It’s that time of year again. Cooler nights. Shorter days. Back to school. It’s also time for our annual introduction of ten young people from our community who are on their way to changing the world. We know they’re not alone. Extraordinary teenagers are in good supply around Greenwich. Just ask the teachers and the coaches and anyone else who sees them in action every day. When it comes to impressive youngsters, Greenwich’s cup runneth over. And while that’s heartening news, it’s also no easy task each year to pick just ten to showcase on these pages.
But what an impressive ten we have rounded up for 2013. They’re accomplished in all of the traditional ways, as students or athletes or wherever their talents may lie. But it’s also a group that goes beyond everyday expectations. They’re innovators. (One has made valuable sense of data from Twitter, for example, solving a problem that stumped the experts.) They’re indefatigable. (One walked out of treatment for leukemia and its complications months sooner than expected and made her way back to the varsity playing fields.) And they regard themselves not just as citizens of Greenwich, or even the United States, but of the world. (One is making a better life for Ethiopian youngsters in Israel, while another is championing workers and small businesses in the Third World.)
Come meet them. But forgive them if it seems like they’re in a hurry. After all, they’ve got places to go.
Harnessing the Power of Positivity
Leukemia by itself is more than most can bear. But for Nicole Graham, who was diagnosed with that frightful disease last September, it was just the beginning of her problems. As her treatment proceeded, she would also become septic, which sent toxins coursing through her system, and suffered strokes on both sides of her brain. For two weeks, she was in a medically induced coma. And on three occasions, doctors warned her parents that they might lose her.
Today, on the way to a full recovery and happy to get back to varsity field hockey this fall—then indoor track come winter and lacrosse in the spring—the Greenwich High School senior sees life in a new light. “It definitely put things in perspective,” Nicole says. “Now, when something goes wrong, I’m always like, ‘There’s so much more that can go wrong than this.’”
Back pain, shortness of breath and a skin rash were what originally brought her to the doctor. But when the results of a blood test revealed that she had leukemia, Nicole soon found herself at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital, beginning chemotherapy. And though the road to recovery was fraught with complications of the worst kind, she inspired a lot of people with her upbeat attitude and steely determination to get well. What was to have been a four-to-six-month stay at a rehabilitation hospital, for instance, she wrapped up in two and a half months.
Nicole endured some tough days, emotionally and physically. Family and friends—indeed, the support of the Greenwich High community and beyond—helped immeasurably. But she also discovered something within herself that kept propelling her forward. “If I could only do one lap around the field, that one lap was a success for me, because I know a lot of other cancer patients are unable to do that,” she says. “I’m always trying to strive for another goal. That’s one of the main things I realized about myself, that I always want to go to the next level.”
This school year, Nicole will be among the captains in each of her three varsity sports. As for her schoolwork, she’s all but caught up. Lately, she’s been looking into colleges where she can play Division I lacrosse. And though people have asked her if her recent health crisis might lead her to a career in medicine, Nicole tells them she’s doubtful. Business, she says, sounds like a good major. But she’s had quite enough of hospitals, thank you.
Taking the Stage
“I’m all about theater,” says Josh Ford, a junior at King Low Heywood Thomas. That makes sense. The dramatic arts, after all, run in his family. Josh’s parents met in a theater class back in college—he was an actor and she worked on the production side—and his dad’s parents once owned the Charles Playhouse in Boston’s theater district. Josh himself has been appearing in plays since he was a tyke. At King, his roles have been as diverse as Seymour Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors during his freshman year and Corny Collins in Hairspray as a sophomore. Summer camp at French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts in upstate New York has also kindled Josh’s passion for the footlights.
Not long ago, he came upon a one-man play that intrigued him, called Fully Committed, about a busy New York restaurant, and hopes to put it on for his school, perhaps this fall. Josh, who has a knack for foreign accents—ask him for his rendition of Lumiere the French candlestick from Beauty and the Beast—will play forty characters over the course of the play. He’s already spent a day working at an eatery in New York that’s similar to the one in the play, for research purposes, and has been hard at work learning the characters and his many lines.
