St. Louis, Missouri
Only 22, Simone Bernstein is our youngest-ever Classic Woman Awards honoree—and one of our most unstoppable. When her father was deployed overseas with the military in 2003, she was 12. Inspired by his service and the community’s outpouring of support for her family (her working mom had three children 12 and younger), she wanted to give back. Nine organizations rejected her application to volunteer because she was too young. So Simone set up a lemonade stand with five sliced lemons, a brightly colored poster, and a glass jug of lemonade. “I collected money to send cards and care packages to deployed soldiers,” she recalls. “While my total sales of $125 did not make a tremendous impact, it consoled me to realize that even a young person could offer comfort to soldiers.”
The rejection experience nagged at her, so in 2009 she and younger brother Jake co-founded VolunTEEN, a regional, paperless, youth-run, all-volunteer, online organization. The now-national clearinghouse has since connected 78,500 young people with volunteer opportunities. “Teens don’t have money,” Simone notes, “but they do have time.” The first week, she and her brother fielded 1,000 applications. They developed the only database of its kind, searchable by volunteer opportunities, interests, location, and age restrictions. VolunTEEN Nation has funded more than 500 grants and leads service projects—holding inner-city sports clinics for disadvantaged and special-needs youths, helping seniors acquire technical skills, and working on community projects. “You can start a park cleanup project with $5,” Simone notes. “All you need is bags and gloves.”
When Simone was 17, she was invited to a meeting of civic-minded people, where she was asked if she was the child of an attendee. That was a turning point. “I realized that many people fail to understand that youth can make a difference. The millennial generation is skilled and driven, and they are not afraid to adapt to new scenarios. They have a great familiarity with communication and digital technologies, which are strengthening relationships and allowing communities to grow and develop.”
Today, Simone is a Fulbright scholar at the University of Toronto who plans to take VolunTEEN Nation worldwide next year. She will also begin medical studies at George Washington University in 2015. Convinced that having her organization run for youth and by youth is key to its success, she vows to bow out in three years: “I want it always to be run by someone younger than 25.” We can’t wait to see what she does next!