The winners of this year’s Silver Knight awards have accomplished more in 18 years, plus or minus a few months, than many people achieve in a lifetime.
They have created prosthetic hands, 3D-printed orthotics and devices to help patients recover from spinal surgery. They have started their own fashion businesses, installed computer labs in foster homes and raised thousands of dollars for cancer research.
And they’ve done it all while excelling in school, winning athletic awards and volunteering.
On Wednesday night, 30 outstanding high school seniors received the annual prize awarded by the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald to honor student achievement in the classroom and in the community. The 2017 Silver Knight awards were presented at an elegant ceremony at the James L. Knight Center in downtown Miami.
“Never accept the premise that you are too young to create change in this world,” said keynote speaker Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former U.S. Surgeon General and Silver Knight winner. “Never believe that you don’t have what it takes to solve the big problems we face as a country.”
It was a message this crowd had already clearly embraced. Hundreds of standout students were nominated by their schools in 15 categories ranging from art and dance to business and science. A panel of judges selected 15 winners from Miami-Dade and 15 from Broward County as well as three honorable mentions from both counties in each category.
Winners received $2,000, a medallion and a Silver Knight statue, and 25,000 miles from American Airlines. The runners up got $500 and an engraved plaque.
“We are here to honor you, the high school students who go above and beyond, making a tremendous impact on our community,” said Miami Herald President and Publisher Alexandra Villoch.
Dressed in gowns and suits, the students walked across the stage to cheers and applause as a band played. Then, they did what any normal teenager would do — they took selfies at the selfie booth backstage.
Coral Gables High senior Ashley Bellinger held back tears as she was named Miami-Dade’s winner in the Art category.
Bellinger was bullied as a child because of her skin color, so she started her own fashion business to promote minority women. Bellinger also mentors younger students in an after-school program and volunteers with Shake-A-Leg, a Coconut Grove sailing program that works with children and adults facing physical, developmental and economic challenges.
Bellinger said she never expected to win a Silver Knight award. “I’m a girl from West Grove. My parents instilled in me since I was little, ‘Never forget where you come from because where you come from is a part of where you’re going,’” she said. “I always like to give back to my community, that’s the whole reason I started helping.”
The night’s winners joined an elite group of Silver Knight alumni that includes Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, retired U.S. Ambassador Frances Cook, local artist Xavier Cortada and composer Bill Conti, who wrote the film score for “Rocky” and other famous movies, along with keynote speaker Murthy.
Since the program was first created in 1959 by then-Miami Herald publisher John S. Knight, 1,200 South Florida residents have been named Silver Knights. This year’s awards were sponsored by American Airlines, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Florida Power & Light, Odebrecht Construction USA, Florida Blue and Ryder.
Zara Joykutty, a student at American Heritage School in Plantation, won the Silver Knight for music and dance in Broward County schools. Her inspiration came from a visit to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan in 2012 on a trip to see her father, who was working in Jordan as an engineer. Determined to help the families living in the camp, Joykutty raised money to run a summer arts, music and science program for the refugee children. She has returned every chance she gets to oversee it.
Like many of the award winners, Joykutty plans to continue her volunteer work long after the awards ceremony is over. She hopes to recruit more volunteers when she goes to college so she can continue the program.
“My dream is for it to be somewhere where it’s not just limited to 20 kids at a time in a small room, but something where we can reach more people,” she said.