Ten Sonoma County high school seniors honored for community service

10 winners, honored at an awards ceremony Wednesday night, including two from Sonoma Valley.|

Ten high school seniors from eight Sonoma County high schools were honored Wednesday for their leadership and civic contributions at the 29th annual Community Youth Service Awards.

Sponsored by The Press Democrat, the event recognizes students with deep volunteer commitments. Winners, who each receive $1,000, were chosen from 131 nominees from 16 schools. The awards were presented in an evening ceremony at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.

This year's winners trained guide dogs; collected book and school supplies to promote literacy in Morocco; and taught underserved Sonoma County children to play the ukulele.

“Choosing among the contributions of these impressive nominees to select 10 winners was difficult. But it certainly inspires a sense of optimism about the future of our community,” said Steve Falk, CEO of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

“No matter the individual passions of the 131 finalists, they all have one thing in common: the desire to make the world around them a better place for all of us.”


Mariana Hernandez, Elsie Allen High School

It was impossible for Mariana Hernandez not to fall in love with the land. The Elsie Allen senior grew up on a farm, where her passion for agriculture sprouted and later blossomed into advocacy for the ag industry.

Hernandez is president of Elsie Allen's FFA chapter and vice president of the FFA Sonoma Section, which represents nine chapters from local schools, including Elsie Allen.

She continually steps up to help other members, said Cynthia Roy, her agriculture teacher. Hernandez also dedicated countless hours to events and fundraisers, such as the Valley Fire Donation Drive, Ag Days and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau's Great Sonoma Crab and Wine Fest.

“We lovingly refer to her frequently as our fourth adviser,” Roy said.

Hernandez, who hopes to teach agriculture, previously worked after school with students at Calistoga Junior High and Cook Middle School in Santa Rosa to create gardens.

“With my experience I can make a big impact in the lives of students and continue developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success,” Hernandez said.


Catherine Liang, Maria Carrillo High School

Tuesday nights, Catherine Liang helps transform the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building into a ballroom, teaching middle and high school students to tango or do the box step. An accomplished ballet and ballroom dancer, Liang has spent the past four years as a junior instructor at Nordquist Ballroom Dance Studio in Santa Rosa.

“My personal goal as a junior instructor is to facilitate dance to develop character and confidence,” she said.

The Maria Carrillo High School senior performs at retirement homes, weddings, schools, fundraisers and charity events. She also dances with the Santa Rosa Youth Ballet Company.

Despite practicing ballet two hours daily and juggling school, sports and other activities, her commitment to the 500 middle and high school-aged ballroom dance students never wavered, said Stephen Nordquist, her instructor.

“Catherine has never failed to bring her upbeat resilience and smile to Nordquist practices and classes,” he said.

Beyond the dance floor, Liang has served as a camp counselor and swim coach, and traveled with her church to Ecuador to build classrooms and distribute water filters. The trip sparked an interest in photography.

As the Santa Rosa Junior Commission on Human Rights chairwoman, she's donating money she makes selling pictures to the Redwood Empire Food Bank. Looking to be an ambassador or human rights lawyer, Liang plans to use photography as a way to promote “peace building, cultural exchange and human rights.”


Allegra Robertshaw, Windsor High School

Allegra Robertshaw was a sophomore when she became captain of Windsor High School's Varsity Cross Country Team. Through the sport, she found confidence and a way to escape academic and social pressures.

“Athletics can make you stronger, physically and mentally, and teach you to listen to your body,” said Robertshaw, now a senior.

It's a message she wants to take to other girls, not just her teammates, whom she brought closer together through activities such as group yoga and movie nights. Robertshaw, who also is a Nordquist junior ballroom dance instructor, started volunteering with the Windsor middle school track team and created a running group to train middle school girls for 5K races.

Robertshaw also looked to make a difference in her family's native Nicaragua, where half of the girls don't receive primary education. She organized a race that raised more than $1,600 for a charity that builds and rehabilitates schools and libraries in Nicaragua.

“Through this race, Allegra demonstrated how students can use the power of their community to make a global impact, and how athletes can serve a larger purpose,” said Amy Whiteley, her advanced leadership teacher at Windsor High.

Robertshaw, who is also active in student government, plans to join the U.S. Air Force.


