These teens are working to end poverty: 'Everyone didn't have access to what I had access to and I needed to do something'

·Senior Lifestyle Editor
·5-min read

In August of 2020, while some were still baking pandemic sourdough and binge-watching television, Kayli Joy Cooper founded Girl Well, a non-profit organization that serves homeless teen girls by providing them with self-care kits.

"There was clear inequity surrounding self-care," the 17 year old tells Yahoo Life. "I knew that self-care was a big part of me getting through the pandemic, and when it clicked to me that everyone didn't have access to what I had access to, I knew that I needed to do something about it."

To date, Cooper's organization has provided self-care kits to more than 500 homeless girls in five states. Girl Well has also partnered with online teletherapy site Better Help to provide free counseling for girls in need.

Kayli Joy Cooper founded Girl Well, a non-profit organization that provides self-care kits to homeless teen girls, in 2020. (Photo: Kayli Joy Cooper)
Kayli Joy Cooper founded Girl Well, a non-profit organization that provides self-care kits to homeless teen girls, in 2020. (Photo: Kayli Joy Cooper)

"I just hold [the partnership with Better Help] very near to my heart," says Cooper, adding that helping girls incorporate mental and physical wellness into their daily lives is one of her passions. "I've been able to talk to some of the girls about the importance of not burning out and the importance of balance and this partnership works into that."

Cooper recently applied and got into to the Disney Dreamers Academy, an educational mentorship program created and hosted by Walt Disney World Resort that provides career-broadening opportunities for Black students and students from underrepresented communities across the U.S. Along with 99 other youth accepted into the 15th year of the program, the Los Angeles, Calif. teen recently spent four days in Central Florida attending networking workshops, hearing motivational speakers and more.

"We networked with professionals, but we also got to network with other young change-makers," says Cooper.

Cooper says she not only enjoyed networking with adults in various industries at the Disney Dreamers Academy, but also meeting other young change-makers. (Photo: Kayli Joy Cooper)
Cooper says she not only enjoyed networking with adults in various industries at the Disney Dreamers Academy, but also meeting other young change-makers. (Photo: Kayli Joy Cooper)

Another of those young change-makers was Elsa Woodarek, who came from Buffalo, N.Y. to attend the Disney Dreamers Academy. Woodarek says she lives in a tourist community that is known as a skiing destination. "We've got lots of second-homers that live in the village, but on the outskirts of the village is where the people who run our town live," Woodarek explains. "These are the people that go to my school and their families are the working class of America. I remember being in elementary school and seeing my classmates coming to school wearing, not necessarily just dirty clothes, but clothes that were worn."

Woodarek, 18, created the Ellicottville Central School (ECS) Caring Closet during her junior year of high school. The Caring Closet is an unused classroom transformed into a closet stocked with donated clothing, shoes and toiletry items her classmates can take as they need.

At her Buffalo, N.Y. school, Elsa Woodarek created a community closet where kids who need clothing, shoes or toiletries can take what they need. (Photo: Elsa Woodarek)
At her Buffalo, N.Y. school, Elsa Woodarek created a community closet where kids who need clothing, shoes or toiletries can take what they need. (Photo: Elsa Woodarek)

"There was something that clicked," she says. "I was like, 'We can make a change. We can provide for these kids.' Because it's not something they're actively doing to disadvantage themselves, this is just where we live."

Initially, Woodarek says her classmates were hesitant to visit the Caring Closet and take what they needed. Over time, however, that has changed.

"A few months ago, I took one of the fourth graders into the Caring Closet ... we have a little changing room closet and I was like, 'OK, well you can go in there,'" Woodarek recalls. "She was like, 'What do you mean a changing room? What do you mean a dressing room?' And I had this moment where I realized some of these kids have not even been shopping. They maybe didn't know what a fitting room was and now we're giving them this opportunity."

Woodarek was one of 100 teens from Black and underrepresented communities chosen to participate in the Disney Dreamers Academy in 2022. (Photo: Elsa Woodarek)
Woodarek was one of 100 teens from Black and underrepresented communities chosen to participate in the Disney Dreamers Academy in 2022. (Photo: Elsa Woodarek)

Once Woodarek graduates and leaves other students from her high school to carry on her legacy, she hopes to work in the medical field, helping others receive affordable healthcare.

"Healthcare affordability seems like something that needs to be fixed," she says, "and I want to help."

Olivia Jones, 17, from Silver Spring, Md. and Disney Dreamers Academy attendee, is presently working toward the same goal. When Jones was 6 months old, she was diagnosed with an enlarged heart and spent more than 100 days in the hospital before receiving a heart transplant 10 months later.

Olivia Jones received a heart transplant as an infant and now raises money to help other families pay for healthcare they cannot afford. (Photo: Olivia Jones)
Olivia Jones received a heart transplant as an infant and now raises money to help other families pay for healthcare they cannot afford. (Photo: Olivia Jones)

"I share my story at charity events to raise money," says Jones. "The money that I help raise goes to uncompensated care like art therapy and research. I don't want anybody to feel like they're in this alone."

"Having a heart transplant is expensive," she adds. "My family was blessed enough to have good health insurance but not everyone does, and that's why I do what I do."

In addition to speakers and mentors like Grammy-winning recording artist Kierra Sheard-Kelly, Captain Marvel actress Akira Akbar and Good Morning America Weekend host Janai Norman, Disney Dreamers received advice from founding member of Destiny's Child Kelly Rowland, who served as ambassador of the event.

Jones, who traveled from Maryland to Florida to attend the Disney Dreamers Academy, plans to study art history in college. (Photo: Olivia Jones)
Jones, who traveled from Maryland to Florida to attend the Disney Dreamers Academy, plans to study art history in college. (Photo: Olivia Jones)

"She was able to share some of her wisdom and just lift us up," said Woodarek.

"I remember when she was speaking, she started singing the Destiny's Child song "Survivor" and that just reaffirmed to me to not give up on my dream if it's not happening as quick as I would want it to," said Jones.

— Video produced by Stacy Jackman

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