Music is intricately woven into his love for performing as well. Josh likes to sing. And he’s a devotee of the ukulele. He taught himself to play the traditional Hawaiian instrument—in a wayward attempt to impress a girl at camp who also played the uke, he says—and now owns six. Periodically, he will put down a hat and play outside the Old Greenwich firehouse, where he also volunteers, and field requests. Half the fun, he says, is being able to play songs like the Rolling Stones’s “Paint It Black,” that most folks would never expect to emanate from a ukulele. He also gives lessons.
Josh’s future path is undecided, he says, though he’s pretty sure he’d like to work in the performing arts one day. “Maybe music, voice acting or television or theater,” he muses. “The world is my oyster right now.”
Sinking His Teeth Into Science
Stephen Le Breton
He is just starting college, but Stephen Le Breton has already contributed to finding a practical treatment for one of the biggest threats to dental health and any number of ailments that can ultimately stem from it. Working on an independent research project at Greenwich High School, Stephen came up with a method that could show the way for replacing tooth enamel in dental patients. So impressive were his efforts that Stephen was named a finalist in the acclaimed Intel Science Talent Search, a national high school research competition, and in the process got to meet President Obama at the White House.
“I’ve spoken to other researchers and they’ve found this very interesting,” Stephen says of his study. “One of the big reactions I’ve gotten was ‘Wow, I’ve never seen someone do that before.’ It could have huge health benefits. A lot of people don’t realize how many health problems affecting our bodies can stem from the mouth and lack of hygiene of the mouth.”
What Stephen ultimately did was bring together calcium phosphate, potassium fluoride and other chemicals, which previous research showed could provide a suitable replacement for enamel, with a polymer to create a gel that would time-release the new coating. He used that gel in a retainer-like device that allowed him to control both how much synthetic enamel was applied and its exact location. Among the challenges that Stephen overcame was to make his approach fast—the coating can be applied in an hour—and safe, because in too large a dose the chemicals could be toxic.
Stephen, a freshman at Yale, is looking to have his work published in a scientific journal. And though more research is needed before his method, or any aspect of it, is used with patients, his work could be a big step toward helping countless people. “It’s a step in the right direction,” he says. “I’m planning on continuing this research. Hopefully I’ll continue to make the polymer more efficient.”
Helping folks is a major theme in his life. Stephen, who has volunteered at Greenwich Hospital during his summers, intends to be a doctor. As his Eagle Scout project for the Boy Scouts, he raised $9,500 and enlisted volunteers to help him rebuild Bruce Park’s fitness trail, which had fallen into disrepair. He also has a business in which he works as a lifeguard for private pool parties around town. “I’m very interested in service to other people,” he says.
Blazing a Trail
Because of Henry Baker a dozen young men whose prospects were bleak now have hope for a bright future. Over the last five years, Henry has sponsored the group of teenagers living in Israel’s underprivileged Ethiopian community, raising money and providing everything from clothing to educational support to guidance as the boys moved toward adulthood. “Sometimes I think it’s been more meaningful for me than for them,” says Henry. “It’s really helped me to mature a lot.”
What started as a charity project for his bar mitzvah continued to evolve and grow. Henry first got involved with the boys at the suggestion of a family friend, who had been working to help Israel’s Ethiopian immigrants. Although they were much welcomed after a massive airlift from their native land in 1991, the Ethiopians have struggled with poverty and discrimination in the predominantly white Jewish state, even though they too are Jewish.
In searching for a way to raise money for the boys, who are all around his age, Henry soon hit upon the idea of selling blue blazers that had been piling up in Brunswick’s lost and found over the years back to the school’s students and their parents. And so, with the help of some classmates, he started a school club known as the Blue Blazer Fund. Before long, demand was such that he started dealing in new jackets, which a manufacturer agreed to sell to him at a discount.
Henry’s efforts, however, have gone far beyond Brunswick’s walls. Most summers he and his family travel to Israel to visit the boys and take them to important places around the country, to broaden their horizons. In July, the youths journeyed to America to spend a week with the Bakers. Henry’s efforts even got the attention of Israel’s President Shimon Peres, who met with him and his family two summers ago.
To date, Henry has raised $160,000 for the boys. And though he is currently a freshman at Cornell University, he has no intention of stopping his support. His concern now is in seeing that the youths do well on the national examinations that determine their assignments in the military—service is mandatory in Israel—and in their careers. “Some of the boys might be interested in going to university,” he says. “Some might be interested in going to school in the United States. I’m not exactly sure how we’re going to help, but we’re definitely going to be here for them.”