Lucas Andersen, Montgomery High School

As Montgomery High School's student body president, Lucas Andersen fosters tolerance and inclusion on and off campus.

The senior sits on the Sonoma County Junior Commission on Human Rights, where he works to bring awareness to the plight of homeless individuals. He's documenting and sharing their stories on social media, giving the homeless a voice.

“I hope to further break the stigma surrounding homelessness and inspire other youth to help solve this complex humanitarian problem,” said Andersen, who also sits on the Youth Empowerment Council.

The council teaches high schoolers leadership skills and held a Santa Rosa City Council candidates forum where youths could ask questions.

Andersen also participated in the NewGen Peacebuilders program, which encourages youths to create projects that can bring about changes in their community.

“Lucas exudes integrity,” said John Quintrell, his advanced placement calculus teacher. “I would feel confident handing him the keys to the bank vault and know that they would be in safe hands.”


Jamilette Arango, Elsie Allen High School

While volunteering at a kids program in southeast Santa Rosa the summer before freshman year, Jamilette Arango noticed a big disconnect between the neighborhood's mostly Latino residents and the greater community. Because of a language barrier, parents knew little about services and programs available to them, said Arango, who started reaching out to them, sharing information on food banks and services at the Rohnert Park library where she'd volunteered.

A native Spanish speaker, the Elsie Allen senior translates for the school. Families are more likely to get involved if they have access to information, she said.

“No matter how small or insignificant my actions may seem, I know I'm making a difference,” said Arango, who also is part of Link Crew and Lobo Unity, campus clubs that promote community service.

When Arango arrived in Lisa DeCarbo's advanced language and composition class more than a year ago, she was focused, but rarely engaged in the usual high school banter, her teacher said. Arango began to open up, finding confidence in helping others through Lobo Unity Club and the California Scholarship Federation chapter, said DeCarbo, adviser for both groups.

“Jamilette's innate compassion and honesty was blossoming into the social world, and she was beginning to gain power from its strength,” DeCarbo said, adding the teen courageously shared in class her story about being homeless and bullied as a child. She'd brought in to show a tattered children's book, which her mother read to her every night before going to sleep in their car.


Parker Bacon, Sonoma Valley High School

Parker Bacon was a fifth-grader when he first started volunteering at Sonoma Valley's Bouverie Preserve through the Juniper Junior Naturalist Training program. Interested in ecology and environmental science, he continued to return to volunteer at the preserve.

Now a senior at Sonoma Valley High, Bacon is president of the Earth Club, which he joined as a freshman. Through the club, he has spent countless hours helping reintroduce recycling cans on campus, cleaning up creeks and replanting the school garden. He also helped plant a redwood grove on campus.

“I've been watering those saplings for as long as they have been in the ground,” Bacon said.

Sonoma Ecology Center educator Tony Passantino first met Bacon at a creek restoration event last year. He was impressed with his work ethic.

“While many of the other students came for the free food, Parker was truly vested in working with the Sonoma Ecology Center in the restoration project,” Passantino said.

Bacon has taken part in the ecology center's EnviroLeaders, a hands-on internship that teaches 14- to 18-year-olds about environmental restoration and sustainable agriculture. Last year, Bacon worked on plans to plant trees along the Highway 12 corridor.


Phoebe Goulden, Petaluma High School

Phoebe Goulden admits she started raising puppies for the blind because she “really wanted a dog.” Then a sixth-grader, she convinced her family to drive to San Rafael-based Guide Dogs for the Blind and, as she put it, “pick up a squirming ball of fur.”

Goulden, a senior at Petaluma High, is on her fifth pup. She was surprised by how often she'd get questions from the public. She gets a pup when it's 8 weeks old, and works on house training, obedience and public behavior. It's a 24-hour job, especially when a dog needs to take a potty break in the wee hours of the night, said Goulden, who still finds time to play the clarinet and sell chicken eggs.

“The trust that a puppy has in you is a powerful thing,” Goulden said. “It's so rewarding to watch them learn and grow from squirming pup to mature guide.”

She has a knack for raising pups, said Cassie Marks, the organization's Sonoma County puppy raising leader. Typically, about half of the pups complete the program, she said. In comparison, three of the four pups Goulden trained became working guide dogs. The fourth dog completed training to be a diabetic alert dog.

“She has a natural ability to train these special dogs, including those that might be more challenging,” Marks said about Goulden, who also helps plan and lead trainings for new members.

