From different corners of South Florida, they helped migrant workers with computer skills, established a sports league for children with autism and ferried thousands of dollars’ worth of school supplies to poor kids in the Bahamas.
One Marjory Stoneman Douglas High student created a bilingual pen-pal program for orphaned girls in Honduras. Another, from Stranahan High, worked on software that helps find missing children around the country.
When it comes to the winners of the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald’s 2014 Silver Knight awards, presented Tuesday at the James L. Knight International Center, their kindness knew no bounds.
Not in geography, nor in benevolence.
“It’s amazing, in that moment when you get the call that they found the child,” said Keion Farmer, whose work on phone bank software and research reports with A Child is Missing has helped find children in Florida, Texas and elsewhere. “It’s the most satisfying thing.”
The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald award the Silver Knights to South Florida’s top-achieving high school seniors, a tradition that began in 1959. The awards go to students who are nominated by their public and private schools and chosen by a panel of judges who review their academics and selfless acts. This year, more than 600 students were nominated in 15 categories.
Some of the 1,100 Silver Knight alumni include NFL Hall-of-Famer Ted Hendricks, Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales and billionaire Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com.
“Your incredible accomplishments already make you a winner, and we know this night and this moment will stay with you throughout your lives,” said Miami Herald publisher Alexandra Villoch.
The awards were presented at a swanky ceremony with more than 1,000 in attendance, including hundreds of young men in suits and young ladies in dresses and gowns. Winners took home a statuette, a medallion, $2,000 and two round-trip tickets from American Airlines. Three honorable mentions in each of the 15 categories were awarded $500 and a plaque.
The cash awards were made possible in part by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, and American Airlines.
This year, winners were recognized for charity and community work that in some cases was born out of personal challenges.
Luis Miguel Rodriguez, an immigrant who struggled to learn English after coming to the U.S. as a sixth-grader from Havana, created the Bright Lights program at Mater Academy, where students reenact scenes from lessons in order to help other students having trouble with the material because they’re still learning English. And Dr. Michael Krop Senior High’s Susan Elizabeth Bean, Dade’s winner in the category of social science, created a nonprofit group to raise money and collect goods for orphans and foster children through organizations like the World Association for Children and Parents — which arranged her own adoption from China.
“When I was 3 weeks old, I was abandoned near a post office and left in a box with nothing, no name, no date of birth,” said Bean, 18, who will be attending UCLA. “I’m just so lucky and fortunate that I was able to have a home. And that inspired me to create a project for other people in the same situation.”
The community work from Tuesday’s winners was spread far and wide, regardless of boundaries like geography, age and culture.
Andrew Briz, a National Hispanic Merit and AP scholar from Christopher Columbus High School in Westchester, took over as pro bono technical director at a Homestead migrant center when he was 16 and created an expanded computer lab for adults with refurbished computers that he stocked with language and word-processing software. Daniel Torrents of South Miami High volunteered with a Miami nonprofit that performs free operations on hydrocephalic children in Haiti, and followed up his visit to Port-au-Prince by fundraising for medical materials and pledging to donate musical equipment for recovering patients.
Alyssa Zlatkin, who tutored and provided physical therapy for disabled children in Ghana and Nepal, said that becoming the first Silver Knight winner from the David Posnack Hebrew Day School was “unbelievable.”
“It’s incredible,” she said. “But it goes to show that if you follow what you’re truly passionate about, no matter how hard it is, if you have a desire and you go after it, only good things can come.”