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On a mission to change the world

Although I no longer desire to become an astronaut or the next president, my dreams and goals for the future are as great as they have ever been.

Last summer I traveled to Ecuador in South America with a humanitarian group called Free the Children. This experience changed my entire life.

Free the Children is the world's largest network of children helping children through education, with more than 1 million youths involved in 45 countries.

In May 2009, one of my teachers invited speakers from Free the Children to our school. Not only did the speakers from Free the Children talk about helping communities in poverty-stricken areas, but they talked about "freeing young people from the notion that they are powerless to affect positive change in the world."

The stories they told us of youths all over the world amazed me. Although I knew that I wanted to change the world one day, it had never occurred to me that I could make a change NOW. I was immediately interested in the trips offered by Me to We, an organization in partnership with Free the Children.

After more than a year of planning and fundraising, I left for Ecuador on July 21. The other 24 youths I was with were revved to make a difference, and our young leaders were ready to guide us. Over the course of the three-week trip, we would have an adventure that would bring us back excited and eager to spread the word.

Most of the trip took place in the rural community of Gulahuayco. Free the Children has already built a school there that gives free education to boys and girls and supports a number of women's groups where they are able to learn alternate income projects for their families.

Our main job was to supply the community with clean water, since the old water pipe had broken. We dug a meter-deep trench from an underground stream to the school, where after the water was filtered, the entire community could use it. The community had called a "minga," which is when everyone gathers together to accomplish a task. The enthusiasm and dedication to this project from the community was overwhelming -- people would drop everything to come help us, staying long after us and working late into the night.

In Ecuador alone, poverty affects 70 percent of rural communities and there are 1.7 million child laborers, often because the kids have to help their parents earn a living rather than going to school. We were able to spend many hours with young children from a neighboring area. The children were in a summer leadership program that taught them how to be active members in their communities and gave parents enough support so their children could go to school. We talked to them and learned about their families, and how many of them had only just begun to go to school since Free the Children had made it possible. The kids always seemed happy despite the poverty surrounding them. After meals we would see the kids taking any extra food and hiding it in their pockets to take to their families back home.

In the second community we visited, Llullin, we needed to build trust with the people because we were only the third group to enter. We had to stress to the community members that we were there to help them.

After two weeks, we left the high altitude and chilly temperatures and hiked into the Amazon rain forest where we made action plans that would be our guides for our lives back home. We had all seen so much poverty, malnutrition, no education and child labor -- as well as unbelievable love.

Each year there are trips to places such as Kenya, China, Ecuador, India, Mexico and Arizona, and are open not only to individuals but also to groups and families.

I will never forget those people and their everyday struggles to maintain life. I also won't forget that I -- or anyone with the will -- can make a change. You don't need to be overseas, or be rich, or even be grown up, to change the world.

Rainah Umlauf is a sophomore at Springville Griffith High School.

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