How much do parents influence a child?

Can they make or break a child's success?

Parents probably wondered about that from the beginning of time. I know it's something I often talk about with my friends.

When I encounter an extraordinary teenager, I often think that behind that kid has to be supportive parents. Most of the time, that's true.

Probably the most extraordinary teenager I ever interviewed is Zander Srodes. Before he even reached his teen years, he had already written a children's activity book on protecting sea turtles. That book has been translated into several languages.

The teenager raised most of the money for publishing the books by applying for grants. For the past seven years, the activity book continues to be reprinted in languages around the world. I just learned it's now being reprinted in the languages of Tamil and Telegu.

I couldn't even pinpoint the countries that speak those languages, but in all probability Zander has been there. He has traveled to many places around the world helping on various environmental causes, especially educating people about the importance of protecting sea turtles.

By the time Zander graduated from high school two years ago, he had already established an international reputation as a young environmentalist and had been honored by at least a dozen national organizations.

Cited as being one of America's young heroes, he won the national Do Something Award given to eight teens that have helped to change the world. One thing he liked best about the award is that his picture and short bio was featured on the back of 25 million bags of Cool Ranch Doritos.

Last year, he won the Volvo for Life Award, an honor that carried a prize of $25,000 that he donated to Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida.

He could have given the money to any charity of his choice, but he said it was especially fitting that the money went to Mote Marine because people there first stoked his interest in sea turtles.

This is how it all happened: When he was 11, Zander was walking on the beach with a flashlight. Linda Soderquist, a member of the sea turtle patrol told him to turn off the light, explaining how it would harm sea turtles coming on the beach to lay their eggs. At first he didn't listen, but Linda continued to impress upon him the importance of keeping sea turtles from harm.

Always a precocious kid who was thirsty for information, Zander called Mote Marine Laboratories in Sarasota, asking to meet with them so he could learn more about sea turtles. Instead of treating him like an annoying kid, officials there took time to meet him and explain their sea turtle project.

Because of that encouragement, a serious commitment to environmental work was born.

But to me, the amazing part of that story was Jean Srode's reaction to her son's insistent questions. A hyperactive kid, Zander once said that if he had any other parents, they would have medicated him.

Instead, Jean and Joel encouraged Zander's every interest.

Truth be told, if my 11-year-old daughter had asked me to drive her to Sarasota so she could question scientists about sea turtles, I would have told her to look online for the information because scientists were too busy to humor a child's whim.

But Jean Srodes is one of the most encouraging women I know. Yes, Zander has had many national accolades. But I believe none of that would have happened without the encouragement he received from his mother.

It was also the encouragement of teacher Linda Soderquist that also launched Zander's extraordinary accomplishments. When he complained that there were no worthwhile books on sea turtles written for young readers, Linda told him to write one himself, promising to provide the illustrations. She gave him the gift of encouragement, as well as the gift of many hours of her personal time as they discussed the project.

Zander often says that because of those who believed in him, he learned to believe in himself at an early age. His nationally-acclaimed "Turtle Talks" Activity Book is the result.

Zander's experience with Linda Soderquist reminds me of how I got into journalism in the first place. It was because of the continuous encouragement of Miss Byerly, an English teacher who saw writing talent in me instead of only seeing a kid who misbehaved in class.

When I was a sophomore in high school, she wrote on my essay: "You should write for a newspaper."

At the time, my family didn't even subscribe to a newspaper. But a year later I was writing a teen column for our daily paper and launching what turned out to be a rewarding career in journalism, thanks to the encouragement of Miss Byerly.

Ever since then I've been aware that the gift of encouragement is one of the most meaningful gifts we can give someone.

I just talked with one troubled young lady who told me she was so despondent that she planned to take her life. But a casual acquaintance cared enough about her, giving her the gift of encouragement and helping her see her problems weren't insurmountable. Now, the young woman says she hopes she can help others in the same way.

Giving someone the gift of encouragement usually won't result in something as dramatic as saving someone's life.

But it can change someone's life.

Just ask Zander Srodes.