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Giving back can either be a dream or a reality. These area teenagers turned their thoughts into actions and decided to make a change in their communities. No matter how big or small the change, they took initiative and tried to make a difference.

Nicholas Pollina, a junior at Nichols School, took a past memory and decided to duplicate it. During his fifth-grade year at Nichols, a “teddy bear toss” was held on the Dann Memorial Rink during a hockey game. Nicholas remembered how large attendance had been that night and the endless amount of teddy bears that were thrown on the ice to be given to hospitalized children.

As manager of the Nichols Prep A hockey team, Nicholas wanted to re-create the event. He took his idea to his history teacher, Caitlin Crowell, since she is a proponent of service outside of school. Then he pitched the idea to Nichols’ athletic director, Rob Stewert, and the Prep A hockey coach, Jamie Printz.

The idea was approved, and Nicholas began to spread the word via social media and during school meetings. During the team’s first home game in December, a teddy bear toss would be held to benefit Women & Children’s Hospital. Participants were asked to throw stuffed bears on the ice after the first goal was scored by Nichols.

“It was quite stressful waiting for Nichols to score,” Nicholas said. “I was constantly getting questions about what would happen if a goal never came … and it didn’t until the middle of the second period. When the bears rained down onto the ice I couldn’t help but watch and smile knowing that these bears would be going to kids in need.”

Nicholas and his sister Lauren, a freshman at Nichols School, already had personal connections to Children’s Hospital. Lauren is in charge of the Caring for Kids Club at Nichols and has participated in service with Children’s in the past, and Nicholas credits her relationship with the hospital as a major benefit in helping him follow through with the fundraiser.

“Her relationship with the good people at Children’s made the toss too easy to be coordinated,” he said. “There was no reason for me not to hold this fundraiser, as I had all the tools I needed right in front of me.”

More than 200 bears were thrown onto the ice, and to make the day even better, Nichols won in the final seconds of the game.

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Brady Stevens, also a junior at Nichols, uses his firewood business, Brady Stevens Firewood, to raise money for charities throughout Western New York. The proceeds from his sale of firewood, which he calls “Cords for a Cause,” go to the Food Bank, Goodwill, Riverkeeper and the Maria M. Love Convalescent Fund.

“Cords for a Cause would allow others a chance to give back to their community as well,” Brady said. “I wanted to facilitate charity for those around me.”

Brady first brought the idea up to his dad, who has been helping him with his firewood business for the past five years. He then told Aranya Maritime, head of Nichols’ Upper School, about his plan and after being approved, Cords for a Cause was off and running.

The firewood season ends at the end of winter, leaving Brady a lot of time to cut and sell his wood.

“At this point in time, I have raised a good chunk of money, but I hope to triple what I’ve made so far by the end of this year’s season,” Brady said. “Every cent of the money I raise this year will help someone in our city that needs it, and that’s awesome. Most kids never experience the warm feeling of giving back to their community until later in life, and I’m still 16.”

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Alexandra Castiglia, a junior at Nichols, chose to take action after being personally affected by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in the fall. Alexandra has family in the Philippines and was so inspired by their stories of on-the-ground efforts that she decided she wanted to help the victims, too.

“Luckily, none of my family was injured, but I thought it would be great if Nichols students could contribute in any way possible,” she said.

Alexandra, along with the help of Rachel de Perio, a sophomore, who also has family in the Philippines, came up with the idea to have a bake sale in which the proceeds would go to the Red Cross relief efforts associated with the typhoon. Along with the bake sale, the Nichols Middle School held a “dress-down day” to raise money for the relief efforts as well.

Alexandra and Rachel’s advisory groups – made up of other girls in their respective grades – worked the bake sale during the school day and also sold food during intermission of the school’s winter concert. In the end, $1,100 was raised.

“There was a huge sense of accomplishment when we finally sent the check to the American Red Cross,” Alexandra said. “It was great to see the Nichols community come together and support the Philippines. A lot can be accomplished when everyone works together.”

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Derek Penman, a junior at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute on Kenmore Avenue in Tonawanda, and some of his friends chose to make a simple yet strong statement. For their 16th birthdays, they decided to collect money instead of gifts and donate to a charity.

Derek and his twin, Dean, a junior at Williamsville North High School, ran the fundraiser. With the help of their friends who were also involved – Zac Kelly, Jeffery Calderon, Owen Green and Nick Lamastra, all juniors at Williamsville North – they decided on Western New York Heroes, a nonprofit organization that aids the families of soldiers who have died in duty, as their charity of choice.

“We chose Billy Wilson’s and Jonathon Cote’s families to donate to because they both went to Williamsville North and they were both known throughout the community,” said Derek.

The boys actually had done a similar fundraiser for their 13th birthday, but instead chose to donate to Hunter’s Hope, the charity founded by Jim and Jill Kelly. The fact that their first fundraiser was so successful played a role in having another one.

“After our 13th birthday party, it was a no-brainer that we wanted to do something again when we turned 16,” said Derek. “Before we knew it, everything was coming together and all of our wonderful mothers helped make this possible.”

Derek and his friends raised more than $2,000 for Western New York Heroes.

“When it was all over, it felt great to give back to the ones that served our country. The families that received the donations were overjoyed,” said Derek. “They couldn’t thank us enough.”

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Bryan Karas, a junior at Canisius High School, helped at St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy – a Catholic mission on the East Side designated to house and feed the less fortunate – during his junior varsity basketball season in his sophomore year and was touched by the kindness the people there had shown toward him and others.

“My friend had gone to Holy Angels and had always told me how the school had had a close connection to St. Luke’s and would often do fundraisers for them around the holiday season,” said Bryan. “I saw how enthusiastic she was and I knew that I must help in some way, shape or form, too.”

After having the idea to raise money for St. Luke’s, Bryan emailed Canisius President the Rev. Joseph Costantino to ask if he could point him in a productive direction. Bryan then sat down with the Rev. Frederick Betti, the leader of campus ministry at Canisius.

“As it turned out, St. Luke’s had already contacted Canisius about their need for cereal boxes. It seemed like fate that I came to Father Betti at the right time and we were able to combine the fundraisers,” said Bryan.

Bryan and his friends began to spread the word about the fundraiser. It was decided that a “dress-down day” would be held, along with a cereal box drive.

In the end, the Canisius community raised $1,800 and countless boxes of cereal for St. Luke’s. Bryan, five other boys and Betti then drove to St. Luke’s to deliver the money and food.

“The feeling of self-content came from the smiles and gratefulness of the workers. Everyone was so happy and upbeat that it permeated in to the rest of us, including myself,” said Bryan. “You could tell they needed all they could get and were extremely thankful.”

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All of these students agreed that leading their respective fundraisers left a positive impact on them that they will carry for a long time.

“If you have an idea, just go for it,” said Nicholas. “Go out, make a difference, and 110 percent of the time you will come back feeling hungry to do more.”

“When you find a cause that you are passionate about supporting, get a group of friends together to help accomplish your goals. It is more than worth it,” said Alexandra.

Carolyn Hoffman is a junior at Nichols School.