Orion Jean is far from a typical sixth-grader.
Earlier this year, while he was 11, he was named Time Magazine’s Kid of the Year and earlier in August he received the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. On top of that, he’s a published author, having written “A Kid’s Book About Leadership.”
Orion, who recently turned 12 and now lives in Mansfield, began his journey two years earlier when he won the 2020 “Think Kindness National Speech Contest,” in which he challenged people to change the world by being kind.
“As luck would have it, I ended up winning, and I was given some prize money,” he explained.
In the speech, he talked about how the pandemic had made it difficult for families to gain access to housing and food. He also talked about how kids, like Orion, were all struggling to adapt to virtual learning.
“I knew that I couldn’t just talk about it,” he said. “I had to be about it. I had to do something about it.”
So he used his prize money to start “Race to Kindness.”
The first initiative of the organization was the “Race to 500 Toys.”
“I was able to collect money from the community so we could buy toys for a local children’s hospital in Dallas.” he said.
Orion didn’t meet his goal. He exceeded it, collecting 619 toys.
He next organized the “Race to 100,000 Meals” and partnered with TangoTab, a Dallas-based nonprofit aimed at eradicating hunger. With them, he collected 100,000 bagged meals for food- insecure families.
Those efforts gained Orion and his organization a lot of attention, including being named Time magazine’s Kid of the Year for 2021. The award was announced in February 2022.
Orion works at a meal-packing event for his “Race to 100,000 Meals.” (Courtesy photo: Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes)
Orion had gone to New York for a Nickelodeon program and was then surprised with the award. He got to meet several celebrities, including Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show.”
“It was a big surprise. I had no idea,” he said.
He received a cover story and an interview by one of Time’s occasional special correspondents, actor and activist Angelina Jolie.
“She was great, and it was an honor because I knew she had done a lot of work for others herself,” he said.
In May 2021, Orion, an avid reader, decided to launch the “Race to 500,000 Books” to help families who couldn’t afford books or don’t have access to reading materials.
“I’m a huge book fan,” Orion said.
The organization’s website points to studies showing that children who have books in their homes do better academically.
“I think that’s true. I like reading books, and I want other people to as well,” he said. “Sometimes I think people who say they don’t like to read just haven’t found the right book, so we want to give them the opportunity. If you don’t like one book, try another until you find something you like.”
The organization has already met his goal and it is currently working with literacy and community nonprofits to distribute the books to children at free book fairs across Texas.
Earlier in October, Orion received another honor, being one of 25 young leaders receiving the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, a national award that celebrates inspiring, public-spirited young people from across the U.S. and Canada. The awards were established in 2001 by author T. A. Barron and named for his mother, Gloria Barron.
Orion’s works have been noticed by kids elsewhere.
He recently received some letters from an elementary school in Massachusetts from students asking how to start doing philanthropic works in their community.
“I think that that is so powerful, just knowing that there are other kids out there just like me who want to help but don’t know exactly where to start,” he said. “To know that I had even a small part in making someone feel like they have a voice or that they can make a difference is an opportunity and a chance that I will never forget.”
Of course, his parents are also big fans.
“My husband and I are proud of Orion and the challenge he has created for us to all race to kindness,” said his mother, Kherri Jean. “It’s been humbling to see people coming together for a common cause to share kindness with others.”
Kherri Jean is an account manager for a healthcare company and his father, McDonald Jean is a vice president of account management for a health care cost containment company.
Despite all the attention, Orion says he is still a kid.
“I still have normal kid hobbies,” he said.
He is currently learning how to play the drums and play basketball.
“We’ll see how it goes,” he said.
And sometimes he just watches movies, plays with his little brother and his dog, Tuff.
“I still forget to clean up my dog’s poop and take out the trash,” he said. “Part of being a Kid of the Year is still being a kid.”
Birthplace: Fort Worth
Family: Mother, Kherri Jean; father, McDonald Jean and a younger brother, 8.
Education: Previously public school at Mary Orr Intermediate School in Mansfield Independent School District, but now attends virtually.
First job: Author of “A Kid’s Guide to Leadership” at age 11.
Volunteer experience: Started “Race to Kindness,” which has raised funds for toys for children in hospitals, then gathered 100,000 meals to help feed the community during the pandemic. The organization is currently working to gather 500,000 books for children who don’t have access to reading material.
Advice for someone learning to be a leader: “I tell them that, if there’s something that they’re really passionate about, that nothing can stop them. If they have something in their community that they really want to make a difference about, then I say that they should go out and do it.
“Contact an adult and let them know what your ideas are and they can help you. You can put your heads together and they can help you really do something about it. Because the thing is, there are plenty of people in the world who want to help but don’t know where to start or don’t feel like they have enough of a voice or they’re old enough to do anything.
“And I think that that mentality is what’s stopping things from getting done. If kids and adults alike realize that we have the power to make a difference together, then anything is possible.”
Best advice ever received:”For me, it was my parents. They were the ones who encouraged me from the start to even enter in the (speech) competition. When I found out about it, there were less than 24 hours to submit an entry and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it or not because I felt like I was at a disadvantage. But my parents told me, ‘You can’t win if you don’t enter.’ And that advice has continued to motivate me and their advice has continued to motivate me through whatever race we’re doing.”
Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.