Young people are the leaders of tomorrow. I have heard this many times, but I always thought that to be the leader tomorrow young people have to be today’s leader. And this conviction was reinforced after the interview I had with Simone Bernstein, a 21-year-old American girl, who, when she was 17, started VolunTEEN Nation, a platform to help young people find volunteering opportunities.
Despite her young age, her work was recognised by different people around the world. She was named one of 10 2010 L’ Oreal Women of Worth, January 2011 ‘Huffington Post’ Person of the Day and listed on the 2012 ‘Forbes’ 30 under 30 list for Social Entrepreneurs. What brought her to achieve these amazing results? “The conviction that you don’t have to be 50 years old to make a difference. You can start now.” And we are more than proud and happy to share how she started.
Simone was 12 years old when her father, a man working for the US Navy, was deployed to Afghanistan. For six months, her mother took care of her and her siblings alone. “At that time I realised that my father was doing something to serve the nation and he was a great example for me. On the other side, a lot of people helped our family in those months. So many people caring about us and I understood the big power of volunteering. So I decided that I wanted to volunteer too to help my community, but there were very few opportunities for people below 18,” says Simone.
After being active in her community for some years, Simone and her brother, at the age of 17, decided to create a platform to help young people volunteer in the local community. “Our idea was small and our concerns were small too. I told myself that if I was helping even one person, I would make a difference. I didn’t expect to change lives of so many people,” she says. It was July 2009 and with just 48 US Dollars (around Rs 3,000 ) she bought a domain and created a very simple website. “In the beginning it was almost a spreadsheet with NGO names and contacts. We soon realise that we were tackling an important need in the society and other young people started to join us. Thanks to Twitter and local media that published our story, we had more and more users visiting our website and looking for volunteering opportunity,” adds Simone.
Their small project was becoming famous and they needed to upgrade to scale up their reach. Unfortunately, they didn’t have enough HR or money to do it properly, but this was not enough to stop her. “In my journey with VolunTEEN Nation I learnt a big lesson: never be afraid to ask. We started to search online for contacts of people willing to help us and we started to write to all of them. We knew some people, while others were complete strangers. Obviously, a lot of them didn’t answer, but the ones who did were so amazed by our story that they somehow helped us. Someone gave us items, someone else ideas, some others their time and services pro bono. We were completely astonished by the support we were getting,” recalls Simone.
In some years the basic website become a professional one and the impact they were having in their local community started to spread nationwide. “We soon understood that the needs of our community were not different from the rest of the US, and in 2012 we launched our platform nationally. It was a great success that was achieved in a completely organic way. Till now, 48,500 volunteer experiences have been generated thanks to our platform and we have 150 people working for VolunTEEN Nation on a volunteer basis. It’s incredible!” says Simone.
Right now Simone is a junior in an eight-year combined medical school program at St. Bonaventure University in Upstate New York. She decided not to drop out and to continue her education. “For me education is a priority. What I’m learning in class is helping me to expand VolunTEEN nation and to improve myself. Moreover, I decided to go to a small school in a small community and that allowed me to dedicate six hours a day to the organisation without any distractions. It’s hard, I need to plan my day well. I wake up early and go to sleep late, but I’m still trying to achieve my goals every day,” she says. VolunTEEN Nation is planning to launch internationally. “Next year, we want to bring our platform to all the continents. We are talking with a lot of people willing to help and volunteer in every country, including India. We are dreaming to create a worldwide movement of young people who want to volunteer to serve their community. Regarding myself, I’m looking forward to launch another social enterprise combining my interests for science and social purpose. I will still be in the board of directors of VolunTEEN Nation, but I will not work actively, since we would like to keep the team under the age of 25. Ours is a platform for youth by youth,” says Simone.
In her message to all the young people who would like to become social entrepreneurs, she says, “There is nothing special about me. I just had an idea and I expanded. I’m not special. Everyone can make a difference in the community. You just need to ask. We, as young people, have the energy and creativity to change the world. You just need to put your idea into practice.”