10 Sonoma County high school seniors honored for leadership and volunteering contributions

Ten seniors from eight Sonoma County high schools were recognized for their leadership and volunteer work Wednesday at the 31st annual Community Youth Service Awards.

Students honored at the event, sponsored by The Press Democrat, volunteered at a food bank and a memory care program. Some traveled to Central America on service projects, started youth symphony clubs and collaborated on robotic inventions. Winners, who receive $2,000, were selected from more than 120 nominees. The awards were presented at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa.

Two winners attend Casa Grande High, and another pair attend Santa Rosa High. There was one each from Petaluma High School, Rancho Cotate High School, Healdsburg High School, Roseland Collegiate Prep, Sonoma Valley High School and Cardinal Newman.

“Choosing 10 scholarship winners out of 122 outstanding finalists was very challenging again this year,” said Steve Falk, CEO of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat. “Every one of these students has been willing to step up and give back to our local community; something we admire, appreciate and congratulate.”


Lucas Cheda Petaluma High School

After years of involvement with local agricultural groups, Lucas Cheda sprang into action after the October 2017 wildfires erupted in Sonoma County.

Cheda, who has been a 4-H junior leader and has aided the Petaluma FFA, said he spent more than 100 hours at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds helping set up and run a livestock evacuation center to take care of animals during the wildfires. He covered several overnight shifts, as well as helped build corrals, set up watering systems and distributed food to a variety of animals, including nearly three dozen of his own family's calves.

One moment that sticks with him was when a man and his daughter and their three pets pulled up to the fairgrounds. The man couldn't find his wife. Cheda said he helped get the man's animals settled for the night so that he would have one less worry.

“It was so hard to see how quickly someone's life is turned upside down, but also very fulfilling to be in a position to help, to make it better for this family,” Cheda said.

Cheda's volunteer work also includes assisting younger 4-H members who raise hogs for local fairs and mentoring a child with emotional and learning disabilities.

Allison Keaney, CEO of the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, described Cheda as a willing and professional worker with the maturity to balance his agricultural passions with school and sports.

Cheda hopes to pursue a degree in agriculture education at Montana State University starting this fall before becoming a teacher.


Ahtziri “Ziri” Zamora-Rivera Rancho Cotate High School

Ziri Zamora volunteered for a nonprofit, Project Avary, that aims to help children whose parents have been sentenced to prison. The nonprofit operates a summer camp that offers kids a model for a healthy life.

She was uniquely positioned to share with the children her own experiences with the foster care and adoption process - her parents were incarcerated.

She spent two weeks at the Northern California camp in 2017 and 2018, working with the children. When she wasn't helping in the kitchen, she was assisting kids with arts and crafts, dancing to music from different cultures and more, all to help them come out of their shell.

“I encouraged the children to try their best and step out of their comfort zone,” she said, “because they are very closed off and unaware.”

She hopes to attend this year's camp if she's available and wants to continue sharing her knowledge with kids who had similar experiences with parental incarceration.

Zachary Whelan, the executive director of Project Avary, described Zamora as one of the best teen leaders he has ever worked with. He said he was in awe watching her progression “as she used the arts to become self-aware and to transform personal pain into power.”

“Ziri is a truly remarkable teen leader who is engaging our youth with the arts in a profound way,” he said.

Athletics/Physical Education

Eric Leyva Healdsburg High School

Eric Leyva lives for soccer.

Several years ago, Healdsburg youth soccer was in crisis. Embezzlement by two past presidents of the Healdsburg Youth Soccer League threatened the sport in the city.

Leyva, who plays high school soccer, felt a call to get involved. When his brother was asked to help out with a team for girls 12 and younger, Leyva pitched in. He stuck with the team after the season ended and the games moved indoors. He refereed matches as a seasonal city worker, and personally trained three sisters who made him fall in love with soccer even more.

He and his brother also offered a spring training camp, and Leyva handed out flyers to spread word that youth soccer was back in full swing in Healdsburg. He expects to keep training with some of the girls through 2019.

“The impact I am making towards this program is something I have enjoyed because I love working with kids and the beautiful sport of soccer,” he said.

