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Sonoma County high school seniors recognized for leadership, volunteerism in school, community


Ten Sonoma County high school seniors were honored Tuesday for leadership and volunteerism in their schools and community.

The 23rd annual Community Youth Services Awards, sponsored by The Press Democrat, recognizes students who promote the common good by serving others.

"There are a lot of scholarship programs around grade point average and academics -- there are not many scholarships available for what kids do to connect themselves to their community," Press Democrat publisher Bruce Kyse said.

"What these kids do in the local community and in the larger world community is remarkable when you consider all of the other pressures they have in their young lives."

Each category is judged independently, by a separate panel of judges. This year marks the first time in at least seven years that four students from one school were honored. Petaluma High School won four awards this year.

The awards were presented in a ceremony Tuesday at the Friedman Event Center. The winners receive $1,000 each. They were selected by a panel of 30 judges from 156 nominees representing 20 Sonoma County high schools.

AGRICULTURE/VOCATION

Colleen Kelley, Santa Rosa High School

Colleen Kelley comes from a family of agriculture enthusiasts and was a booster of the Santa Rosa High School Future Farmers of America long before she became a Panther.

She "is always one of the first to volunteer for FFA events and activities," according to Santa Rosa's agriculture teacher, Lisa Piehl.

"The feeling of working hard so that someone else can have it a little easier is incredible," Kelley said.

In addition to FFA, Kelley has been active in DeMolay International and International Order of Job's Daughters, working on a variety of projects including Relay for Life, sorting gifts for Toys for Tots and food service at monthly Masons meetings. She is also a member of the school choir and is active in her church.

"She is educated, responsible and respectful," Piehl said. "When completing her work and assignments, Colleen always goes above and beyond to ensure that it is the best that it can be."

ARTS

Tony La, Sonoma Valley High School

Tony La teaches dance to kids at the Boys and Girls Club, students at Adele Harrison Middle School and to fellow students at Sonoma Valley High. He dances with the Experiential Theater Company in Sonoma and played a key role in the "Sweetheart Gala" benefit performance for the Boys and Girls Club.

Dancing is a natural way to forge connections between people, La said.

"I have shy people and social people dancing in one room," he said. "Because of my dance classes, and because a lot of students are really into dance, next year at SVHS they will have a credited dance class. I feel that I contributed to that cause; although I am kind of jealous that kids in the future get A's just for dancing."

Cat Austin, the artistic director for the Experiential Theater Company, said La is a talented dancer and singer who is able to connect with other members of the company to nurture their growth.

"The young cast found him captivating as a teacher and fun to work with because of his sweet and patient nature," she said.

"Tony loves a challenge and will always welcome the 'high bar' in order to express his wide range of talents and giftedness in the performing arts and academics," she said.

COMMUNITY ACTION

Clark Bernard, Petaluma High School

Petaluma High School's senior class vice president has made a habit of making friends.

Clark Bernard is active in youth ministry in his church, and he has participated in the high school's annual Challenge Day during which students are encouraged to share their fears to eventually better understand each other.

He has also been active in Circle of Friends, a program that links students with disabilities with other students on campus for lunches and friendship.

"A smile in the halls, a wave at the football game and eating together occasionally, can make such a difference to someone wanting to fit in," Bernard said.

Bernard, an active member of the school's cross country and track teams, also works at a youth track camp to teach younger athletes about the sport.

This spring, Bernard has worked on fund-raisers to help drop the cost of prom tickets for Petaluma High students.

"While not being able to attend prom does not in any way compare to the larger issues of the world, it does matter to many high school seniors," Clark said. "That being said, I'm working to make it affordable for all. From planning fund-raisers to keep the ticket prices down, to convincing my sister and mom to organize a prom dress loaning closet, I want to make sure that everyone can attend."

ECOLOGY

Mia Szarvas, Analy High School

Activism is a part of Mia Szarvas's daily routine.

The Analy High School senior launched the campus Students for Sustainability club and helped establish the school's new Eco-Action class.

She has agitated for change at her school and in her community. She's a regular speaker at assemblies and city council meetings, pushing for better recycling and composting programs, calling for a ban on one-use bags and encouraging students to use their cars less.

"In my (striving) to educate my peers at my high school, I have ended up educating myself," she said. "I've learned how to write grants, give public speeches, contact the mayor, network and blog. I've learned how bureaucracy works and how public forums operate."

Szarvas's impact on the Analy campus is real, said English teacher Lynette Williamson.

"Long after her term papers are graded and her final exams recorded, the faculty and staff at Analy High School will remember Mia Szarvas," Williamson said. "Every time we walk past the school garden that features the rainwater catch system she earned with a grant, use the recycling bins that she hand delivered to every classroom, or attend the school-wide annual eco-summits and rallies, Mia Szarvas's impact will be felt and recalled fondly."

ENGLISH/FOREIGN LANGUAGE

Jibranh Ortega, Elsie Allen High School

Elsie Allen High School senior Jibranh Ortega tutors young immigrant children in English but also helps them with cultural hurdles they may face.

"I help them get adapted to their new country since it is not an easy thing for a child to move from one country to another," he said. "Most of the children I help are in cultural shock. Usually I help them with their homework since their parents aren't able to help them."

Ortega has volunteered with Bayer Farm, Marine Mammal Center and Santa Rosa de Lima Youth Group. He is on the Elsie Allen Principal Honor Roll, was a Boys State runner-up and active in drama.

