From one of the darkest moments in Florida history, this year’s 2019 Silver Knights lit their own path forward.
When the deadliest school shooting in state history ravaged her school, Ashley Paseltiner organized a Not-So-Scary Halloween Party to show kids in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High community that it was OK to feel joy. Stacey Gringauz at nearby North Broward Preparatory School raised $150,000 by making custom bracelets so she could give the proceeds to the families of the 17 killed and the 17 recovering from gunshot wounds.
The teens were among 30 winners recognized Thursday night at the 61st annual Miami Herald Silver Knight awards at the James L. Knight Center. They shined among 639 nominees from 109 schools in both counties, with winners picked in 15 categories in both Miami-Dade and Broward counties in categories ranging from art and athletics to science, mathematics, speech and world languages.
“After everything that happened, people in our community felt so uncomfortable coming to our school,” said Paseltiner, the Broward winner in the drama category. “It means so much to me to just be able to welcome people back to my school and make it our home again.”
Silver Knights like her and Gringauz identify problems in their communities and beyond and work to solve them, sometimes under the grimmest of circumstances. On top of being star students with impressive résumés both in and outside of the classroom, they take on larger-than-life sustainable service projects. They commit to an intense, sometimes years-long application process to be nominated by their school for the Silver Knight awards and undergo an interview before a panel of judges.
“The accomplishments you’ve made and the academic success you’ve achieved are beyond exceptional,” said Aminda Marqués González, executive editor and publisher of the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald. “They’ve made each and every one of you a winner, and we hope that you cherish the memory of this special moment for the rest of your lives.”
The winners join an exclusive group of Silver Knights who have made a lasting mark in the South Florida community and beyond. Notable alumni include Amazon founder and magnate Jeff Bezos, “Rocky” composer Bill Conti, artist Xavier Cortada, and Frances Dee Cook, the former ambassador to Burundi, Cameroon and Oman.
They take home some sweet rewards, too: a Silver Knight statuette, $2,000 and 25,000 American Airlines Advantage miles. An additional 90 students — 45 in each county — were named Honorable Mentions, receiving a plaque and $500. There are three honorable mentions for each category in each county.
Often, the Silver Knights’ service projects hit close to home.
A first-generation American, Adyant Khanna traveled to his family’s native India every summer, where he’d play cricket with his friend, Jammu. He realized in his freshman year that Jammu’s village didn’t have clean drinking water, so the Miami Palmetto Senior High student raised $25,000 to install a low-cost water supply infrastructure to help thousands of people.
Those villagers now have fewer illnesses and improved productivity, and Khanna hopes to expand the project even further.
“I’m gonna call him soon,” said Khanna, who won in the general scholarship category. “It’s inspired me to do more and help others and expand my project.”
Sick of the gun violence in her community, Aiyana Edwards rallied 500 students from Dillard 6-12 to walk out to the Urban League of Broward County to advocate for victims of gun violence and to raise awareness of the issue.
And as Venezuela continues to decline under political and economic pressures, Sofia Alvarado at Coral Reef Senior High and Natalie Chevrel at Our Lady of Lourdes Academy both mobilized to send supplies home to their native country.
“After leaving my country and leaving everybody behind, after that I’ve just tried to do everything to make up for the sacrifices my parents have made,” said Alvarado, the business winner in Miami-Dade, who left Venezuela in 2010. “I hope this is something to show ... how much they’ve helped me so I wanted to give that back.”
In some cases, Silver Knights overcome their own obstacles and help others overcome theirs, too.
Jazmin Neadle was placed in a foster home before she was adopted in sixth grade. She rallied local nonprofits, businesses and radio celebrities to host memorable Quinceañera/Sweet 16 parties for 65 girls at Children’s Home Society & Family Resource Center.
“It means a lot because it proves to me that your past doesn’t define you, you define your future,” said Neadle, who attends South Miami Senior High and won in the category of music and dance.