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Ten high school seniors from nine Sonoma County high schools were honored Wednesday for their leadership and civic contributions at the 25th annual Community Youth Service Awards.

The event, sponsored by The Press Democrat, recognizes students who go beyond the volunteer commitments sometimes required of high school seniors to create, organize, run and inspire programs that support a greater community good.

"In 25 years of this program, I have never been disappointed in the caliber of community service these students are performing in our community and around the world," said Bruce Kyse, publisher of The Press Democrat.

Each category was evaluated independently by a panel of judges. For the second year in a row, Sonoma Valley High School had two winners.

The awards were presented in an evening ceremony at the Friedman Event Center in Santa Rosa. Winners receive $1,000 each. Winners were selected by 29 judges from 148 nominees representing 20 high schools.


Paige Nonella, Cardinal Newman High School

Nonella has spent years immersed in the local 4-H program, running fundraisers, teaching younger students the ropes and learning alongside veteran ag leaders in Sonoma County.

The senior also spends time each week running a science tutorial program at Roseland Collegiate Prep, the new charter school located on the grounds of the former Ursuline High School, where Nonella began her high school career.

"Without Ursuline closing, I would not have had the opportunity to help these students," she said. "Sure, I was sad to see green walls instead of blue, and snake mascots instead of bears, and it was hard with all the recurring memories, but I've loved every minute in being part of enriching these students' lives."

Named the Cardinal Newman Gentlewoman of the Year in 2011-12, Nonella models "the values of selflessness, care and commitment that we strive to instill in all of our students," said Maryanne Berry, Nonella's English teacher.

"What makes Paige such a unique person is that she is able to see beyond her own personal needs in order to contribute to larger goals," Berry said.

Nonella hopes to attend Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and major in agricultural business.


Jhordy Gongora, Casa Grande High School

Gongora began dancing with the Yucatecan Folkloric Dance group Chan Kahal when he was eight years old. While other members of the dance troupe have come and gone, Gongora says his commitment to dance as a way of preserving and celebrating his Mayan heritage has grown.

"Chan Kahal has affected me to become culturally conscious of my surroundings," he said. "I have become passionate in experiencing new cultures, and through the first annual diversity festival, I will experience a plethora of different ethnicities."

Gongora is a member of the Petaluma Youth Commission and hopes to be part of the reopening of the city's teen center.

"Jhordy is a leader for his peers, and he empowers others to discover their own leadership potential," said Leslie Eme, youth ambassadors program director for Amigos de las Americas in San Francisco.

"Whatever career path Jhordy chooses, I am confident that cultural sensitivity, leadership and passion for social justice will allow him to achieve his goal of 'uplifting communities,' " she said.


Matthew Mulligan, Piner High School

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Mulligan, a senior with a 4.77 grade point average who is headed to Claremont McKenna College in the fall to study economics and engineering, is a talented runner celebrated for his perseverance, leadership, grit and grace.

Mulligan placed 33rd in the CIF state cross-country championship in November and currently is competing in his final season with the Prospectors' track team.

For years, he has volunteered with his Prospector teammates to staff community running races and events.

"As a team, our cross country program has become one of the most respected within the running community not for our athletic prowess per se, but rather our commitment to respect and hard work," he said.

"In my 15 years of teaching, I have never met a more disciplined academic," said Piner English teacher Simone Spearman. "Matthew is exceptional, exemplary and extraordinary. The Latin prefix ex means 'from, out, or beyond,' and Matthew has come from extraordinary beginnings, has moved outside of prescribed expectations and he has traveled beyond the limits set by his physicality, his peers and his society."

Diagnosed with the sometimes deadly hydrocephalus as an infant, Mulligan has had multiple brain surgeries to implant a shunt to help drain spinal fluid to other parts of his body where it can be absorbed. One of Mulligan's goals is to create a new, regenerating type of shunt so that hydrocephalus patients "may one day compete at lengths far greater than I am capable of."


Ana Lagunas, Sonoma Valley High School

Senior Ana Lagunas has spent years volunteering as a math and science tutor, a mentor for middle school students, an instructor at her church and in various capacities at La Luz, a non-profit community center in Sonoma.

At La Luz, the bilingual Lagunas worked as a receptionist and later as an outreach coordinator.

"Whenever I helped someone make a call or fill out a job application or translate a document, it made me feel good knowing that because of me someone's life might be slightly better," she said.

"Through my commitments to different programs throughout Sonoma I have learned to become a responsible person, and though I haven't technically worked a day in my life, I have developed strong work ethics because I have volunteered in so many different places," she said.

Sonoma Valley High teacher Danielle Lovejoy said Lagunas' classmates kid her about her "volunteer-itis." If there is a job to be done, Lagunas raises her hand, they said.

"Ana's talents rest in both her altruism and her curiosity," Lovejoy said.


Ryan Johnson, Montgomery High School

Johnson has been active in the school's Green Career Pathway program, this year being named the Lead Senior student role.

"By accepting the position of the Lead Senior student, Ryan represents the Green program at many conferences, workshops and sustainable events," said program founder and director Len Greenwood. "He has spoken at the Sustainable Enterprise Conference, Daily Acts events, the Leadership Institute for Ecology & Economy and has participated in many workshops, concentrating on watershed health, watershed restoration and sustainable agriculture."

Johnson has been instrumental in developing Montgomery's permaculture project.

"We are currently working on a permaculture project on campus that will incorporate math, English, science and history into a living landscape that will live on campus for generations to come, inspiring all who walk through it," he said.

