Silver Knight

15 Miami-Dade students win Silver Knight Awards

One has interviewed former presidents and dignitaries on CNN.

Another raised more than $5,000 to provide art classes for foster children.

A third overcame a learning disability to earn academic honors. She also started her own nonprofit to help children in need.

The students honored Thursday night with Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald Silver Knight Awards are among the most ambitious and driven young people in South Florida.

They shine in school and boast a strong commitment to their communities.

``You draw us together through your academic achievements as well as your commitment to service,'' said David Landsberg, publisher and president of the Miami Herald Media Company.

Each year, The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald honor the region's most outstanding high school seniors in categories ranging from art to athletics to general scholarship to world languages.

This year's class of Silver Knight winners was recognized at an elegant ceremony at the James L. Knight Center in downtown Miami.

Fifteen winners from Miami-Dade County -- and 15 from Broward -- walked off the stage with shimmering silver statuettes.

The teenagers, dressed in formal gowns and suits, waited anxiously forthe big moment -- and sprung from their seats when their names were called.

The recipients included Nicole Paez, who attends St. Brendan High School in Westchester.

As a girl, Nicole was diagnosed with language-based learning disorders. For years, she struggled with comprehension. At age 7, she was still unable to speak.

The doctors said Nicole would not pass the fifth grade.

She proved them wrong.

In addition to earning a 3.88 GPA, Nicole started a nonprofit organization called Angel's Touch Charities, which helps young children around the world.

``This gives me so much confidence,'' said Nicole, the winner for mathematics. ``I feel like I can accomplish anything.''

Tyler Kalbac, the winner in athletics, also had to overcome obstacles.

Three years ago Tyler, a student at Palmer Trinity High School in Palmetto Bay, was hit in the face with a fastball and had to undergo reconstructive surgery.

Months later, he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and returned to the hospital for several surgeries.

Since then, Tyler has worked to promote awareness of his disease. He recently planned a fundraiser called Climb-4-Colitis.

In addition to nailing a near-perfect GPA, Tyler has returned to the baseball field, earing statewide recognition for his athletic ability. He is also the quarterback for the varsity football team and the goalie for the varsity soccer team.

``It's a blessing, not only that I was able to get through my illness, but that I was able to return to success and leadership on the field,'' said Tyler, who heads to the University of Virginia in the fall.

Students who want to be considered for a Silver Knight must first be nominated by their teachers. The winners are then chosen by a panel of judges.

This year, more than 600 students were nominated.

Awardees receive $2,000, a Silver Knight statuette, a medallion and a round-trip ticket from American Airlines.

The awards are sponsored by American Airlines, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Past Silver Knight winners have gone on to win Oscars, serve as diplomats and play in Super Bowl games.

Notably, Jeff Bezos, who graduated from Miami Palmetto and won the Silver Knight for science in 1982,

This year's winners are also headed for success.

Estanley Baptiste, the winner in English and literature, created a tutoring program for students at Edison Senior High. He dreams of one day becoming a math teacher at his alma mater.

``For me, this is encouragement to keep helping people,'' said Estanley, who came to Miami from Haiti in 2006 without knowing any English.

``It's going to help meto leave the world a little better than I found it.''

Noah Gray of Palmetto, a budding journalist and the recipient in the new media category, has already done several live broadcasts and edited news packages for CNN. He has landed interviews with Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee and Chris Dodd.

``It's a great feeling to be recognized for the hard work -- and the sacrificed Friday and Saturday nights,'' said Noah, who will attend American University.

The future also looks bright for art honoree Michelle Carolina Ruiz.

While at John A. Ferguson High, Michelle created an art program for foster kids.

She is now headed to Carnegie Melon University to study chemical engineering.

Michelle had dreamed of winning a Silver Knight since her older sister Andrea was named a winner in English in 2008.

``I worked so hard,'' she said, her hands still shaking after winning the award. ``I guess it shows that hard work really pays off.''

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to thisreport.