Ten Sonoma County high school seniors recognized for leadership, community service

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Ten high school seniors from seven Sonoma County high schools were honored Tuesday for their leadership and civic contributions at the 30th annual Community Youth Service Awards.

Sponsored by The Press Democrat and Oliver’s Market, the event recognizes students with deep volunteer commitments. Winners, who each received $1,000, were chosen from 126 nominees from 20 schools. The awards were presented during an evening ceremony at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa.

This year’s winners volunteered at Brookwood Health Center, Cloverdale Citrus Fair, Redwood Empire Food Bank and the Human Rights Commission; tutored in music, math and reading; coached soccer, volleyball, basketball and baseball; cared for the elderly, children with special needs and fire survivors; traveled to the Dominican Republic, Morocco, Israel and Ensenada, Mexico; helped build school gardens; and participated in student government, French Club, band and their school newspaper.

“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. “All 126 finalists and 10 winners have one thing in common: the desire to make the world around them a better place for all of us.”


Ariel Scholten, Analy High School

Ariel Scholten has been involved in agriculture all her life. She earned her platinum star with the Gold Ridge 4-H Club after serving as president and teen leader for three projects. She also was on the club’s All-Star Team.

She’s president of the Sebastopol FFA and the FFA Sonoma Section, which represents nine chapters, including the one she heads in Sebastopol. She’s an officer at Analy’s California Scholarship Federation club, as well as an officer at the Sebastopol Grange.

Scholten worked with the School Garden Network of Sonoma County, where during the summer she helped install and maintain gardens at local elementary and middle schools. She said she’s most proud of the work she did with the Sonoma County Farm Trails as an intern and later as an employee.

Her work with Farm Trails included advertising and managing its Life on the Farm stage and area activities. She handled online and print public relations and advertising for the events.

She said it was inspiring to watch “the children visit the fair and learning for the first time that chocolate milk doesn’t just come from brown cow.”

Her career goal is to become a communications director at an ag business where she can increase ag literacy. Her work was recognized by Heidi Mickelson, Sebastopol FFA advisor, who said Scholten has been able to maintain a 4.0 grade point average even with all the volunteer work and community activities.

“Ariel is the true portrait of a servant leader as she has served on many committees and officer teams,” Mickelson wrote. “I am positive she will be an influential leader in the agriculture industry, and will continue to work hard to achieve the goals she has set.”


Megan Andersen, Montgomery High School

Over the years, Megan Andersen has realized that her passion for art and creativity can be used to make positive changes. That first came to her during her freshman and sophomore years, when she joined ArtStart, a Sonoma County nonprofit where she worked as a volunteer apprentice with professional artists and other youth, creating and installing commissioned works throughout Santa Rosa. They included walkway mosaics, murals and crafted benches — works that showed her how public art could have a positive impact on the community.

Andersen said that while attending a school board meeting she heard about the lack of funding for the arts in local schools, which particularly impacts underserved schools.

“This resonated on a personal level, as I realized that the same art docent lessons that I enjoyed as an elementary school student and helped inspire the creativity that has gone on to influence much of my life would no longer be offered to these elementary school students,” Andersen said.

With the help of her sister and a friend, Andersen created a student-driven art docent program for elementary schools, fashioning art lessons to match students’ curriculum, such as learning about the Renaissance through a Styrofoam printing project. The trio consulted their art teacher at Montgomery High, as well as teachers and principals from several elementary schools, including Steele Lane, Proctor Terrace, Helen Lehman, James Monroe and Abraham Lincoln. The program began with a bake sale of more than 400 desserts that made $300 in profit.

Andersen’s art teacher, Dennis Miller, said she is the kind of person you want in a room — listening, thinking, creating, making choices and getting things done without calling attention to herself.

“She was raised to know she is both an important part of the community around her and that she has a responsibility to serve that community,” Miller said.

A member of the Sonoma County Junior Commission on the Status of Women who’s committed to creating greater acceptance of men and women in nontraditional gender roles, Andersen said she wants to ultimately work in public health, using the arts to help promote health and equity.

Athletics/Physical Education

Garrett Graff, Rincon Valley Christian School

When Garrett Graff was a freshman at Rincon Valley Christian School, the passionate athlete was shocked by his schoolmates’ lack of spirit at pep rallies.

“People would just be sitting on their phones while they should have been cheering up the teams,” he said.

As a rising campus leader, he made it his goal to change that. Now student body president, the three-sport athlete believes he’s leaving behind a legacy of change.