Leading the Crew
Galen Hughes had been on the crew squad at Greenwich Academy for less than a week when she realized that she had found her ideal sport. It was spring of her freshman year and a friend off-handedly asked if she thought she would like to row in college. That’s when it dawned on Galen just how much she had taken to rowing. “I said, yeah, I probably would,” she recalls. “It all changed then. That’s when I knew it would be more of a focus in my life.”
How far that focus will take her is yet to be seen. Galen was named to the U.S. Women’s Junior National Team this summer and was part of the four-woman boat that took gold at the world junior championships in Lithuania last month. She was among sixteen girls under age nineteen , to make the squad, out of forty selected to try out.
A freshman at Princeton University, Galen was blessed with height—she stands six-feet-two-inches—and an indomitable determination. Besides being among the powerhouse four in the middle of the boat for crew, she also played center for GA’s girls basketball team. Galen was a captain for both sports in her junior and senior years (both fall and spring for crew), and collected accolades galore. In basketball, she was named All League in the Fairchester Athletic Association for her sophomore, junior and senior years. She was also a New England All Star for the past two years. (Although she will be rowing at Princeton, Galen has no plans of playing basketball for the Tigers.)
Galen likes the simplicity of rowing. On the water her only worry is her stroke, one repetitive motion, and striving to make it perfect. “Slowly over time, you learn to get so much better,” she says. “It’s a sport where you really can see how much your hard work is paying off.”
Having two older sisters, Mallory and Catherine, with cystic fibrosis, Galen—and her family—has been a mainstay in the fight against the disease, raising money and spreading awareness. As the junior member of “Team Hughes Sisters,” Galen has covered many a mile on fund- raising treks, among other efforts on behalf of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Exploring the Twitterverse
Valuable information was buried in the mountains of data produced by Twitter, the social networking service, and Peter Kazazes was among the first to figure out how to mine it. The Brunswick School graduate is the founder of Sybil Vision, a company that provides custom social-media analysis for a clientele that includes media companies, advertising agencies and those in the entertainment industry.
Peter, eighteen, went into business when he was barely a teenager, picking up work from individuals and companies that needed help developing websites, mobile applications and the like. Then last year, he came up with an algorithm that allowed him to gauge the sentiments being expressed on Twitter and use them to measure public opinion. Until Peter found an answer, the brevity of the Tweets made it difficult for data analysts to ascertain their meaning—was someone expressing favorable or unfavorable feelings?—and apply them.
So it was that Peter made a splash last year with an iPhone/iPad application that he created called Twelect. It used Twitter data to reveal with an accuracy right in line with the national polls how the presidential horse race was proceeding. In the end, he says, he predicted the reelection of Barack Obama within 1 percent of the popular vote. And though time will be the best test of the technology’s ability to predict elections, Peter impressed a lot of people, including the producers of television’s Fox Business, who had him as a guest on their broadcast a number of times.
Since then, Peter has brought on a team of a dozen people to apply his system to business needs. In short, Sybil Vision’s technology sifts through oceans of Tweets to tease out how people are responding to products or services. “For example, we work with VH1,” says Peter. “When they debut new songs, we’ll tell them if it has any impact on the global discussion of that song. We work with pollsters around issues surrounding, say, Mayor Bloomberg, or issues like gun control. We work with cyber security companies and do social listening for them for big targets. We’re all over the map. And we’re doing well.”A freshman at UCLA, Peter insists that he’s hardly a computer geek. “It’s the abstract high-level thinking combined with the business angle of it that really attracted me,” he says of his Twitter work, “and that’s what’s kept me with it.”
Far From Camera Shy
Lucy Burnett’s curiosity, hunger for learning and compassion for others promise to take her to some compelling places in life. In fact, they already have. These days the Greenwich Academy sophomore is exploring the possibilities of filmmaking and perhaps becoming a director one day. “Film is the perfect opportunity to combine my passions,” she explains. “There are so many different elements that go into it, like writing and music and art.”
