Youth Changemaker: Janelle Gard

"Janelle is an example of someone who has overcome extraordinary odds to give back through working with community leaders to ensure homeless young people get the services they need.  This is the kind of input that only young people like Janelle can give and we recognize her for her efforts."

- The Campaign for the Presidential Youth Council

Janelle, 18,  has been actively involved in her community since she was a freshman at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Washington, advocating for comprehensive programs and services for runaway and homeless youth.

Janelle's advocacy for social programs is motivated not just by a desire to serve, but by her own experience. Janelle grew up in a home without a father and with a drug-addicted mother. Her step-father was abusive, and was treated as though she was, in his words, her parents' mistake.

As a teen without a stable home, she didn't have a safe place to turn to. She saw many of her friends, also from broken homes, feeling similarly lost. Fueled by this, she decided it was time to take action, and made it her mission to find out about the options available and make sure all young people are informed about their options. She also strives to reduce the stigma about homelessness and, most importantly, to reach out and engage other youth who are experiencing what she went through.

In the past four years, she has worked to keep community mobilization and youth homelessness programs in the Washington State budget. For the past three Februarys, she has traveled with the group Youth Leading Change to Olympia, Wash., and personally met with her Representatives and Senators to talk about the importance of preserving this funding. In each meeting, she told her story, sharing how the programs helped her and how they would help fellow youth in her district.

Her trips to the capitol got her interested in the legislative process, and from there, her advocacy blossomed. After a year of research about programs for runaway and homeless youth, Janelle and some of her peers decided to hold a town hall and invite their county and state legislators as well as quality local service providers.

This event introduced Janelle to fellow youth advocates in her area, and they eventually came together to form the Pierce County Youth and Young Adult Advisory Council. Working with other peer leaders, Janelle is helping to design a local youth drop-in shelter to serve runaway and homeless youth in her community.

Janelle recently finished an internship at Safe Street Campaign, a nonprofit community Mobilization Organization in Pierce County whose mission is to "empower individuals, families, youth, neighborhoods and organizations to create safe communities."

During her internship, she helped organize and train block groups, who get together and act as watchmen for the community. Block groups are trained on how to handle emergencies (and the the difference between a 911 emergency and a cop-involvement emergency).

"The block groups' main purpose is to get communities together and help them get to know each other so if something suspicious happens or an emergency strikes, they know who to call and how to help each other," says Janelle.  "As an intern, learned that in my profession I want to work out in communities and with people, not at a desk." 

She also advised Safe Streets' youth chapter, Youth Leading Change, which is a club in numerous high schools in Pierce County of youth who take an active role in school-wide projects.  As advisor, she and her peers oversaw training and acted as 24/7 mentors. "We were always on call so anyone could call or text us, and we we would be there for them," she says.

Janelle graduated from high school in June 2013 and is attending Washington State University in the fall on a full scholarship. She has no intention to stop what she has started: Her dream is to become a high school teacher and to give back to her community and become a mentor to young people who struggle with unstable families and low self-esteem.

"My reaction to be named a SparkAction 24 under 24 Changemaker was pure shock and surprise. I am blessed to be given such an opportunity and can't wait to see what happens next," she says.

"There is a lot of power behind a group of youth voices," says Janelle.  "Youth are often looked down upon and thought of as having no idea what is for the best; but most times, it's the exact opposite. Policies passed now are going to effect youth the most in the long run, so they need a voice."


This profile is one of the Top 24 Under 24 Youth Changemakers, a series hosted by SparkAction and the Campaign for a Presidential Youth Council to recognize young changemakers influencing policy and practice at the local, state and national levels.

The members of the youth-led Campaign chose the 24 youth who are featured in this series, from entries submitted by peers and mentors. Read about the selection process.

We’re always looking for more profiles of young people making a difference, so submit one of your own!


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