While the nation erupted in protests during the summer of 2020 and many young people used their platforms to take a stance on injustices, Taryn Wells felt she could make an impact.
“I wanted to figure out what I could do to help my community and actually make a difference because I didn’t feel like just posting on social media was enough,” said Taryn, now 14 and a freshman at Lawrence High School.
Taryn moved to Lawrence in 2019, and by the summer of 2020, she had discovered her place in the community and participated in various volunteer projects as a member of the United Way Youth Service Coalition, which provides middle and high school students a platform to serve the community through equity work.
Taryn recruited friends to join her service efforts and took the lead on a project that involved a photo exhibit reflecting historical social justice protests and present-day Black Lives Matter protests in Lawrence.
“It brought awareness and showed that there were really protests everywhere and change needed to happen,” the soft-spoken teen said of the project.
Taryn conducted research, helped get permission to use the photos and assembled the exhibit with her group members. At the time, she was the only middle school student member of the group and the youngest.
“Having an eighth grader step up amongst all high schoolers was incredible to see,” said Kjersten Abel Ruch, director of community engagement at the United Way of Douglas County.
The exhibit was in partnership with Lawrence Public Library, Spencer Museum and photographer Shannon Reid. Debuting on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and on display through Black History Month, the photos were showcased in windows of the Teen Zone at the Lawrence Public Library. As people walked or drove by, they were able to visualize the power of social movements in Lawrence’s past and present.
For her community volunteerism, Taryn is the recipient of the 2020 Galluzzi Volunteer of the Year Award. Taryn is one of a dozen youth recipients since the award began in 1985. She was nominated by the United Way Youth Service Coalition.
The Wallace Galluzzi Volunteer of the Year Award is presented annually to Lawrence community members who have made a positive impact through their volunteer service. It’s named in honor of the late Wallace Galluzzi, an active community leader who was appointed superintendent of Haskell Institute in 1968. Marion Belcher, of Lawrence, also received the award. The United Way of Douglas County’s announcement of the 2020 award winners lagged because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The photo exhibit, made possible through a grant from Youth Service America, was just one of Taryn’s projects. She also participated in creating mental health first aid kits as tools for middle school counselors to utilize when assisting students.
In addition, Taryn — a proud enrolled member of the federally recognized Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma who is both Indigenous and white — helped make seed kits for the Lawrence Farmer’s Market. The kits consisted of green beans, squash and corn, which are known as the Three Sisters. The three sisters planting method is widely used by Native American communities who believe the ingredients “work together to help one another thrive and survive.”
Along with volunteering, Taryn shares her talents and creativity through entrepreneurship. Last summer, she taught herself how to make earrings from a YouTube video and decided to start her own business, making and selling Native American beaded hoops. Now, she sells these handcrafted pieces through her business Instagram page, @tarynbeadz, and on Facebook Market.
With a passion for storm chasing and analyzing weather, Taryn has dreams of becoming a meteorologist someday. But she said her future will not exclude volunteering.
Taryn is currently working on a new project to combat food insecurity. She plans on utilizing the three sisters method for seed kits again and making a list of free food resources to share with community members.