“The rallies are fun, spirited and the teams enjoy all the hype,” he said.

While playing soccer, basketball and baseball all four years, Graff has maintained a 4.0 GPA and continues to apply his passion for sports and community-building outside of school as a coach at St. Luke’s Basketball Camp and a leader at vacation bible school. He also served as a summer camp counselor, mentoring and helping kids grow as individuals.

Those experiences have guided him toward his career goal of becoming a coach.

“As a leader, he is dynamic and charismatic, yet humble and he listens to others,” said Carolee Fagent, administrative vice principal for Rincon Valley Christian School. “Garrett’s greatest qualities are seen through the eyes of our student body. They respect him and follow him because they know he has strength, wisdom and clarity in decision-making.”

Community Action

Casandra Vargas, Windsor High School

For her senior project, Casandra Vargas wanted to do something that would continue even after she graduated. Whereas many active students participate in existing clubs, Vargas was inspired to start a new club — one that would bridge the gap between students with developmental and intellectual disabilities and those without.

Vargas got the idea after an aunt expressed concern about her daughter being socially isolated in high school because of her disability. As a gift to her cousin and to the many other students in special education classes who want to socialize with other students, Vargas helped establish a Best Buddies program at Windsor High School.

The program currently has 40 club members and 15 buddy matches. Buddies meet periodically and talk once a week, with each participant required to prepare monthly reports on activities and interactions. Vargas said club members have made great strides during the past semester, socializing more and making new friends.

Vargas said one of the members who already was “extremely social has met so many new people in our club and I have occasionally seen her hang out with other students during lunch time outside of Best Buddies,” she said.

Michael Kaufman, a Windsor High social studies teacher, said Vargas is among the very best students he has had during his 22 years of teaching. Kaufman said her academic abilities and personal determination have more than prepared her for university-level work.

“More importantly, she is profoundly committed to improving the lives of others and is destined to leave a positive mark on our community,” he said.

Vargas said she wants to continue finding ways to build community when she goes off to college. And she said that after she graduates from Windsor High she wants to figure out a way to keep the Best Buddies club going.

English/Foreign Language/Education

Cassidy Walton, Technology High School

For the past five years, Technology High School student Cassidy Walton has set aside time every week to work with special needs students, amassing more than 400 volunteer hours, tutoring and acting as a camp counselor for children and adults with developmental disabilities.

Her guiding inspiration: her friend, Erin Kelly.

“When I first met Erin Kelly, I didn’t know she was any different from me,” Walton said. “All that 9-year-old me noticed was the ear-to-ear smile on (her) face.”

Kelly was born with mental and physical disabilities that affect how well she can communicate and interact with her peers. Walton and Kelly were fast friends, growing up together.

In eighth grade, Walton took on the role as Kelly’s tutor, spending time with her at home twice a week to help her learn sight words, trace letters on whiteboards and overall develop her communication and literacy skills.

“Seeing the freedom that Erin has gained as she has learned to communicate has been incredibly rewarding, and has opened my eyes to the importance of language and communication in all aspects of my life,” Walton said.

Walton made it a key focus to learn Spanish, even spending a month in Costa Rica, where she helped English learners improve their speaking skills. When she returned home, she helped her classmates with their Spanish.

“I hope to use what I learn on a larger scale to help all individuals who struggle with communication,” said Walton, who plans to major in college in linguistics and cognitive science.

Environmental Sciences

Sianna Moreno, Analy High School

Analy High School student Sianna Moreno’s passion for community empowerment took her all the way to the Dominican Republic last summer through a nonprofit called Global Glimpse, which aims at helping high school students better understand the world through travel.

Moreno and a small team quickly worked to find ways to bring clean drinking water to a school, leading a group of students to create a water purifier after realizing the developing community lacked clean water.

“This work changed the course of my life,” she said.

Because of her experience in the Dominican Republic, Moreno plans to join the Peace Corps after college and pursue a career in sustainable development.

She now works as an alumni ambassador for Global Glimpse, teaching high school juniors about the same sustainability concepts she learned about.

“I hope to inspire and help a peer find their purpose in life, as I have,” she said.

Health Sciences

Ilse Arias, Sonoma High School

Ilse Arias’ passion for debunking stereotypes about mental health and placing an emphasis on having those kinds of conversations have made her a role model among her Sonoma Valley High School peers.

For years, Arias has focused her extracurricular energies on improving the dialogue about mental health issues, not just on campus but as a volunteer with the Boys and Girls Club of Sonoma Valley.

