USA Today, January 2, 2007

    It's not all bad
    2006 won’t go down as a great year.  A bloody war in a far-away land and
    political nastiness set the tone. But dig deeper and you’ll see  a few rays of
    light amid the clouds of doom. Humanity, after all, is alive and well.

    By Bruce Kluger

    If you're anything like me, 2006 has left you in an
    exhausted heap, distressed and depressed that
    America has been swallowed up in its own star-
    spangled stew of bitterness and scandal—from the
    relentless political infighting and ceaseless clamor
    on talk radio to the pantyless Britney Spears.

    And don't even get me started on Kramer.

    But as the curtain rises on 2007, we do have a lot
    to smile about. I discovered this by conducting my own little experiment in optimism:
    Combing through a backlog of emails and clipped articles, I noticed that I'd been
    focusing my energy primarily on hot-button issues—from stem cells to the Iraq War.
    I suppose this is natural. After all, nothing gets the blood pumping like a good fight,
    and there are plenty of those to go around lately.

    Still, what about those stories that carry a whiff of (dare I say it) hope? Cultural
    watchdogs like to say that the media focus only on the bad stuff, but in truth, the
    good news is always out there—you just have to look for it.

    Here are a few items that, to me at least, make the New Year not only palatable, but
    maybe even something to celebrate:

    Keeping hope alive. St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis has
    achieved a 90% survival rate in its treatment of kids with acute lymphoblastic
    leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer. This is not a small thing.
    When entertainer Danny Thomas opened the doors to St. Jude in 1962, that
    survival rate was less than 4%—all but guaranteeing the death of the child. Now,
    lives are being saved. Meanwhile, St. Jude stands by its founding promise—that no
    child will be turned away for a family's inability to pay. In a nation in which 9 million
    kids are uninsured, that's not just good news. It's a blessing.

    The kids are all right. Not every teen is loitering in the electronic hallways of
    MySpace or zombied out in front of MTV's Pimp My Ride. Last year, I received a
    letter from USA TODAY reader Tom Marshall of Laytonsville, Md., responding to a
    column I had written about teen activism. Tom proudly noted that his 17-year-old
    daughter, Kathleen (and her friend Charlene Thomas), had devoted the previous
    summer ("590 hours in all") to organizing a walk-a-thon that generated more than
    $10,000 for the AIDS Research Alliance. It was the largest fundraising effort by a
    high school in ARA's history. This single act of charity, says dad, so inspired
    Kathleen that she subsequently traveled to Africa to lend a hand to AIDS victims in
    hospitals, clinics and orphanages in Botswana.

    Kathleen is in good company: According to a report by the Corporation for National
    & Community Service, teen volunteerism (ages 16 to 19) has more than doubled
    since 1989, thanks in large part to such organizations as the Boy Scouts, the Girl
    Scouts and 4-H. (Oh, yeah — some more good news: Girl Scout cookies now have
    zero trans fats. But that's another story.)

    The Pied Piper of pennies. Speaking of active youth, would you believe that
    children have raised more money for victims of Hurricane Katrina than most of the
    country's cash-fat corporations? Credit Anne Ginther of Dallas, whose non-profit
    organization Random Kid has raked in more than $10 million for Americans left
    homeless by the hurricane's devastation. In 2005, Ginther became captivated by
    the news-making efforts of a 10-year-old neighbor, Talia Leman, who had
    convinced a grocery chain to support her trick-or-trick campaign for Katrina relief
    dollars. Having already built her own kids' coin crusade on the Internet, Ginther
    joined forces with Talia, and they soon began marshalling a nationwide army of pint-
    sized fundraisers into the fold—kids who collect coins in buckets, sell lemonade on
    street corners and hector business bigwigs with all the self-assurance of a D.C.
    lobbyist. The money then flows to relief organizations such as Habitat for Humanity,
    the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund and Oprah's Angel Network.

    But to Ginther, it always comes back to the kids. "The amazing thing about
    children," she told me, "is that they don't see politics as an obstacle, they don't take
    no for an answer, and they do take sheer joy in everything they do. It's such a kick
    to see just how powerful a child can be."

    Are there any disadvantages to working with kids seven days a week? Says
    Ginther, "Well, they tend to get up early ... ."

    Special deliveries. While the rest of the country was fighting over the war in Iraq,
    Californian Carolyn Blashek was busy packing boxes. So began the 2006 holiday
    drive for her beloved brainchild, Operation Gratitude, which since 2003 has
    provided our servicemen and women overseas with regular care packages from
    home, brimming with donated items—from DVDs and sunflower seeds to baseball
    caps and Beanie Babies. This past year, more than 60,000 holiday packages found
    their way to American troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, bringing Op
    Gratitude's grand total to more than 200,000. "The idea is to let every
    servicemember who's been deployed know that someone cares about them,"
    Blashek told me during a rare break from the assembly line. "After more than three
    years, I feel like a mom to these people. Every one of them is in my blood now."

    Although Blashek doesn't like to play favorites, she admits that the most unusual
    item donated to Op Gratitude was a car. Postage must've been brutal.

    So that's what jazzes me these days. If none of the above gives you reason to head
    into 2007 with even an ounce of cheer, you can always fall back on another little
    thought—one that's guaranteed to perk up even the terminally dour: It ain't 2006.

    (Illustration by Alejandro Gonzalez, USA TODAY)