One young lady was diagnosed with Stage IV pediatric cancer and created a support group for teenage cancer patients. Another took a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich and turned it into 3,000 to feed the homeless. And a young man whose little brother has autism started a school club that’s raised $70,000 to help autistic children.
Such are just a few of the amazing accomplishments of the 30 high school seniors in Miami-Dade and Broward counties who were named 2015 Silver Knight award winners Wednesday night in a ceremony honoring the best and brightest of this year’s high school graduates. The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald created the program and have carried it out since 1959, a 56-year tradition.
“We’re here to honor you, the high school seniors who go above and beyond, making a tremendous impact on our community,” said Alexandra Villoch, president and publisher of Miami Herald Media Company.
The students did it all while juggling AP and honors classes, playing varsity sports, participating in the arts, and sometimes overcoming painful personal adversity.
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Claudio Martinez, a senior at Coral Reef Senior High, didn’t let cerebral palsy get in the way of becoming a varsity wrestler, Eagle Scout and volunteer physical therapy assistant who teaches the disabled how to scuba dive. He won the Silver Knight for Social Science in Miami-Dade.
Jennifer Gaver, at J.P. Taravella High in Broward, raised more than $30,000 for childhood cancer research and patients after her best friend was diagnosed with cancer. She earned the Silver Knight in Journalism in Broward.
And Carmen Sandino, a senior at American Senior High in Hialeah, fought back when told foster kids rarely get to go to college. She created a tutoring service that helped other foster children through the college admissions process. Through her leadership, one student more than doubled her ACT score and received a $90,000 scholarship to her school of choice. She earned a Silver Knight in English & Literature in Miami-Dade.
She said the students she helps tutor “give me strength. They are the reason why I do what I do,” Carmen said.
Miami-Dade and Broward public and private schools nominated hundreds of seniors for the 15 categories of awards, including English & literature, general scholarship, journalism, mathematics, science and world languages, among other categories. A panel of judges picked winners in each category from Miami-Dade and Broward schools, along with three honorable mentions per category.
Lissette Gonzalez, meteorologist, CBS4, and Jorge Hernandez, anchor, Noticias 23, Univision, emceed the Oscar-like ceremony.
Claudio, the Coral Reef senior, shared a long hug with his Silver Knight coordinator backstage shortly after being named a winner. He said the recognition has encouraged him to go further in his volunteer work. “Now I’m just going to take it to the next heights,” he said. “I can’t wait to get to work.”
Thousands of proud parents, friends, family and teachers packed the James L. Knight Center for the festive ceremony. Students cheered as their schools were mentioned and took to the stage in sparkly dresses and serious suits.
North Broward Preparatory School senior Oliver Shore mouthed “Oh my God” over and over as judges ticked off a list of his accomplishments before taking the stage to be honored for his work in theater. Among his accomplishments: establishing a mentoring program pairing veteran students with newcomers.
“It’s validation for all the hard work I do,” he said backstage. “It’s so nice to know people appreciate drama and the arts.”
The winners join the ranks of past recipients like former Pepsi CEO Steven Reinemund, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos and local artist David Le Batard. They take home a statuette, a medallion, $2,000 and round-trip tickets from American Airlines. The awards are sponsored by American Airlines, Baptist Health, Florida Blue, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
“If anyone has any doubt about the future of this community, all you have to do is look at this inspiring group of students,” said Miami Herald Executive Editor and Vice President Aminda Marqués Gonzalez.
For many students, the urge to help was personal.
Lauren Bendesky, a senior at Coral Glades High School in Coral Springs, created the Lauren’s Love Foundation to support teenage cancer patients. She was diagnosed with Stage IV pediatric cancer when she was 14. She won the Silver Knight in Science in Broward.
Waleed Mneimneh combined his love of tennis and his little brother, who has autism, to launch an autism awareness club at Palmer Trinity School in South Miami-Dade. The club has raised $70,000 for the University of Miami’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, which provides critical support to families whose children have autism. He won the Silver Knight in Athletics in Miami-Dade.
And Aysha Habbaba, a Coral Reef senior who won the Silver Knight for World Languages in Miami-Dade, dedicated every Saturday of the past four years to teaching children Arabic and Islamic students at her mosque. She also co-developed an app with the Girls Who Code program, educating voters about local issues and candidates.
Others just wanted to help. Nicholas Nava, from the School for Advanced Studies, arranged for students to visit lonely senior citizens. American Heritage School senior Ian Olsson collected more than 14,000 books to restock local school libraries. Margaret Schloss, a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas, started with feeding peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to a few homeless people. She now leads the project, which delivers more than 3,000 sandwiches.
And Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Parker Abt channeled his love of rock ’n’ roll to create Rock Buddies, a five-week program that teaches children with special needs how to make music. After working with a student for two months, Parker said the student recently flashed his first smile.
“That was my ‘thank you,’” Abt said. “I knew it was real, what I was doing.”
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