Many of this year’s Miami Herald Silver Knight winners are well-acquainted with adversity — through their own families’ personal heartaches or the struggles of those living halfway around the world.
But a telling theme emerged Wednesday night at the 55th annual Silver Knight Awards ceremony: Rather than become despondent over life’s unfairness, these high school seniors vowed to make a difference, and that spirit of determination has led to some far-reaching accomplishments.
Take Silver Knight Science winner Renuka Meenu Ramchandran, of John A. Ferguson Senior High School in West Kendall. Ramchandran lost her grandfather to brain cancer and has since become a fixture at Miami Children’s Hospital — founding a program that has created more than 70 care packages for children in the oncology unit, and even personally conducting research as an intern on pancreatic cancer cells.
In Broward, St. Thomas Aquinas High School senior Eryn Mari Hughes was deeply moved when she learned about students in Sub-Saharan Africa who often cannot attend school because they lack basic supplies. Hughes, who is a gifted public speaker and a Silver Knight winner in speech, credits her education with helping her develop her own strong personal voice. By starting Pencils for Progress, an Africa-focused pencil-donation program, Hughes has worked to make sure other children have that same opportunity.
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Hughes said winning the Silver Knight felt “surreal”
“It’s just kind of a validation of a lot of effort and hard work,” Hughes said.
The Silver Knight Awards, began in 1959 by The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald newspapers, recognizes scholastic achievement and community service in 15 categories — including art, athletics, journalism, and mathematics. The award winners receive $2,000, a Silver Knight statue, two round-trip American Airlines tickets and a medallion, also from the airline. The cash awards are made possible by support from American Airlines, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Baptist Health South Florida and Florida Blue.
Honorable mention winners receive $500. Public and private schools can nominate students, and a panel of distinguished judges selects the winners.
Past winners have in many cases gone on to illustrious careers: the ranks of Silver Knight alumni include Amazon.com founder (and Palmetto High grad) Jeff Bezos, and Ted Hendricks, a Hialeah High graduate whose successful pro football career landed him in the NFL Hall of Fame.
“We are here to honor you,” Miami Herald publisher David Landsberg told the hundreds gathered at downtown Miami’s James L. Knight Center for the black-tie awards ceremony. “The high school seniors who go above and beyond, making a tremendous impact on our community.”
The ceremony is in many ways similar to the Academy Awards — bright blue-and-white lights highlight a stage decorated with gigantic mock statues of the award. Award winners’ faces are captured on a giant projection screen at the precise moment that they realize, yes, they really did win.
“Hi, Mom,” mouthed Cypress Bay High School senior Anna Leiman as she received the Broward Silver Knight for Drama.
Next up was Abigail Frances George, the Miami-Dade Drama winner from Miami Southridge Senior High School. Only a couple of years ago, George was reeling as her mother struggled with alcoholism and the family was struck by multiple tragic deaths. George had to fight the urge to hurt herself, and she battled an eating disorder.
In acting, George said she found a “positive outlet” for her pent-up emotions. When she was playing an angry character onstage, it provided release for her own frustrations.
George called Southridge an “amazing place,” and credited its drama program with rescuing her from a downward spiral.
Without acting, she said, “I don’t think I’d be alive.”
For George and the other winners, the Silver Knight award provides not just prestige, but a support system going forward. A couple of years ago, retired Chief Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Joseph Farina — another past Silver Knight award winner — helped found the Silver Knight Alumni Legacy Network. The group mentors Silver Knight winners while they are studying hard in college and provides a lifetime networking opportunity.
“We welcome your participation in the future,” Farina told the crowd.