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Millennials Move Mountains

or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Generation Y

Meet Svante

Svante Myrick, Mayor of Ithaca, New York and longtime ally of United Way.

When Svante Myrick was elected Mayor of Ithaca, New York in 2011 at age 24, he became one of the youngest mayors in the United States. His meteoric ascent is all the more impressive given his humble beginnings.

Raised by a hard-working single mother, Myrick and his three siblings were homeless for a time, sleeping in cars and shelters, and sometimes living off food stamps and soup kitchens.

Myrick doesn’t bring up his difficult childhood to trumpet his success, or even to inspire others to pull themselves up by their own boot straps. When he talks about his unlikely journey to the mayor’s seat, he credits the personal sacrifices of his mother, and also a caring community that came together and empowered him with the tools he needed to succeed. In particular, he often cites the difference made by free healthy school breakfasts, faith-based groups and dedicated teachers.

When asked about how he overcame adversity to get where he is now, Svante replies, "This is not the story of a self-made man. This is the story of a community that conspired to raise a child.” The fundamental point that Myrick comes back to time and again – that no successful person got to where they are on their own – is a notion that comes quite naturally to Millennials.

This is not the story of a self-made man. This is the story of a community that conspired to raise a child.”

Young people have grown up in an increasingly globalized and interdependent world where even small positive changes create ripple effects that benefit everyone. This simple but profound truth was surely on the minds of attendees at the Student United Way Retreat when Myrick addressed them on September 7, 2013.

“The story of our country is not just a story of great heroes acting alone,” he told them, “but of millions of people working behind the scenes.” Many of the young people listening to Myrick that day are already engaged in exactly that kind of work – including unsung heroes like Jose Joel Vasquez of Santa Cruz, California.

Meet Jose

Jose Joel Vasquez, 20, will be the first person in his family to attend college. Jovenes Saños is part of United Way of Santa Cruz County’s broader Go For Health! Collaborative, which has also expanded local universal health coverage to 21,000 previously uninsured kids.

Vasquez is a volunteer with Jovenes Saños (which means “healthy kids” in Spanish), a youth advocacy group committed to helping people live healthier lives.

Most of the kids in the group live in Watsonville, a city in southern Santa Cruz County that sits nestled between the Pajaro Valley’s sprawling fields of strawberries, artichokes and other healthful bounty that, unfortunately, rarely finds its way to the dining room tables of Watsonville’s own residents.

Jovenes Saños aims to change all that, and Vasquez and his fellow young activists have already achieved some inspiring results.

In 2011, Jovenes Saños helped pass The Healthy Food Options ordinance, an unprecedented policy that requires restaurants to offer a certain amount of healthy foods on their menus in order to receive a permit.

The youth advocacy group has also successfully pushed for all Santa Cruz METRO facilities and stations to offer healthier foods in their vending machines, worked tirelessly to curb underage drinking, and has developed a 7-week session dedicated to physical activity and nutrition awareness for kids aged 11-15.

The children thoroughly enjoyed the session and learned a great deal about how to stay healthy. In a post-session survey, one of the kids offered a particularly pithy response when asked about the benefits of physical exercise: “So you don’t get fluffly.”

If such resounding wisdom from the mouths of babes doesn’t convince you that we’re in good hands with the next generation, then consider another example – this one more than 8,000 miles from Vasquez and his fellow Jovenes Saños, in the city of Mumbai, India.

Meet Sumaiya

Sumaiya Selot, 19, is a Second Year Commerce Student in Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai. She has volunteered to be trained as health educator.

The Green Ribbon Brigadiers, comprised of 160 student volunteers from six city colleges in India, march to raise awareness about Hepatitis B prevention.

Mumbai is a city of nearly 20 million people. As the center of India’s financial and entertainment industries, as well as the location for some of Asia’s largest slums, it is a city divided between haves and have-nots.

It is also the home of Sumaiya Selot, a passionate student who, along with more than 9,000 other college youth, public health personnel and community members, has taken on one of India’s greatest challenges: the epidemic of Hepatitis B.

With the support of United Way Mumbai and partners, over 1.2 million people have been educated with information about Hepatitis infections, over 10,000 people have been tested, and nearly 9,000 people have been vaccinated. The community has achieved all this in just three years, and they aim to expand the health education and awareness program to 2 million people by September 2014. 

A Global Community

Sumaiya Selot, Jose Joel Vasquez and Svante Myrick don’t know each other. The three of them will likely never meet. Nevertheless, they are part of the same community – a global community that will rise or fall together.

They share another common bond as well: they’ve all gotten an early look at how their leadership can change their community, and the world at large, for the better.