Don’t you love talking to people when they are twinkling? It’s that moment when you’re looking them in the eye and can actually feel their energy while they tell you about an experience that made them feel really, really alive.
Sitting down to talk with Helen Kassa, a first-year student at Santa Clara University and an emerging social entrepreneur, I experience the kind of twinkle that inspired a nursery rhyme.
She simply sizzles with a vibe that says, I don’t wait for things to happen—I make opportunities for myself.
How else can you explain how a young woman – before her 18th birthday – managed to introduce former president Bill Clinton onstage at an event while volunteering for Hilary’s campaign, chat up President Obama at a fundraiser, and talk policy with U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi?
But perhaps even more telling of her scrappiness is Helen’s explanation of the time she met Oprah Winfrey.
Helen had just gotten her driver’s license and was a junior at Prospect High School in Saratoga. She was at home on Twitter, watching the live streaming of Oprah’s speaking engagement at Stanford University, when she asked herself, “Why am I sitting here at home watching this when Oprah is twenty minutes away from here?”
With her newly printed license in hand, she asked her mother if she could use the car to go to the store. Instead, she barreled up 280 to Stanford, parked her car with such haste that she forgot to the turn the headlights off, and made her way to the venue with only minutes to spare.
When she got to the door and the usher asked for her ticket – a ticket, mind you, that would have been procured by lottery months before – she talked her way in.
Once inside, she made her way, not to the back corners as one might do when arriving at the end of a presentation, but to the second row. She saddled up next to a woman skeptical of her late arrival and took in the final words of one of her idols.
As Oprah wrapped up, Helen shouted out, “Oprah, can I have a hug?” and before she knew it she was onstage getting an embrace and a selfie with one of America’s biggest influencers.
With this kind of guts, it’s no surprise to learn that Helen’s list of accomplishments goes far beyond rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful.
In fact, her desire to affect change started when she was eight-years old and traveled to Ethiopia to bury her beloved grandmother, a woman who had lived in the U.S. with her family and cared for her while instilling the values of education and cultural pride while her parents worked full-time to provide for the family in San Jose.
While in Ethiopia to honor her grandma’s final wish of being buried in her native country, Helen saw the beauty of her heritage but also much of the hardship. She saw young children working on busy streets selling candy and washing car windows while they waited at stoplights. Young Helen was bewildered that children would do this instead of going to school as she was able to do back home in the States.
She was so moved by taking in this image firsthand that she was inspired to take action. Once she got home, she started saving the money she received for her birthday and Christmas, sold water bottles at all of the elementary school events, and eventually learned to employ crowd funding.
The spirit of involvement and activism is something she saw modeled by her parents. “My dad is really involved in the Ethiopian community here and always taught me that if I wanted something to be changed I had to speak up and contribute/do it myself,” explains Helen. “And my mom always pushes me on my academics and is a big reason why I value school so much.”
With their guidance, Helen named her effort Giving Hope to Kids Like Me. During three family trips to Ethiopia, she has provided school supplies for 1200 students. She has purchased blackboards and sports equipment, created merit-based scholarships, and formed partnerships with corporate donors to build a fully equipped science lab.
It eventually occurred to Helen that she could accomplish more by involving others, so she founded the Girls Lead Forward club. Her purpose was now twofold: to empower other young women in leadership roles and serve more people in need.
Her next step was to get involved with a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). There, her natural leadership instinct led her to the role of Education Chair for California and Hawaii in the Youth & College Division. She was soon sought out to mentor her peers in interview skills, career development, networking, leadership, and civic engagement.
These experiences have taken Helen to Paris to participate in the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference and granted her an invitation to give a TEDx Talk titled “Bring Out Your Inner Black Woman,” which discusses the intersection between race, gender, and identity.
Helen’s activism was highlighted in a Huffington Post article that included praise for both her actions of advocacy and her words, as well, in the form of her school newspaper column, “The Black Voice.”
She was also the recipient of the 2016 Princeton Prize in Race Relations. As one of 30 high school students from around the U.S., Helen was selected to travel to the Princeton University campus to be recognized for her commitment to advancing the cause of positive race relations and her work to increase understanding and respect among all races.
Helen is now in her second week of classes at Santa Clara University, a school she selected because the theme of social justice is woven throughout the curricula there. This, combined with the diverse “peoplescape” of the Bay Area, creates an environment Helen thinks will suit her activist spirit well, as she continues to employ her words and actions for the advancement of human rights.
The question that now begs to be asked is what will this twinkling little star do next?
One thing’s for sure, she’s going to continue making people proud to call the Bay home.