Hope, energy and good work in abundance at Sonoma County Youth Service Awards ceremony

It has been easy, of late, to feel worried about the fate of the world.

And it’s been easier still to worry about the fate of the next generation.

Sonoma County students in particular have had to deal with, among other things, an unfathomable amount of lost school days from fires, then floods, then more fires, then a pandemic.

These students know no normal.

And while learning loss and mental health woes among students here are very real and deeply troubling, to see 125 high school seniors gather Tuesday night for the 33rd Press Democrat Youth Service Awards, which celebrate volunteerism and community action, is to see students who shined in the face of adversity.

Instead of turning away, they dug in. Instead of looking out for number one, they looked out for others. Instead of getting theirs, they gave theirs.

To hear what these students have accomplished in their unprecedented high school careers is to see fortitude and hope in action.

I wasn’t alone in feeling it.

Jennielynn Holmes, chief programs officer with Catholic Charities and a fierce champion of ending homelessness, was the keynote speaker Tuesday night and told the students that to be one of the 125 nominees is to have done something, or some things, incredible.

“I feel so hopeful for the future of our world because of each and every one of you,” she said.

“You are all sitting here because you have gone above and beyond.”

She urged the nominees — whose good deeds included work in agriculture, athletics, Latinx services, environmental science and the arts — to stay curious, to keep pushing and not to fall prey to cynicism.

“Please keep your optimistic hope,” she said. “Hope saves lives.”

And this: “Know this is just the beginning for you.”

And what a beginning it is.

These are students who have put in countless hours at food banks, who have launched their own YouTube channels to promote financial literacy, who have cleaned riverbanks and beaches.

They have run blood drives, started diversity forums, coached elementary school students and launched a company that gathers and distributes sports equipment to other youth in need.

These are high school seniors we are talking about.

These are students who are making time for projects of this magnitude while in many cases trying to claw back some sense of normalcy in a time when nothing has felt remotely normal.

Their fortitude, and to use the word of the day, resilience, is incredible. And inspiring.

They made me want to reorganize my day, my life, and squeeze a little more out of it.

As Press Democrat publisher Steve Falk introduced winners in each of the 12 categories before giving them checks for $2,000, he turned to one and quipped: “When do you sleep?”

Case in point: Windsor High senior Riley Zwetsloot did an on-field interview with my colleague Gus Morris after the Jags’ softball team beat Montgomery High 13-3 Tuesday afternoon, and hours (or was it minutes?) later, the senior outfielder was walking across the stage as her school’s nominee in the STEM/Environmental Science category.

Or Montgomery High student body president Isabel Batarseh, who along with a teammate, volunteered to coach the girls’ basketball team at nearby Brook Hill Elementary School.

Or West County High Associate Student Body treasurer Dylan Pena Perez, who along with the duties that come with that gig, has been a member of La Raza, was the co-founder of the West County High School Activists Club (the ones who led two student walkouts to protest the name change back to Analy High), the MEChA club, the Journalism Club, the Asian American Pacific Islander Club, and was the student board representative on the West Sonoma County Union School District board of trustees.

Oh, and he also volunteered with Ceres Community Project, a nonprofit that trains volunteers to farm food and create healthy meals for clients with significant health problems.

Maria Carrillo’s Tanna Curtis is another Ceres volunteer. She also won grant funds that let her establish a foundation that aims to educate Latina women about available resources and their legal rights related to intimate partner violence.

Curtis built the website (she also launched CalRobo, a student-run robotics program) and designed and distributed informational brochures. She’s also an intern at the County of Sonoma Public Law Library.

West County High’s Aiden Steinberg started her own produce gleaning program to supplement supplies of fresh fruits and vegetables at food pantries. She’s also president of the school’s Climate Action Club and has already picked out groups she’d like to volunteer with at college next fall.

These students are dialed in.

And to be among them, in person no less, is to feel the energy and the excitement about what they are bringing to the world.

Hope isn’t a bad thing. And it’s in abundance with this group.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or [email protected]. On Twitter @benefield.


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