Peter Mork, an official with the Healdsburg Youth Soccer Association, called Leyva “a phenomenal coach,” and characterized him as a key figure in bringing youth soccer back to Healdsburg, with participation up nearly tenfold in the past few years.

“Eric has been one of the driving forces that has helped grow the program dramatically in the last few years,” Mork said.

“This is no small feat, and all the more impressive as it has been done by a high school student.”

Community Action

Belen Altamirano Poblano Casa Grande High School

Belen Altamirano Poblano has made high achievement her priority as she prepares to leave behind Casa Grande. She's already taking classes at Santa Rosa Junior College, and is the president of her National Honor Society chapter.

She's also co-president of her local chapter of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlan, a group known as MEChA that espouses political engagement among people of Mexican heritage. She worked to increase Spanish-speaking students' involvement on campus, creating a bilingual ambassadors program to offer Spanish translations of English-language school events.

Her AP psychology teacher, Elena Richer, called Altamirano “one of the top students I have met during my 16 years as a teacher.”

“She would even translate for Spanish-speaking students, if that helped to more easily clarify a concept,” Richer said. “I never asked Belen to help others; she took it upon herself to collaborate, and seemed to truly enjoy working with her classmates.”

Altamirano also dedicated her time to an environmental river cleanup program, working on homework with younger students at Miwok Valley Elementary Charter School, and Saturday stints at the Petaluma Visitors Center.

In the future, she plans to become a neurosurgeon.

She hopes her fluency in English and Spanish, plus the French she studied in high school, will help her as a doctor and allow her to interact with a diverse mix of patients.

English/Foreign Language Education

Taya Llapitan Casa Grande High School

Taya Llapitan's motto is “Be The Light.”

One potential career she's considering is becoming an elementary school teacher. To that end, Llapitan has dedicated dozens of hours to volunteering at her former school, Meadow Elementary in Petaluma.

Over the summer, she spent part of five weeks working at the elementary's preschool.

She worked with students in kindergarten and first grade, putting an emphasis on developing the youngsters' verbal skills. She's also the stage director and choreographer for the school play.

Llapitan also volunteered at Petaluma Calvary Chapel McNear's Saloon and Dining House, and at the Salvation Army during the 2017 wildfires.

Jolene Thinnes, an English teacher at Casa Grande, said Llapitan's senior year has been her “pinnacle year,” crediting the teen for being able to hold “an extremely high GPA” while taking high-level math and science classes and getting involved socially, as well as becoming the sports journalist for the school paper.

“Taya is a very focused and dedicated young woman and has really found ways to make her final year the apex of high school,” Thinnes said.

Llapitan carries her positive attitude through her own studies and also her tutelage of others.

“Overall, I want to bring happiness to everything and anyone,” she said, because “even the smallest things can mean the world to a person.”

Environmental Sciences

Julian Pelayo Bracamontes Roseland Collegiate Prep

Julian Pelayo had no idea his life was about to change when he was accepted last year to a summer internship program at Pepperwood Preserve, a 3,200-acre nature preserve on the northeastern edge of Santa Rosa.

Working outdoors over six weeks, Pelayo gained new skills, such as learning to use a GPS, reading a map and navigating the wilderness with a compass. He amassed 90 hours of community service and took those skills back with him to Roseland Collegiate Prep.

“At Pepperwood I discovered a dormant passion inside me that wants to be a part of the few that focus on protecting and restoring nature to its primate form,” Pelayo said. “When I engage with nature I feel a sense of peace that I find nowhere else.”

Cara Fitchett, a science teacher, has known Pelayo for four years. Watching Pelayo grow into an environmentally conscious student led her to believe he has what it takes to be a catalyst for real change in the world, Fitchett said.

“The Julian that walked in my classroom the first day of school freshman year is not the same person that is on the verge of graduation,” she said.

For his senior project, Pelayo started a recycling program at his school and still goes back to Pepperwood once a month to volunteer. “Picking up one bottle or one plastic bag can make a very big difference in the world,” he said.

Health Science

Anwen Lin Santa Rosa High School

Anwen Lin has dreamed of following in her father's footsteps since she was a child. Growing up, she opted out of fairy tale bedtime stories and instead insisted her father, a doctor, describe in painstaking detail what sorts of medical procedures he performed on patients.

