When their youth group went on hiatus last summer in the absence of an adult leader, two teenage cousins from St. Thomas the Apostle parish in Delmar decided to take matters into their own hands.
Opening the group to other faith communities and three area schools, they founded Teens 4 Change (T4C) to attract their peers to community service and social justice.
Now at about 50 members, T4C includes students from the Academy of the Holy Names in Albany, LaSalle Institute in Troy and Bethlehem Central High School, as well as members from a Jewish temple and Protestant churches.
Diversity was important to co-founder Zachary Fuierer, a senior at Bethlehem Central. Not only would it mean more members, he explained, but it was also a way to prove that all members of his generation have "good faith and good morals. I feel like it's possible that everyone can come together for a cause."
T4C's most recent project was a garage sale that raised $1,157 for North Country Mission of Hope, a humanitarian organization based in Plattsburgh that sends mission groups and aid to Nicaragua.
Haley Grant, Zachary's cousin and a senior at AHN, inspired the group to tackle the fundraiser after taking a trip with classmates to Nicaragua this winter.
"It was so devastating, what they call their home," she said of the shacks she saw. At an orphanage and elsewhere, she also saw the need for children's clothing and toys.
Haley took hundreds of photos and posted about her trip on T4C's Facebook group. T4C members responded by distributing 1,000 fliers to collect garage sale items and advertise the sale, which would take place at Zachary's house.
Six hours in the hot sun on the day of the sale brought in money that Zachary pointed is worth about $20,000 in Nicaragua. It will be used for food and building supplies; some T4C members plan to visit the country next year.
T4C members have also participated in charity walks and the Salvation Army's Red Kettle Christmas campaign, and have volunteered at Catholic Charities' New Day Art after-school program for children in Albany's South End.
"I liked how goofy we were able to be in front of [the kids]," Haley said. "We had such a great time. You could see how happy they were."
Zachary returned to New Day Art over and over again, bonding especially with two young boys. He had initially thought the low-income children would be depressed, but found "they were happy kids. It definitely taught me to be more aware of what I have [and] changed my perspective of people.
"I think you just have to go down there and meet the people. People honestly just want to get to know you and spend time with you. I got to experience what it's like somewhere else."
T4C has taught members "people skills," said Zachary. He and Haley, who both attended the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis last year, hope to pass their leadership positions on to their younger siblings when they leave for college.
Until then, Zachary plans to partner with Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Capital Region for T4C's next project, and wants to form a T4C club at his school.
Since T4C started, St. Thomas the Apostle has hired a new youth ministry director; Zachary and Haley are still active there, too.
According to the teens, the level of T4C's involvement with charitable organizations separates it from other service groups. Said Zachary: "Every place we went to, we've remained in contact with."