CNN Young Wonder: Sonika Menon

Sonika Menon, 15, and her Birthday Giving Program help bring parties to children, people with disabilities and senior citizens who might not otherwise get to celebrate.

Posted: Dec 12, 2018 11:02 AM
Updated: Dec 12, 2018 11:23 AM

It's easy to ignore the homeless encampment near your neighborhood, the pollution clogging the local beach or the faraway children who don't have resources to play a sport they love.

Solving those problems might seem insurmountable, but not to one group of teens and tweens who saw an issue and tackled it with passion and energy.

In advance of the 12th annual "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute," CNN will showcase five extraordinary young people making a difference in their communities and far beyond.

Hosted by Anderson Cooper, "Young Wonders: A CNN Heroes Special" airs Saturday December 8, at 8 p.m. ET. These five youths will also be honored during "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute" airing live Sunday, December 9, at 8 p.m. ET.

"The next generation reminds us of the unwavering foundation that really connects us all -- incredible acts of kindness, unconditional love and the promise of a better tomorrow," Cooper says.

Here are this year's five "Young Wonders":

Max Bobholz, Angels at Bat

Max Bobholz loves baseball.

After watching a Ugandan team make history as the first African squad to play in the Little League World Series, it was clear to Max that these kids loved the sport too. Many players in countries like Uganda, however, don't have access to the equipment it takes to keep a league going.

Inspired by the Ugandan team's pride in representing their country -- despite having very little equipment -- Max, now 18, decided to help. He'd been searching for a way to honor an inspirational coach who passed away suddenly in 2012, so he jumped in with both feet.

The result is Angels at Bat, a nonprofit that collects and distributes baseball equipment for children in rural Kenya. Max has traveled from his home in Green Bay, Wisconsin, to Kenya several times to deliver equipment and teach baseball to school-age children. The group also supports Kenyan baseball teams and tournaments.

"Teaching them baseball, it hit me like a brick," Max says. "I was a 14-year-old kid. At the time I had no idea the magnitude or the effect that it could have."

Today, Max and his group have collected close to 10,000 pieces of equipment, and expanded to include chapters in six states -- all led by teens.

Nearly every piece of equipment has #20, his late coach's number, written on it.

Learn more about Max's project.

Sonika Menon, The Birthday Giving Program

Sonika Menon throws a serious birthday party.

Birthday blowouts are a tradition for this 15-year-old and her family. When she learned there were other children in the Chicago area who didn't get the same consideration, she wanted to help. Enlisting her brother and cousins, Sonika formed the Birthday Giving Program, a nonprofit that brings birthday parties to kids and families in need.

"People aren't having parties because of affordability," Sonika says. "We want them to feel that their existence matters in the world."

The group provides a large cake and all the party supplies for a community celebration, complete with balloons, party hats and decorations. Recipients also receive a birthday bag customized for them, containing gifts such as clothing, toys, sports equipment, movie tickets or gift cards. They've delivered 500 birthday packages and counting.

Sonika's nonprofit partners with local shelters and organizations, including the Boys and Girls Club, to identify recipients, and her group joins in the celebration as much as possible.

Learn more about Sonika's project.

Liam Hannon, Liam's Lunches of Love

Liam Hannon, 11, found a creative and generous way to combat summer boredom.

Two summers ago, Liam told his parents that he didn't want to go to camp but he'd find a way to stay busy. So he started an online treasure hunt that challenged him to give back to his community. Realizing there were homeless men and women right outside the building where he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he set out to make them lunches.

In the first week, Liam loaded up a wagon and handed out 20 sandwiches with his dad's help. It quickly grew from there, and the pair have since given away more than 2,000 homemade meals from their green wagon. Liam decorates each paper bag with a positive message. His regulars know him by name.

"A lot of people treat them like they're not even humans, but they are, and this shouldn't be happening to them," Liam says.

Now Liam's group has a bigger electric wagon in the works to help increase the number of meals, and other supplies, he gives out. Ultimately, his goal is to have a Lunches of Love Food Truck.

Partnering with a local shelter, Liam's efforts grew to collecting and donating school supplies and toys for homeless children.

Learn more about Liam's project.

Melati and Isabel Wijsen, Bye Bye Plastic Bags

Isabel and Melati Wijsen don't take the Earth for granted.

Growing up on the island of Bali, the sisters have seen firsthand the harmful impact of discarded plastic on the ocean and marine life. When they were just 10 and 12 years old, they created Bye Bye Plastic Bags, an initiative to help Bali become plastic bag-free.

With a volunteer team of about 30 students, the group's efforts include beach cleanups and educating schools, families and local shops about the issue and what they can do. In its first "pilot village," the group is working to help the local shops and 800 families use alternative bags -- the girls say the village is two-thirds of the way to being plastic bag-free.

The sisters are working with students to build river booms -- which collect trash that would otherwise flow into the ocean -- and launched a social enterprise that empowers women to create alternative bags from recycled material.

"We're actually paying each woman for each bag she makes individually," says Melati. "They're resold in stores around the island and 50 percent of the profit goes back into the village, the community."

The girls' efforts are inspiring youth in communities around the world to join their movement.

Learn more about Isabel and Melati's project.

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