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Downingtown girl who raised millions for malaria nets treated as hero in Taiwan

In the Asian island nation of 23 million, elementary school kids read about Katherine's childhood charity campaign in class while parents seeking to raise exceptional children learn her story from a viral video on YouTube – and she's even featured in a popular board game aside the Afghan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala.

Katherine Commale, 17, at her Downingtown home June 26, 2018, She started raising money for mosquito nets to prevent malaria when she was 7 years old and recently returned from a trip to Taiwan where she gave a TED-type talk and met the president. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Katherine Commale, 17, at her Downingtown home June 26, 2018, She started raising money for mosquito nets to prevent malaria when she was 7 years old and recently returned from a trip to Taiwan where she gave a TED-type talk and met the president. TOM GRALISH / Staff PhotographerRead moreTom Gralish

At 17, Katherine Commale already knows what it's like to have strangers beg for her autograph, to be profiled on TV news shows, to be featured in books and greet adoring crowds of kids.

And yet most Americans have never heard of the Downingtown teen, a rising senior at Germantown Academy.

It's a different story 8,000 miles away in Taiwan, where the tale of how Katherine started raising money for mosquito nets in African villages when she was 5 and became a spokesperson for a U.N.-affiliated philanthropy called Nothing But Nets has made her a hero — a phenomenon she didn't fully realize until she and her family visited there this month.

In the Asian island nation of 23 million people, elementary students read about Katherine's childhood charity campaign while parents seeking to raise exceptional children learn her story from a viral YouTube video. She's even featured in a board game beside the Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.

"I am not Malala whatsoever," said Katherine, somewhat bemused by her celebrity on the other side of the globe. It's an unexpected chapter in a story that began a dozen years ago with the humanitarian instincts of an innocent child and a fateful push of the TV remote.

The PBS show that Katherine's mother, Lynda, watched that night in 2006 — Malaria: Fever Wars — depicted people fighting the mosquito-borne disease blamed for millions of deaths in Africa and elsewhere. The next morning she told Katherine about the program; the little girl was particularly troubled to hear that a child died from malaria every 30 seconds.

Lynda Commale recalled that Katherine "started counting 30 seconds. She looked up at me with fear and also annoyance. I totally switched the conversation" — to things they could do to help, like donating nets that surround a child's bed each night, when mosquitoes are active.

"Why can't we send bed nets?" Katherine asked. Soon, Katherine and her younger brother Joseph were making a diorama out of a pizza box, using tiny dolls to represent an African family living in a hut. Later, they devised a more elaborate act with her brother dressed as a large, furry mosquito.

They took their show to Sunday school, then to other churches, and finally to the United Methodist Church convention. When that first effort ended, Katherine and her family sent $1,500 to the United Nations Foundation to purchase mosquito nets, typically $10 apiece. "They called," her mother recalls, "and said, 'Who are you people?'"

The same documentary had prompted then-Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly to launch his own campaign for African malaria aid through the U.N. group — he called it Nothing But Nets. Katherine and her family were invited to the official launch in New York on her sixth birthday.

The next few years were a whirlwind. Katherine came up with an idea for hand-decorated gift cards as Christmas stocking stuffers that told the recipient a mosquito net had been donated on their behalf. They generated about $8,000 a year.

When Katherine was 10, she attended the first Malaria Awareness Day at the White House, and later a Clinton Global Initiative event where she met President Bill Clinton. He mentioned Katherine's story to his daughter, Chelsea, who included it in a book called It's Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired & Get Going!

Although Katherine's frenetic pace slowed as she entered middle school and high school, her fame was rising halfway around the world.

Around the time Katherine was in middle school, reports of her efforts inspired the Taiwanese author Kuang-Tsai Hao to write a book about children who changed the world. The tome — entitled Today and later republished as Hero 365 — became required reading for elementary school students in Taiwan. Then Hao talked about Katherine in a TedX Taipei video on how to raise exceptional children; it's since been viewed online more than 1.8 million times.

In an email, Hao said he was so impressed with Katherine. "She was so small and did something big, while kids at her age are playing," he wrote.

In March, Katherine got an email from the Maria Social Welfare Foundation, a service organization for people with disabilities in Taiwan. The group asked if Katherine and her family could come this spring and deliver a kind of Ted Talk for kids called a HERO Talk.

Foundation spokesperson Amy Yu said they hoped the Commales would inspire Taiwanese children to do more charitable work. They were especially eager to hear how Lynda championed her daughter at such a young age.

"Katherine's work has changed millions of lives, and this cannot be done without the strong support of her parents," she wrote in an email.

Katherine said she was at first nervous about the long flight and speech request, but any qualms were put to rest by the red-carpet treatment they received.

The 70-minute talk to about 3,000 kids and teachers — "it wasn't about the nitty-gritty of malaria, but teaching service," Katherine said — was a big hit, especially with Taiwan's vice president, Chen Chien-jen, who presented Katherine with a Global Charity Ambassador Award.

The next day, Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's president, welcomed Katherine's family to the presidential palace with other children honored for volunteering. During the meeting they exchanged small gifts with the "very warm" leader of the island nation; the Commales gave her a Nothing But Nets T-shirt, and, of course, a mosquito-net donation card.

During the rest of the visit, the family tried to pack in sightseeing between interviews on Taiwanese news shows. But what stayed with Katherine the most was her nonstop interactions with everyday Taiwanese who pressed her for autographs.

For Katherine, the trip was a reminder that the adventure that began that morning at her kitchen table isn't over, despite raising an estimated $2 to 3 million for Nothing But Nets and seeing the malaria rate of deaths decline from every 30 seconds to every two minutes.

"I've never received so much kindness and love, not only from Hero Foundation but the students that I met," said Katherine, who's been corresponding with many of the 400 Taiwanese kids who friended her online. "I had hundreds of students come up and give me hugs. I never thought of myself as a celebrity. To see them idolizing me like that was really overwhelming and humbling."

>>SEE MORE: Photos of Katherine Commale's life, fundraising for mosquito nets in African villages.