Through her work with the club, she helped coordinate an event called “Give Us the Floor,” an opportunity for teens to talk about their own mental health struggles and personal issues.

During “Give Us the Floor,” teens shared their own personal experiences through poetry, singing and storytelling.

“This directly relates to my future goals because I know that I want to be a psychologist and work with youth in being able to name and talk about the feelings that they are experiencing,” she said.

Her senior project also focuses on the importance of mental health and debunking stereotypes surrounding it — the creation of a middle school mental health awareness group, something she wished would have existed when she was struggling with her own mental health issues at the time.

“She is an extremely resilient young lady that has overcome many barriers in life, and is now using those experiences to empower her community,” said Johana Perdomo, college and career program manager for the Boys and Girls Club of Sonoma Valley.


Skyler Genelly, Casa Grande High School

Skyler Genelly learned early the goals of journalism: inform the citizenry and influence positive social change. After joining Casa Grande’s newspaper, the Gaucho Gazette, as a sophomore, Genelly worked her way up the ranks over the past three years, going from page editor to co-editor-in-chief.

Through her work as a student journalist, Genelly said she became “keenly aware of the economic pressures facing our teachers” in Petaluma City Schools, covering the district’s teacher labor and wage disputes.

“Experiencing these issues firsthand made me realize that many of Petaluma’s core civil workers cannot afford to live in the city in which they contribute so much of their time and dedication for their jobs,” she said.

Her leadership has been instrumental in helping rookie journalists and the paper meet its deadlines, said her journalism advisor, Advanced Placement English teacher Athena Kautsch. Kautsch also said Genelly, a member of the student advisory council, has a keen intellect and a strong sense of community.

Genelly’s interest in economic inequality pushed her to begin working as an intern for the Housing Land Trust of Sonoma County, where her duties included data entry, filing and statistical analysis. She said the most rewarding thing about her involvement with the nonprofit, which provides home ownership opportunities to low- and moderate-income families, was seeing the looks on people’s faces when they were handed keys.

“We give these firefighters, nurses and teachers the opportunity to live near where they work, which is no longer achievable for most Bay Area families due to the current housing crisis,” said Genelly, who also volunteered with the Jewish Teen Foundation and at school served as the Key Club vice president.


Alyssa Schimm, Sonoma Valley High School

Alyssa Schimm’s passion for promoting diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics started her freshman year when she first joined the Women in Science and Engineering Club. Since then, her passion for supporting women in STEM fields has only grown.

As a Sonoma Valley High School junior, Schimm was elected president of the club. She expanded its efforts by developing an outreach program for younger girls, opening the school’s maker lab to more than 30 girls in elementary and middle school on Saturdays. The girls got to experiment with cutting-edge technologies, including 3-D printers.

Emboldened by that success, Schimm went on to found a Girls in Stem Club at Adele Harrison Middle School, where students participate in various activities and lessons and present a capstone project at the end of the semester. She also founded at her school the First Saturdays Club, a service club that works with local organizations.

“My ultimate goal from involving younger students, especially girls, in STEM fields is to close the gender gaps in these fields,” she said. “Through being a part of the engineering pathway at my high school, I have experienced the repercussions of being a female minority in STEM, firsthand. My hope for the future is that women do not shy away from these fields, but rather approach them with confidence and compassion.”


Zion Majerus, Rincon Valley Christian School

Zion Majerus has been using her voice to inspire, soothe, comfort and “uplift hurting and broken hearts with the joy of music.” Majerus is the worship leader at her school, a job that includes planning and organizing singing opportunities in the community.

Her volunteerism involved bringing her song and food to the homeless and visiting senior facilities and singing to residents, as well as with them, during their free time. During a recent winter break, Majerus traveled to Ensenada, Mexico, to build homes for people. While there, she would sing songs to children.

“I would play music and sing with all the children of the neighborhood, and spend time with them and learn new Spanish songs to sing with them,” she said. “I love the way music draws people in and connects them on a level they might not connect on usually.”

Majerus said she would like to live in Africa for several years to further explore her passion for African music. She hopes to bring her song and compassion to those with mental disabilities in the villages of Mozambique.

Daphne Dunn, a science teacher at Rincon Valley Christian School, said Majerus is not only a gifted musician who sings beautifully with extraordinary range and control, she is a gifted leader who’s able to listen and inspire others.

“I have no doubt that she will not only succeed in college and beyond, but also that she will be a powerful influence for good along the way,” Dunn said.

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