12: The Difference Maker

12: The Difference Maker

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

The Difference Maker

What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.

~Nelson Mandela

As a kid I had the chance to spend a lot of time with my grandparents, all amazing people to whom I attribute so much of who I am today. Sadly, my last grandparent passed away when I was first becoming a parent myself. Their passing caused me to really think about how I would raise my own kids, without my grandparents’ life experiences and wisdom to teach my kids everything, from how to make perfect homemade biscuits to how to fix anything to be better than it originally was. This reality caused even more stress, knowing that my kids would be responsible for the next generation and the next, and that my grandparents’ influence would end with me.

When my firstborn, Kylan, was five, we wanted him to focus outside himself and material possessions, so we sponsored a child and got him a pen pal named Haruna, in Uganda. Haruna was also five and we thought they could share stories about growing up in their respective parts of the world. There were no expectations—just a desire to give Kylan a more worldly view. So the process began of getting to know his pen pal and the differences of growing up in Africa.

As Kylan’s parents, we encouraged him to save a little bit of money to send a birthday gift to his pen pal, to hopefully make a difference and brighten his day. Kylan started fundraising with a lemonade stand, which wasn’t quite as profitable as he was hoping, in spite of the fact that he was in a suit and top hat. So we moved on to idea number two, to recycle scrap metal. Because of the influence of his great-grandfather he knew that there was often value in things that others didn’t see. As parents, our only rule was “not to say no.” We wanted to give him an outlet for his ideas, and if it meant hauling scrap metal then we hauled scrap metal.

Kylan created and printed flyers about his pen pal and his desire to help Haruna and his family. He distributed them around the neighborhood and before long, scrap metal was showing up at our house. We were given everything from metal shelving to cans to computers. Over the course of the first two years Kylan raised around two hundred dollars. With that much money, not only was he able to send a birthday gift to Haruna, he was also able to buy a goat or livestock for the village.

Kylan is very driven and very compassionate. So when he wanted to do even more we completely supported him. Kylan thought that if he could get his school involved, he could make an even greater impact. Like any good entrepreneur, Kylan made business cards for his company, named “Metal Mission,” and requested a meeting with his principal. His principal was so impressed with his desire to make a difference that she started telling his story and it spread like wild-fire. The next thing you know, we were sponsored to go to Africa, and found ourselves on a plane headed halfway around the world to meet Haruna and have the experience of a lifetime.

But the real story began after we returned. The first thing Kylan said when we got home was, “This changed me, Mom. I know it changed me.” I didn’t know where this journey would lead, or how Kylan would feel after going to Africa. Would he feel that he had accomplished all he’d intended and move on? Or would this feed the fire that had been sparked four years earlier? That spark is now a blazing fire.

Kylan felt that if he could share his story then maybe he could inspire others to make a difference. He began by telling kids at his school about the experience, and found himself being asked to speak at other schools, but even that wasn’t enough. With this simple idea and a lot of support, Kylan started a youth movement called the Difference Maker Movement. By sharing his story along with the values we have raised him to follow he hopes to inspire other Difference Makers. Those values became the mantra for his work. They are:

Life isn’t about keeping score.

It’s not about how many friends you have.

It isn’t about who your family is, or what kind of car you drive, or where you go to school.

It’s not about how you look, or what clothes you wear, or what kind of music you listen to.

It’s not about if your hair is blond, or if your skin is light or dark.

It’s not about what grades you get, how smart you are, how smart everyone else thinks you are, or how smart the tests say you are.

Life is about who you love and who you hurt; it’s about who you make happy or unhappy; it’s about keeping or losing trust.

It’s about friendship.

It’s about what you say and what you mean.

It’s about the person you are right now and the person you have the potential to become.

Most of all, it’s about using your life to touch other people’s hearts.

To Kylan, a difference maker is anyone that, no matter their age or income, can make a difference to someone; the person whose life they impact could be a neighbor, a friend, or someone around the world, like Haruna.

The Difference Maker Movement is gaining momentum. We have a website: www.iamthedifferencemaker.org. The idea of the site is to have a place where we can share other Difference Maker stories around the world. We are coordinating Difference Maker Days, which are focused activities for groups to provide help to those in need. We are also working on after-school programs called Difference Maker clubs. These Difference Maker clubs will give kids an opportunity to apply problem-solving principles to issues faced around the world. The goal of each club will be to develop products to address the problems. These products will be created using school resources and materials donated by local manufacturers.

My proudest moment has been watching my son throughout this experience. Seeing him stand up in front of kids and adults and watch that spark that is in Kylan spread to others; to hear kids talk about who in their life they are going to impact; to have parents ask me how to get their kids to become Difference Makers.

I watched Kylan sit in the front of our van, during our travels around Africa, for four hours waving to kids in the villages we passed. He would be surrounded by kids in each village we went through; they would touch his hair and skin. He would teach little kids how to give high-fives and play Frisbee. Kylan is changing the world in ways I never imagined, and he has changed me, too. I think my grandparents would approve. Next we need to work on homemade biscuits. He is only nine after all.

~Sumer Sorensen-Bain

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