the half-million-dollar mark — and, like her record for consecutive juggles (5,350 and counting), it’s a milestone she’s determined to best. “I plan on juggling until no child has to worry about pediatric cancer,” she says. “There has never been a day when I wanted to give up.”
Jose Rodriguez Jr., 17
In September 2018 Jose Rodriguez Jr. had a flash of inspiration while helping his brother Joel, who is on the autism spectrum, search for a missing fidget toy to manage his anxiety: a T-shirt with interchangeable toys discreetly attached so they wouldn’t get lost.
The senior from Cumberland, Rhode Island, pitched the concept to a national youth entrepreneur competition, besting 20,000 other entrants and earning $12,000 to patent and produce his line.
His company Tasium (an anagram of autism) is doing well, according to Rodriguez, who will attend Babson College in Massachusetts, but his central mission is still service. He’s donated a quarter of his shirts to autism support organizations and hopes that Tasium will one day sponsor the Special Olympics. “I’m all about helping people like my brother,” he says.
Ankitha Kumar, 18
When the pandemic hit, Ankitha Kumar began receiving frantic texts from students she helped at the local tutoring center. Online courses were confusing, so the high school senior from Inver Groves Heights, Minnesota, decided to offer free virtual sessions to kids of all ages.
Overwhelmed with requests, she and two friends launched ConneXions Tutoring, specializing in general coursework, ACT prep and scholarship search assistance. Now with 17 volunteers, Kumar has worked with 365 students in all 50 states and 12 countries.
“I love watching them have an aha moment when a concept clicks,” says Kumar, who plans to attend Emory University and remain an adviser to ConneXions, which will continue virtual sessions post-pandemic. “It makes me happy that I’ve been able to be a part of their journey.”
Dasia Taylor, 17
In her AP Human Geography class, Dasia Taylor learned that in developing countries, postsurgical infection can often lead to death.
Armed with that knowledge — and a healthy obsession with Grey’s Anatomy — the high school senior from Iowa City made a world-class breakthrough: stitches that change color when wounds become infected. The secret? Beet juice.
“It’s a natural indicator,” she explains. “It reacts when the pH changes.”
Taylor won local and state-level science fairs and was named a finalist at the Regeneron Science Talent Search, a national competition that tasks young people with solving society’s most urgent challenges. Now she’s patenting her invention and hoping to set up commercial lab space to continue her research.
“These stitches will revolutionize treatment,” she says. “My goal is to get them to those who need them.”