First, the amazing example of 17 year-old Nick Goldner's remarkable efforts to renew the lives of children marked by tragedy... as he was when he was younger himself:
West Allis - Nick Goldner still remembers the treasured Dr. Seuss anthology he read over and over after his family lost everything - even his favorite blanket - in a house fire a decade ago.
He turned to it constantly for comfort in the two-bedroom apartment he shared with his parents and three brothers as they waited for their home to be rebuilt and their lives to restart.
So when it came time for Goldner to choose an Eagle Scout project, he selected a charity that provides books to children in crisis situations. His enthusiastic efforts resulted in the largest single donation ever to the Waunakee-based With Wings and a Halo, according to the organization's chief executive and co-founder Paul Gilbertson.
"I'm really proud of him," said Gilbertson, whose organization provides backpacks filled with children's books to sheriff's deputies throughout the state.
So far, Goldner has collected 4,000 books and about $1,100. In addition to the donation to With Wings and a Halo, Goldner said, he also plans to give some of the books to local fire departments so they can be passed on to other children who have lost their homes.
Although he estimates he has put about 350 hours into the project, Goldner credits the generosity of other students - both Nathan Hale and others in the Milwaukee area - for making it such a success.
"Here, I was really only expecting 1,000 books and 50 bucks," he said. "But the students here at Hale blew my expectations out of the water."
Goldner also highlighted efforts by Hoover Elementary School in New Berlin, where students gave 480 books - more than one per student - and Fox River Christian Church, which donated $100 and some books to the charity.
The work for the students isn't over yet. Goldner said he plans to drive the books in a donated truck to Waunakee, where he and 10 friends will sort through them by their intended readers' ages and place them - about a dozen at a time - into backpacks.
We follow that with another incredible story, this time out of Florida, where one inspiring 13 year-old's example is used to shine a light on the silent sacrifices made by an estimated million other young people:
BOYNTON BEACH — When she gets home after a long day, Ashley Coyle does what any grown up would do.
She prepares dinner, washes dishes, folds laundry and gives her sister a bath. All typical household chores for most any adult.
Only Ashley is no grown up.
She's barely a teen.
The 13-year-old is a grown-up kid - children in mostly single-family homes who take on adult roles because the parents can't juggle it all. It's becoming all too common lately with more people losing jobs and families cutting costs.
That's why the American Association of Caregiving Youth has a waiting list of middle schoolers hoping to join its program.
The Caregiving Youth Project, based out of Boca Raton, searches for middle schoolers like Ashley whose daily responsibilities extend beyond homework and making the bed. It is the only branch of AACY in the United States.
Project staff is working with more than 200 students in five Palm Beach County schools who care for sick or elderly relatives or for brothers and sisters at home while their mom or dad works. They're in charge of medicine, food, cleaning, cooking. And most of the time, homework comes last.
"As soon as I get home, I see what my sister needs first and then do the chores," Ashley said.
The staff of Caregiving Youth works to prevent these children from dropping out of school to care for their family.
"These kids have stress," said Connie Siskowski, who started the project in 2006. "Knowing they're not alone is important to them."
An estimated 1.3 million children throughout the United States ages 8-18 are youth caregivers, according to Siskowski. ...
In Ashley's case, her mother, Tania Coyle, works full-time and her sister, Jessica, who was born with a genetic disorder, needs constant attention. Though Jessica is the big sister at age 18, she looks no older than Ashley. She rarely speaks and trusts few people. Ashley is her best friend.
Their mom works as a nurse's aid and barely earns $10 an hour - not enough to pay for daycare or even a babysitter, which is why Ashley is in charge.
"I never in my life thought I'd have to depend on my daughter like I do," Coyle said. "It's been very hard. I need my daughter to feel like a kid."
Through generous donors, Caregiving Youth provides help with home health care so the children can be with friends or get to school on time. It's raised money for laptops and for items like wheelchair ramps and scooters for families in medical need. It also provides field trips to grocery stores where the children are taught how to shop and how to use a slow cooker.
"It's hard. Some days are not always the best," Ashley said. "My mom gets so stressed and my sister gets in a bad mood. I always want them to be happy."
At Boca Raton Community Middle School, where Ashley is in the eighth grade, enrollment in the Caregiving Youth Project doubled last year. It jumped from 8.5 percent to 16 percent and Siskowski expects those numbers to keep growing.
I note that both these stories of amazing young people seem to share a common origin; it was from seeds of tragedy that they were able to grow their respective abilities to see the good in life, particularly how to find the potential for good waiting to grow within themselves. However unbidden their struggles may have been, their inspiring accomplishments may never have been realized if theirs had been less eventful childhoods. One generation's visible success against great odds can ensure a migration of that success, handing it down to the next generation coming behind them (or ahead of them), by learning from example.
We can't always choose our circumstances, but we can choose our reactions to them; that's a timely lesson we need to re-affirm, no matter our age.