Lin found her calling during her freshman year when she volunteered with Alzheimer's patients at the assisted living and memory care facility Villa Capri, where she merged her passion for music with her budding interest in neuroscience.

Not only did she discover the power of music to heal patients, but she also realized where she could make the most impact.

“Watching patients come alive and knowing that I was able to bring at least a little joy to their lives is a true gift,” Lin said.

Jamie Iallonardo, who has worked for more than 15 years with patients suffering from various forms of mental degradation, said she has been fortunate enough to witness over two years the positive change Lin has brought to patients at The Terraces at Fountaingrove Lodge, a memory care facility in Santa Rosa.

“I can attest from my experience working with Anwen that not only does she have a passion for working with the elderly, but she has a keen understanding of Alzheimer's disease and how to interact with individuals suffering from the disease,” said Iallonardo, the lodge's activities director.


Ava Rognlien Sonoma Valley High School

Tackling sensitive social issues through dogged journalism has been the focus of Ava Rognlien's time as the editor-in-chief at the Dragon's Tale - her school's student publication.

Rognlien has written pieces on immigration, sexual assault and gun control during her three years as a staff writer. She also has traveled across the country to work as a student journalist in Washington, D.C., during the 2018 March for our Lives rally.

Through journalism and new media, Rognlien believes that she can open the eyes of her peers and others in and around Sonoma County.

“I believe journalism is more important than ever due to media increase, fake news and current political polarization our country is facing,” Rognlien said.

She also has taken her passion for social issues abroad to Central America, where she volunteered with Seeds of Learning, a Sonoma-based nonprofit organization dedicated to providing education to children in Latin America.

“She (Rognlien) is one of our most motivated and honest students who is dedicated to making the world a better place environmentally and socially,” said Alison Manchester, chairwoman of Sonoma Valley High's English department. She said Rognlien has been one of her top students for three years.

Next fall Rognlien plans to attend Northeastern University, and hopes to write for its student newspaper.


Julia Pastis Santa Rosa High School

Julia Pastis finds peace in an unusual place - the world of mathematics.

One of her goals has been to spread her love of math to as many students as possible through engineering contests, math clubs and tutoring.

“In an increasingly complex world, I have found math to be a sanctuary,” Pastis said.

She has collaborated with classmates on projects organized by the U.S. Navy and the Shell Eco-Marathon, an energy efficiency competition held annually in Sonoma County. Pastis and her team also took second overall in Northern California for their underwater robot design in the 2018 National SeaPerch Challenge.

“Because of the work our science teacher put into getting this project started, I was able to use the physics and math that I was learning in school to solve design challenges,” Pastis said of the competition.

Pastis is enrolled in AP Calculus and AP Statistics, where she uses her abstract thinking, careful organization and years of hard work as her tools to succeed, said Eric Bohn, mathematics chair at Santa Rosa High School.

“Julia is also co-president of the SRHS Math Club and works diligently to promote extracurricular mathematics events like the California Math League,” he said.


Diego Bernal-Skala Cardinal Newman High School

For the first two years of high school, Diego Bernal-Skala was just doing the minimum hours needed to meet the service requirements set by Cardinal Newman High School. But everything changed his junior year.

Sharing music with those who would not otherwise have the opportunity to play became his newfound passion, one that has led him to the most ambitious service project yet - The Roseland Collegiate Prep Ensemble.

“The reason why I am continually called to serve is because of the lack of music education in schools,” Bernal-Skala said.

He cultivated his passion for music education by volunteering for the Santa Rosa Symphony in their Simply Strings program as a mentor. The program was first inspired by a Venezuelan project called El Sistema, a social-action music network. At the local level, mentors with Simply Strings work with students as young as second grade to teach daily, intensive ensemble instruction after school.

“Not only is my mission to teach others music, I intend to spread awareness for the social issue of music education not being available in schools,” Bernal-Skala said.

Wendy Cilman, director of education at Santa Rosa Symphony, has known Bernal-Skala for six years and said his desire to give back is a rarity she admires. His senior project reflects his deep resolve to keep music education alive, she said, and through his project he has been teaching a group of students to play violin, viola or cello with instruments borrowed from the Santa Rosa Symphony's Education Department.

“He is an example of what it means to service the community,” Cilman said.

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