While it's not easy giving up a pup after yearlong training, Goulden said she always thinks about the people the dog will help. “(It) makes all of my hard work and minor heartbreak worthwhile because all these people are so amazing and deserving,” she said.


Lena Marie Mallett, Sonoma Valley High School

Sonoma Valley High senior Lena Marie Mallett is co-editor of the school newspaper, The Dragon's Tale, which she started writing for three years ago. Initially covering feature assignments, Mallett turned her attention to more controversial issues, such as oil company executives involved in rainforest development, said Alison Manchester, an advanced English and newspaper teacher who described her as a girl with a “strong sense of social responsibility.”

“Her strong convictions have gained her respect among her peers,” Manchester said.

Mallett sees writing as a way to preserve history and ensure people's stories don't vanish. She wants a career in international relations with a focus on education.

She discovered a passion for education while helping build a school in a village in Nicaragua. A 4-year-old boy crawled into her lap during a journal-making activity and asked her to draw a cow. She complied, labeling the drawing “vaca,” or cow in Spanish.

“His eyes practically bulged out of his head and his face lit up with fascination, intrigued by my ability to write,” recalled Mallett, who attended a dual-language immersion elementary school and is fluent in Spanish. The boy had never seen the written word.

“He called it art,” Mallett said.

When she returned home, she joined the school's Earth, Model UN and Empowerment clubs. She then stumbled onto the Morocco Library Project, a nonprofit dedicated to boosting English literacy in the North African country. She collected book and school supplies to fill Moroccan libraries.

“What began with a simple drawing of a ‘vaca' has fostered into a desire to ensure education, security and opportunity to all individuals across the globe,” said Mallett, who has taught English to low-income families.


Isabel Nunez-Perez, Healdsburg High School

Isabel Nunez-Perez is one of the few Latinas at her school planning to study engineering in college.

The Healdsburg senior doesn't want to go at it alone. As a first generation college-bound student, she's encouraging kids, particularly girls and minorities, to pursue STEM careers through a project she launched at a middle school last year. Nunez-Perez, a third-year engineering student, did robotics demonstrations and circuit design mini-lessons for the school's eighth-graders.

“Engineering for me is much more than numbers,” she said. “It has allowed me to resonate with my inner rebel, challenge stereotypes and be part of something bigger than myself.”

She likes to tell kids STEM isn't just for boys. Nunez-Perez spent weeks coaching three elementary school girls in a robotics competition. Out of the 10 or so students competing at the school, they were the only girls, Nunez-Perez said. She helped them brainstorm and program their robots, while sharing what she has learned about computer science and design. The trio won a second-place award.

“I was very proud of them and glad that I was able to increase their self-confidence in an area traditionally dominated by boys,” Nunez-Perez said.

She's not afraid to take on projects on her own, said her engineering and math teacher, Bryan Davis. He said she's self-motivated, pushing herself to find answers and solutions.

“My favorite quality of students is perseverance,” he said. “Isabel has it in droves.”


Caroline Olsen, Cardinal Newman High School

Caroline Olsen doesn't see herself as a musician. When she picked up a ukulele in her sophomore year, she said the four-stringed instrument relaxed her in a way the violin and cello could not.

She wanted to share the “unassuming, cheerful” instrument with the children at the Healdsburg Boys and Girls Club, many who come from low-income families that cannot afford after-school music programs. Olsen developed a curriculum and borrowed ukuleles from another club.

“The sign-up sheet for my program filled up within minutes,” said Olsen, who started with 15 kids. Ten performed the “Star Wars” theme and “You Are My Sunshine” at a 250-person dinner.

Olsen, who took a three-week social entrepreneurship course last summer at Cornell Summer College, is working to expand to 33 clubs her music program, which she's dubbed “Uke'an Be Happy.” It'll give about 900 underserved kids access to music education, which often is the first thing to go when schools make budget cuts, she said.

Olsen, who plans to study economics and neuroscience at Duke University, taught the ukulele to club staff, and built a website with lesson plans and tips to ensure the program continues after she heads to college, said Jennifer Weiss, chief executive officer of the Boys and Girls Club of Central Sonoma County.

“Caroline has invested hundreds of hours in this program in order to change the lives of the kids in this community most in need,” Weiss said.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com.

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