Now, Joel's work is being recognized. He was named one of 80 semifinalists for the Huggable Heroes program conducted by the national Build-A-Bear Workshop.
"It's a huge deal," said Joel, 16, a junior at Kamiak High School. "It means our name will get out there. Getting coverage can really help us expand."
The heroes program is in its ninth year is supposed to recognize youth who work in their communities to make the world a better place. This year, the program received more than 1,100 entries. Joel is the only semifinalist from Washington.
"The Build-A-Bear Workshop Huggable Heroes program recognizes young leaders who demonstrate extraordinary service for causes that make a difference in their local communities and around the world," spokeswoman Shannon Lammert said.
In mid-May, the field of semifinalists will be narrowed to 30. The 10 winners are scheduled to be announced in early June. Each winner will receive a $7,500 scholarship and $2,500 to donate to the charity of their choosing.
If he wins, Joel would like to donate his charity portion to his own charity -- if it's allowed.
Besides organizing fundraisers and helping run the nonprofit, Joel is training his 14-year-old brother Michael to keep the nonprofit going after he graduates.
There also are talks with students in other schools to create similar nonprofits to help other countries, he said.
Hugs for Ghana has always been an organization that is entirely run by students. The group has held several fundraisers, one of which received 700 teddy bears in one month, he said. Last February, the group hosted a Ghana culture night which raised $5,000 to pay for school supplies in the country in western Africa.
"It's amazing that kids my age want to make an impact in other people's lives," Joel said. "My generation is stepping up."
Joel and his sister chose teddy bears because their parents told them about missionaries giving stuffed animals to kids.
Drives for donations have been done this school year in Kamiak, Horizon Elementary School and Harbour Pointe Middle School and Newport High School in Bellevue.
There are also plans to have a new fundraiser at the beginning of next school year to get sports equipment for Ghana.
Alejandro Dominguez: 425-339-3422; email@example.com.
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