BRENDAN LIUJericho High School
China's Sichuan province is miles away from Long Island, but it's close to Brendan Liu's heart.
In May 2008, the province, the second most populous in China, was devastated by a magnitude 7.9 earthquake. At least 69,000 people were killed, and more than 18,000 were left missing. On a visit the next year, Liu saw two things that inspired in him a need to help that has had far-reaching
Liu took a 13-hour flight to visit his grandparents, who live in a small industrialized village in the Fujian province near the southeastern coast. When he walked into the bathroom and turned on the faucet, brown water filled the sink.
"I looked in disgust and confusion," said Liu, 17. "It was one of the most life-changing events in my life. I realized we, as Americans, are fortunate to have clean water available to us, whereas my grandparents had to struggle."
His grandparents explained that finding fresh water was difficult, and it was used sparingly for cooking and cleaning.
When he returned to Long Island, Liu, who is president of his school's environmental club, spent the next two years researching water purification at Stony Brook University, creating a novel membrane system that simultaneously filters and removes bacteria and heavy-metal particles from water. His work garnered national acclaim in the Siemens and International Sustainable World (Engineering, Energy & Environment) Project Olympiad (I-SWEEEP) competitions and won the $40,000 grand prize in the Lexus Eco Challenge for his high school.
Liu, who said he is looking forward to attending the University of California, Berkeley, where he will major in environmental engineering, recently started an initiative to recycle ink and printer cartridges in the school district.
In addition to his environmental efforts, Liu also wanted to help Sichuan's students, who saw many of their schools ruined in the earthquake. Inspired by helping his aunt collect and donate books for South African students diagnosed with HIV, Liu founded the nonprofit Pages4Life to donate books to Sichuan Elementary School.
To "help the literacy rate of disenfranchised youths," Liu, who struggled to read as a child, asked local libraries and schools on Long Island for new or used books to donate. But the shipping expense was an obstacle.
That is until he entered into a partnership with a local shipping company to offset the international shipping fees. Liu's first shipment in 2011 totaled 548 books. In all, he said, he has sent about 2,000 books to the school.
Liu's charitable streak extends beyond Asia.
He's been swimming "all my life," he said, and has been on the school swim team throughout high school. "I like the competitive spirit and camaraderie."
On Saturdays, as part of a school-sponsored program, he teaches youths how to swim. It's a paid position, but Liu forfeits the money -- about $200 a month -- so that needy children can get the lessons for free.
What makes you
"Throughout my whole life I've been challenged in many endeavors, but I work around them. It was definitely instilled by my parents."