WHO: Ten-year-old Orion Jean from Fort Worth.  

WHAT: He plans to collect 500,000 books for kids in need, and has gathered 40,000 so far. 

WHY IT’S SO GREAT: When Orion Jean won the National Kindness Speech Contest last year, the then nine-year-old could have saved the $500 prize for his college fund (or blown it on Legos) and called it a day. Instead, he used his winning speech as a launchpad for a yearlong effort to spread kindness across Texas and around the country. With the help of his mother Kherri Jean, he set up a website called Race to Kindness last summer. Then he was on the lookout for his first project. 

He decided to start by donating toys to sick kids at Children’s Medical Center Dallas. “These kids are my age, and they’re just kids like me,” he recalls thinking before he launched a drive for five hundred toys in August 2020. Jean’s parents had helped him set up social media pages, and he filmed videos about the toy drive for them to post on his behalf. Donations began streaming in, and he collected and donated 619 toys to the hospital in only a month. 

Not long after, in October, Jean set the ambitious goal of donating 100,000 free meals in time for Thanksgiving. “One of the most memorable parts of Thanksgiving is about the food and being thankful for the things that you have,” he says. “Unfortunately, some people may not have Thanksgiving meals, or meals in general on other nights. I felt like it was of great significance that we ended the drive around that date.” 

Jean partnered with TangoTab, a Dallas-based dining app that aims to fight hunger, on the effort. The collection was going steady as people dropped off packaged meals at a series of events held in Oklahoma and Texas, but then Jean’s project got some real momentum when he began receiving unexpected donations from other states. “There were people from all around the country and all around the world, really, who were able to help us reach this goal. I think that’s what made it so great,” he says. For weeks, Jean used his lunch breaks and recess periods during virtual school to decorate brown lunch sacks with encouraging handwritten messages like “You are brave” in rainbow colors. He donated the meals just in time for Thanksgiving weekend. 

But why stop there? An avid reader, Jean says he saw a statistic stating that two out of three kids living in poverty have no books of their own. He decided to collect 500,000 books for disadvantaged children. So far, he has gathered some 40,000 books and hopes to have the rest by the end of August, after at least two more book drop-off events he’s scheduled in the Dallas–Fort Worth area. “We’ve got a long way to go, but we believe with the support of the community and hopefully the country, that we can reach this goal and help kids get books that they might not have had otherwise,” he says. 

While juggling his fundraising events and school (don’t forget, he’s only ten), Jean, who hopes to be an author when he’s older, has spent much of the last year writing his first book, A Kids Book About Leadership, which will come out in September. In it, he gives other children advice on how to make a difference in their communities, whether it’s offering a simple wave to a neighbor or hosting a fundraising event. “You have to lead by example so others follow. And don’t forget, when you lead with kindness, everybody wins,” he writes. When he isn’t working, Jean likes to watch Phineas and Ferb, play video games, read (right now he’s reading The STEAM Chasers series), and spend time with his dog, Tuff. 

Will he take a break after 500,000 books? “Who knows, maybe something even bigger will come,” Jean says. “Maybe we’ll do a race to a million.”