For six decades, the Miami Herald Silver Knight program has recognized teens who have gone above and beyond the classroom and dedicated themselves to serving their community.
This year’s passion projects — spanning 15 categories ranging from English and science to art and athletics — have evolved thanks to additional resources and advances in technology. But the resilience and drive demonstrated by these students is no less than that of the winners from decades past.
“Just as we have for the past 60 years, we’re here to honor you, the outstanding high school seniors with the passion and drive to make a positive difference in our community,” said Alexandra Villoch, East Region publisher for McClatchy and the Miami Herald Media Company's president and publisher.
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The black-tie ceremony recognized 742 nominees from 115 schools in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, along with their families and school coordinators for the diamond anniversary ceremony held Thursday night at the James L. Knight Center in Miami.
Thirty teens, 15 from Miami-Dade and 15 from Broward, joined the ranks of their predecessors, taking home a Silver Knight statuette, $2,000 and 25,000 American Airlines Advantage miles. An additional 90 — 45 in each county — were named Honorable Mentions, receiving a plaque and $500.
The winners were honored for helping the disadvantaged become self-sustaining, building up the spirits of children battling cancer and producing a regional Emmy-winning documentary.
Christopher Columbus High School seniors Antonio Castellanos and Christopher Ahrendt teamed up to film a documentary following kayakers who paddled 160 miles to fund-raise for cancer research, an endeavor called “Proof of Life.” Their work won them Silver Knights in the categories of Digital & Interactive Media and Journalism, respectively.
Backstage, Castellanos greeted Ahrendt with a hug. Someone asked if they were buddies.
“Brothers,” Castellanos said.
“It's a surreal moment,” said Ahrendt, who along with Castellanos will study film at Florida State University. “We never thought we'd be here and get so much recognition for it.”
On top of serving as president of Mast Academy Key Biscayne’s Black Student Association and being a member of the National Honor Society, Tiana Headley created a public service campaign, dubbed Social Justice for Students of Color, to tackle ethnic tensions at her school.
She created a discussion forum, “Social Justice and Sandwiches,” to start conversations about social issues related to students of color. She also wrote an essay, “Degradation of School Culture at a Top Magnet School,” published on the school’s newspaper website, in which she documented the rise of racial slurs at MAST in the context of her school’s history of providing careers in the maritime sciences to minority students.
“It means so much to be recognized for something,” she said. “It was really from the heart what I was doing.”
Tiana said after her essay was published it was “rough” on campus, but she is proud of how the school responded and “what they're doing now in response to the racial tensions at my school.”
As the descriptions were read, some students bowed their heads while others listened intently.
Preemptive cheers could be heard from family members who already sensed that their loved one had been selected.
Paige Pokryfe rushed to the stage with a wide smile on her face after announcer Patricia Hurtado de Mendoza ticked off her accomplishments, including the Paige’s Patriotic Pen Pals program she began in 2014 to send letters to soldiers.
“Our Silver Knight set up a table at her school’s Friday night football games so others could make cards,” Hurtado de Mendoza read about the St. Thomas Aquinas senior. “She also sends sympathy cards and red, white and blue cross keychains that she makes for the families of fallen soldiers.”
Backstage, Paige, clutching her Silver Knight statuette, said “to see this club that started out freshman year with four people ... and now we have 50 people in the club. It's just amazing.”
Her best friend, who was in the crowd, will soon attend The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, making her project even more personal.
“She's going into training this summer and I'm just going to send her so many cards when she gets into the Army,” she said.
The joyous celebration paused Thursday night for a moment of silence for the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 14 students — four of whom were seniors — and three faculty members dead.
To honor lives lost and to comfort a grieving community, Diego Pfeiffer, a nominee in Drama from Stoneman Douglas, performed the song “Fly With You” with Broadway music composer Julian Hornick.
“Good luck to everyone tonight,” Pfeiffer said after his performance.
The school won one Silver Knight and three honorable mentions. Joseph Oprison won in the athletics category.
“I just want to dedicate this award to my fallen classmates from Feb. 14,” he said. “This will mean a lot to them and to my school as a whole.”