Zach Komes remembers seeing on television images of the tsunami that devastated Indonesia in 2004. Then in the fifth grade, Komes watched stories of children fighting for their lives in the wake of destructive waves from the Indian Ocean.
"These images, of vulnerable children just like me struggling halfway around the world, shook me," he said in his keynote speech Wednesday morning at the United Church of Christ’s National Youth Event at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
Komes, a recent high school graduate and member of Bethel-Bethany United Church of Christ in Milwaukee, Wisc., spoke to a crowd of 2,500 during the morning plenary session about making an impact, no matter how small the group, to change the world. He referenced anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has."
His speech kicked off Day 2 at NYE 2012, themed ‘Imagine a Healthy World,’ and was a springboard for a presentation on environmental activism in the Appalachian region, a day of different workshops and service projects. Some 91 workshops and service projects are being offered to teens during the event.
In reaction to the tsunami in 2004, Komes started a fundraiser with his class that collected $1,000 for UNICEF. The participation of his peers helped him realize the impact he could have on others who need help.
He's been a community activist since. In 2005, Komes founded the E-Z Coffee Stand in Milwaukee to raise funds to alleviate poverty around the world and increase awareness of humanitarian issues in his own community. Working with various aid groups, the stand’s annual projects have included funding a water well in Africa, buying animals for Heifer International, supporting a local organization that helps teach people agricultural skills to alleviate poverty, and helping to repair school buildings in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake.
Komes said he was "united through humanity and a duty to help our fellow man in any way I could," and that it is our responsibility as Christians and humans to make a difference.
"God calls us to love him by loving others, by providing food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, shelter to the homeless and love to the helpless," he said.
While Komes spoke of personal experiences in helping others, he imagines a better world, and asked the crowd to be active in their communities.
"Right now, our world is in desperate need of action," Komes said. "God is challenging us. Who will solve these great challenges? Who will stand up for those in need?
"The UCCs motto is, 'To believe is to care. To care is to do.' We are all called to do a justice in our communities. Together, working hand in hand, we can truly change our world."