Ortega is active with his church, participating in weekly youth group meetings with the goal of creating community events.

"If there are disagreements in the panel, one can meet frequently during the week to come up with a solution . . . it can be challenging at times since most of us have busy schedules, but yet at the end it all pays off, we come to agreements, and we put an event together."

French teacher Richard Conley said Ortega is one of the brightest students he has taught in 17 years of teaching in public schools.

"His talents and achievements are many for such a young man," he said.

MUSIC

Hayley Patterson, El Molino High School

Hayley "Sparki" Patterson, a senior at El Molino High School, has for years spent Saturdays volunteering at area hospitals doing any task or activity asked of her.

"I've . . . volunteered with various hospitals since I was in sixth-grade," she said. "My duties have been anything and everything from painting nails, reading to patients, taking people outside for walks, singing with patients and helping nurses with charting and writing things down."

"Working with people of all types has made me more understanding and want to help out more because I have seen so much," she said. "It's just inspiring to meet people who work hard every day and never give up. It really puts life in perspective."

Patterson has also been active in staging Unity Week at El Molino and has been involved with Bob Burke's Kids Foundation, science tutoring and volunteering with The Arc.

"She has been a positive and energetic student here at El Molino High School," said Matt Transue, dean of students.

MATH/TECHNICAL

Whitney Giraud, Petaluma High School

Petaluma High School senior Whitney Giraud is second in her class with a grade point average above 4.0, but what sets her apart is her dedication to Circle of Friends, a social club meant to link students with disabilities with their peers in mainstream classes.

Giraud has been a member of the club since her freshman year and president of the group for two years.

"The members of Circle of Friends do not win awards, earn prizes or gain recognition. They give of their time and caring to help other students make and keep friends," said Teri Schmidt, lead counselor at Petaluma High. "Their goal is to include students who might otherwise be excluded from the social life of high school."

Giraud is also an active peer tutor in math and Spanish, as well as a volunteer for the annual Diabetes Foundation crab feed.

"While I do not have diabetes, a number of my loved ones have this chronic disease," she said. "I see the pain that they must endure and I want to help in any and every way that I can; this crab feed gives me this opportunity and I'm grateful that I am able to help them."

HEALTH SCIENCE

Deisy Vargas, Elsie Allen High School

Elsie Allen High School senior Deisy Vargas said her neighbors were afraid to hang out in a local park after violence erupted there. So she threw a party.

No typical picnic, the South Park Day and Night Festival Vargas co-chaired pulled in hundreds of guests, featured information booths on healthy life choices, a law enforcement booth, a band, belly dancers and zumba dancing.

"When I go by the park, I can see the smiles of the children and how happy they are to be able to play in their park," she said.

Vargas, a leader in the school's Interact club, is also active in many community-wide campaigns to curb teen drinking, promote healthy lifestyle choices and combat obesity -- especially among low-income families.

"In my three years teaching at Elsie Allen High School, I have taught hundreds of high school students," said Brien Farrell, who teaches government, economics and history. "As the Elsie Allen Interact adviser and as a city official, I have worked with leaders at our high school and those at many local high schools. No one's accomplishments rival Ms. Vargas's."

"Ms. Vargas will continue to make every effort to improve our nation's public health," he said. "She is highly intelligent, courageous, modest, selfless, tireless and determined. She will bring credit on herself, her family and her school."

JOURNALISM/MEDIA

Kathryn Breece, Petaluma High School

Kathryn Breece, the editor in chief of Petaluma High School's The Trojan Tribune, was nearly out of a job her senior year. When budget cuts forced the closure of the journalism class at the high school on the eve of the current school year, Breece set out to fight the decision.

She created a Facebook group, wrote a petition and started an email campaign to save the paper. It worked.

"This year, as the editor in chief of the reinstated Trojan Tribune, I am proud that I was able to spearhead the movement to save a paper, which stands for freedom of speech for all, even rebellious, opinionated teenagers," she said.

"Through this experience I not only realized just how persistent I can be when I believe in something, but I also reinforced my belief in the value of communication, because without the support of my community the students of Petaluma High would have lost the voice that they are given by The Trojan Tribune."

Breece has also been a leader in the campus Circle of Friends program which links students with disabilities with other students on campus for lunches and friendship. Breece is also an active tutor for fellow Trojans as well as students at McNear Elementary School.

ATHLETICS/PHYSICAL EDUCATION

Laura Smith, Petaluma High School

As captain of the Petaluma High School girls varsity tennis team, senior Laura Smith said she has learned to quell frustrations with her play, be patient with herself and work hard -- qualities that her teammates now seek out in her.

Once primarily a doubles player, Smith said she's had to develop new strengths now that she's out on the court alone.

"It was a whole new atmosphere because I didn't have a partner with me, helping me out in my time of need," she said.

In addition to her leadership role on the tennis team, Smith is also on the Trojan varsity swim team and is active with her church, the Petaluma Animal Shelter and Alphabet Soup Thrift Store.

"On a personal level, Laura's strongest characteristic is her ability to reach out and befriend others," said Petaluma High School counselor Joan Walsh.

"She has demonstrated the ability to organize, multi-task and commit to projects that will benefit others, with no reward to herself," she said.

Sports have helped her develop leadership, Smith said.

"I wouldn't be the person I am today without having been challenged physically and emotionally by the sports I play," she said.

Staff writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com.