Wes Prankard knew his parents were up to something. His dad was madly typing away on a laptop, but changed the screen every time Wes tried to sneak a peak. With mischievous grins, his parents said he would be getting an important phone call very soon. When the call came, shortly after Christmas, the 13-year-old from Niagara Falls, Ont., nearly fell over.
In Dunedin, Florida, 15-year old Ishan Mandani's mother was just as cryptic. She told him she was forwarding a very important email, but wouldn't say what was in it. When he read the email, says Ishan, "I was going crazy!"
Fifteen-year-old Neha Gupta got the news from her father after she returned from school in Yardley, Penn. She started screaming, "Oh my goodness! I'm going to Canada!"
Why the collective freak-out? These teenagers had just won a prize any hockey-mad Canadian would covet.
Last week, Wes, Ishan, and Neha were flown to Ottawa, put up in the Lac-Leamy Hilton, and fêted by the Governor General at Rideau Hall. They attended the NHL All-Stars Skills Competition and had 100-level seats at Scotiabank Place for the January 29 All-Stars game. At a special reception, they got to meet some of the heroes of hockey -- NHL players including All-Star team captain Zdeno Chara and Mississauga-born John Tavares.
The real twist on this story is that, as far as the All-Star hockey players were concerned, these kids were the real heroes that night.
Wes, Ishan and Neha won the first All-Star World Changers Contest. Last year, the NHL and the NHL Players' Association set out to find and reward young people from across North America who were making an exceptional difference in their communities and around the world
From a roster of more than 250 amazing young people who applied, these three were the All-Star picks. To say they are exceptional is an understatement.
When Wes Prankard was 11, his father showed him photos of the Attawapiskat First Nations reserve in Northern Ontario. It seemed utterly unfair to Wes that, in one of the world's richest nations, there should be people still living in third world conditions. "I couldn't believe that this was in Canada."
So, on a cold day in March 2010, Wes and his father Bob camped out for 24 hours to raise money for the people of Attawapiskat. They collected $6,000 and then traveled to the reserve to deliver it in person.
On the reserve, one thing immediately caught Wes's eye. There was no playground. "There are 55 playgrounds in my community, and they didn't even have one!"
By giving kids on the reserve something to do, Wes learned, a playground could help reduce youth problems like drug abuse and criminal activity.
He set out on a year-long fundraising journey to raise money to buy and ship playground equipment to the remote reserve. He walked six kilometers every day until he had covered the same distance as if he had walked from his house to Attawapiskat. The Pepsi Refresh project contributed $25,000.
When he had raised enough, Wes found a company in Timmins to build the playground. It was loaded on a barge and sent north. With perfect timing, the structure was completed in Attawapiskat in time for Wes' birthday.
Now Wes has set a new goal: build a playground on every reserve in Canada. Aboriginal communities are lining up to get on his list. The estimated cost is $1 million. As well, Wes is raising $500,000 to establish a foster care center at Attawapiskat, in partnership with the Payukotayna Housing Authority.
This diminutive 13-year-old with the huge smile speaks with impressive clarity and knowledge of his subject. He is in high demand as a motivational speaker. His message: "You may not be able to do everything, but you can do something."
Ishan and Neha's stories are no less incredible.
At age nine, Ishan Mandani's mother took him to a senior's home. Seeing the impact this visit had for the lonely elderly residents, Ishan started a project to bring together school kids and seniors. The kids help their surrogate "Grandparents" create a memory book -- a scrapbook of the senior's life. It gives the two different generations common ground to talk about, and creates a treasured possession for the seniors.
His initiative has blossomed and today Ishan's Grand Kids Clubs are springing up in schools throughout Florida. They are even spreading to cities like Atlanta and New York.
Neha Gupta was also nine when she was inducted into a family tradition started by her grandparents in India. For every family birthday, they visit an orphanage to deliver gifts. So in 2005, Neha rallied some friends to organize a garage sale, raising $700 to buy books, clothes, and stationery for an Indian orphanage.
Neha has turned that tradition into a full-fledged organization, Empower Orphans, bringing opportunities to orphans and abused children in India and the U.S. At 15 years of age, Neha has raised more than $350,000 through her organization, opened libraries and computer and science labs, sponsored health clinics, and delivered food and supplies to more than 10,000 kids.
We met Wes, Ishan, and Neha at the game, and all three told us that, before now, they had not really followed hockey. They left Ottawa as new fans of Canada's national sport. But while Wes, Ishan, and Neha cheer for their teams, we'll be cheering for them.
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