Community leaders, businesses and celebrities honored eight high school seniors and one parent from across the country on Jan. 26 at the 18th annual Hispanic Heritage Foundation National Youth Awards at the New World Center in Miami Beach.
The eight national winners were selected from hundreds of regional awardees and approximately 20,000 applicants nationwide based on exceptional scholastic achievement and leadership in the classroom and community. Each received up to $5,000 in grant money for his or her education, a project or idea. The winners also gained entry into Latinos on Fast Track (LOFT), a fraternal organization that partners with the Hispanic College Fund to prepare and position emerging Latino professionals on a career track.
This year, the number of youth awards applicants was double that of any previous year — the largest turnout in the nonprofit organization’s 30-year history.
“I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” said Antonio Tijerino, HHF president and CEO. “There is a sense of urgency being felt all over, in particular in classrooms all over the country.”
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Every April, the HHF sends out applications to thousands of schools, and students enter in one of eight priority categories. Applications are collected until the end of September. In November and December, regional events are held in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Phoenix, San Jose and Washington, D.C. Three students per category are awarded bronze, silver and gold awards. Then, in early December, national winners are selected to be recognized and awarded grants at the National Youth Awards in late January.
This year’s national winners were Anthony Amato of Glenmore, New York, for business and entrepreneurship; Henry Rosas of Phoenix for community service; Maria Salmeron Melendez of Washington, D.C., for education; Adheli Gonzalez of Chicago for engineering; Juliana Rodriguez of Los Angeles for innovation and technology; Clarissa Castillo of Houston for accounting and math; Jonathan Salama of Pelham, New York, for media and entertainment; and Debora Gonzalez of Miami for healthcare and science. Suyapa Melendez, Maria Melendez’s mother, was the sole parent honoree.
“It was a tremendous honor to be recognized,” said Debora, who founded and co-founded several local nonprofits, including Aid for Families in Need, and maintained a 5.294 cumulative GPA in high school. “I feel very proud, but I also feel like I have a tremendous responsibility to represent my community and my peers.”
Besides endowing outstanding students with flexible grants, the Youth Awards doubly functions as the main conduit to the LOFT program, which helps to guide vetted Latino youth as they move from high school to college, graduate school and into their careers. LOFT connects thousands of regional and national Youth Award winners with guides, resources, fellow members and professionals. Included among the more than 30 training programs, workshops and informal panels held annually are the LOFT Coding Jam Session, in which minority youth are bilingually taught how to use HTML and CSS coding, and the LOFT Video Game Innovational Fellowship, wherein 25 LOFT fellows aged 15 to 25 are challenged to create and develop a video game addressing a social issue. The final product is then presented to the White House and Congress.
“A big part of this is that these students are joining this fraternity/sorority and they have built-in compadres and comadres over the years,” Tijerino said. “We have 100,000 kids in our network — not just the youth awardees, but also those that just apply. It’s a critical time to represent the value proposition that Latinos offer America. Considering we’re the youngest segment of the population — one in three Latinos are under 18 — who better than our youth to lead us forward?”
For more information, visit www.HispanicHeritage.org.