Johnson volunteers with Laguna Keepers, the Sonoma County Water Agency and has applied to be a resident student at Santa Rosa Junior College's Shone Farm next year.


Leah Kaufman, Santa Rosa High School

Kaufman has studied Hebrew, Ladino and Yiddish. She also is taking French at the high school and Santa Rosa Junior College.

After taking every Spanish course at Santa Rosa High, Kaufman enrolled in Spanish for Spanish Speakers. Now fluent, she is routinely tapped to translate for students, teachers and families.

"Her motivation, organization, responsibility and communication skills including a true work ethic have made her a very successful person," said Principal Brad Coscarelli.

As a sophomore, Kaufman was named chairwoman of the school Site Council -- a role typically filled by an adult community member.

She developed and runs a tutoring program at Steele Lane Elementary School where members of Santa Rosa's National Honor Society club work at the elementary school helping with homework and spending time with younger students.

"Not only have I helped these students, but also they have helped me understand how difficult it is to learn English and the power of youthful enthusiasm," she said.

Diagnosed as a sophomore with a chronic autoimmune kidney disease, Kaufman has raised money for the National Kidney Foundation and trained three months for the Nike women's half marathon while raising $2,800 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.


Carolina Soto, Elsie Allen High School

Soto, now a senior, spent the summer of her sophomore year shadowing health professionals through the Summer Health Career Institute.

"The experience I had there convinced me that I belonged in the medical field," she said.

But in the meantime, Soto, a student in Elsie Allen's academically rigorous University Center program, is an active volunteer and co-president of the school's Interact Club.

Through the Interact Club, Soto has presented holiday celebrations at senior living centers and spearheaded fundraisers for two classmates seriously injured in Mexico.

"Ms. Soto's work ethic is extraordinary," said Brien Farrell, a government teacher and Elsie Allen's Interact advisor.

Soto has worked extensively with the immigrant rights advocacy group, Dream Alliance, to host educational workshops on the Dream Act.

"It is my responsibility to help educate my community about immigration issues that impact them tremendously, and to give them hope that they can still further their education, even if they are undocumented," she said.

Since the age of 10, Soto has worked alongside her mother, cleaning houses and helping support her family. From her early days of loathing the work, Soto was transformed.

"I no longer hated it," she said. "I realized that if I really want something in life, I must work hard for it. These experiences awakened my desire to be more than a housekeeper."

Soto plans to study neurobiology as an undergrad and then go to medical school to become a family physician.


Erica Sutliff, Windsor High School

Sutliff wanted more responsibility in her Jaguars' yearbook program, so she pursued an editor's post. With that nailed, she then offered to co-edit the yearbook for her alma mater, the kindergarten through eighth grade Cali Calm?ac Language Academy.

"I have become more confident and determined because yearbook is a very social job," said the senior. "I am becoming much more involved in school activities. I have decided that I want to continue to learn and advance my career of journalism and media."

As senior section editor of the Windsor High yearbook, Sutliff is charged with designing pages, collecting materials and payments from parents, as well as taking photographs, establishing themes and writing stories for the pages.

"Erica is grit personified," said Adam Leslie, history and government teacher at Windsor High. "Erica's tenacity enables her to overcome any academic weaknesses, and, unlike most students, she welcomes constructive criticism -- which she reflects deeply on."

"She is an amazing listener, and her approach to others . . . shows a social intelligence that is wise beyond her years," Leslie said.

Sutliff hopes to pursue a career in journalism.


Halli Dobson, Sonoma Valley High School

Dobson is a gifted math student but Sonoma Valley High School teacher Tammy Rivara said what is striking about the senior are her social skills when dealing with students who don't take to math as naturally.

"Her acute perception makes her a very supportive person to others. Her peers trust her judgment and her views. They trust she will be there for them," she said. "While she is a serious student, Halli possesses a sense of humor that is witty and wry and that she uses to lighten situations and make others feel better."

Dobson is credited with spearheading a new youth indoor soccer program, Sonoma Futsal League, to help gather young people in Sonoma who may be separated in other activities by race or class.

"I knew from experience that soccer was the one genuine cross-cultural activity in town," she said. "A family's economic status, heritage and native language remained on the sidelines when a player stepped onto the pitch."

"However, the season only lasted twelve short weeks, and when soccer was over the connection within our community and the social and academic boost for kids that came with it would quickly fade," she said.

Dobson began lobbying and working for an indoor league in her junior year. It was launched in November of her senior year, and Dobson already is grooming fellow students to keep the league running when she enters college.


Tiffany Wei, Maria Carrillo High School

Wei is a gifted musician who was named first-chair clarinet player in the 2012 California All-State Honor Band, but it is a program she developed to promote music appreciation and skills among young people that most impressed community leaders.

Wei is "the most remarkable young leader I have ever met," said Mary Bates, chief executive officer of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Santa Rosa.

"With her talent, dedication, and leadership, Tiffany saw the need and developed an entire music program, the Young Maestros Program, for the youth, which is an outstanding achievement for a volunteer and a junior in high school," she said.

Wei began volunteering at the club in 2011 and soon began offering piano lessons to five children. The clientele grew and so did the number of instruments Wei incorporated into lessons. When the number of kids clamoring to join the program reached 35, she kickstarted fundraisers to support the program that she believes fills a void.

"It has opened my eyes to the unfortunate outcomes of budget cuts and has made me more appreciative of the opportunities that I have received through music," she said. "My role as a music teacher influences how I act now as a musician and a leader."

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.

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