Lucy’s early efforts have caught the attention of her Greenwich Academy teachers and classmates alike. One project that was particularly captivating was Lucy’s short film about the children she met while volunteering in Tanzania two summers ago. In many ways, what she chose to show about the youngsters at the Make a Difference orphanage was as revealing of the girl behind the camera as it was of those she was filming. “You could see how some of the older kids spent time to help the little kids with their homework, which I thought was really touching,” she says. “Or how they’d be playing with a half-deflated old soccer ball, but they’d be having so much fun. It made me think just how different everything was there. I tried to focus on the differences of American and Tanzanian culture.”
She caught the filmmaking bug, she says, in a class she took at school last year. Her dad, Rob Burnett, a television producer and independent filmmaker himself, has recruited Lucy, her older sister and younger brother to serve as extras in a number of his productions, along with assignments like filming “behind the scenes” footage.
Complementing her interest in filmmaking is her talent for writing. Last year Lucy took a seminar with Writopia Lab, a creative writing program for youngsters in New York, and had a short play that she wrote selected to be performed by actors connected with the workshop. Set in an automobile en route to the nail salon, The Unspoken was about a mother and teenage daughter coming to terms with one another.
Indeed, one of the attractions of filmmaking, Lucy says, is the opportunity to tell stories that have deeper meaning. An action-flick chick, she is not. “I tend to like movies that have more of a theme that they’re trying to get across,” Lucy says. “Film has the potential to influence an audience, and that’s a really cool thing about it.”
Taking Stock and Bonds
To understand how the world works, Stephanie Mellert knows, it’s smart to follow the money. The Convent of the Sacred Heart senior dates her passion for economics and politics back to seventh grade and a current-events club that one of her teachers ran during lunch. “She had different views than I had,” remembers Stephanie, “and it was difficult to argue against someone who had many years of schooling. I wanted to find out more about the world for myself and discover just what my opinions were.”
Stephanie and a classmate decided to start an economics club, which continues to flourish. Early on, they focused on the basics, such as terminology, how markets worked and the rationale behind trading and owning stocks and bonds. Then, through the online trading game Wall Street Survivor, they took to running with the bulls—and bears—themselves. Readers whose own portfolios are flagging might want to consult Stephanie for tips: She won the club’s annual competition, which is open to the whole school, three out of four years. Starting with $500,000, in simulated dollars of course, she raked in a profit of $16,045.58 between last November and March. “I believe in purchasing stocks that seem valuable to your own life,” she says. “Even if someone is claiming that it’s a good stock to buy, if you don’t see people wearing them or using that product, it’s not very likely that their stock is going to do well.”
This summer, Stephanie took classes at Columbia and Georgetown universities to broaden her knowledge of global economics and American politics, respectively. She is currently coeditor of Green Years, Sacred Heart’s yearbook. If enough pages are available, she hopes that she can add more fun elements like candid photos and student bucket lists to the volume. She’ll also be busy as cocaptain of the speech and debate team, for the second year running. Last school year she was a quarter finalist at a tournament of 450 competitors at Harvard, her toughest competition to date, and also qualified for the state competition. Her strategy for success? “Some people believe that being louder is better,” she says, “but really it’s speaking in a firm tone and being on the balance of telling people you know this is the right thing but that their opinion is also possibly valid.
Going for Gold
Sam Varshisky had already been a competitive swimmer for close to six years when, by age eleven, he was thoroughly burned out on the sport. Although he was clearly talented, the youngster simply lost his passion for swimming. “I just wasn’t having fun,” Sam remembers. “But my mom didn’t want me to quit water sports entirely after devoting so much time to it. So I transferred to water polo because it just seemed fun.”
Five years later, he’s still having a ball. Now a junior at Stanwich School, Sam is a force on what may be the most dominant water polo club in the Northeast, Greenwich Aquatics, the YMCA team. Playing the multiskill position known as attacker, Sam and his teammates have competed all over the country—in California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Nevada, to name a few places—and in Canada. Among other victories, he played a key role in the squad’s crushing gold-medal win over a team from Brazil in last winter’s South Florida International Tournament in Coral Springs. And at last year’s Junior Olympics in California, he was one of the main reasons Greenwich Aquatics wound up with a more-than-respectable eighth place finish, unprecedented for a team from this corner of the nation.
Played nearly year-round, with several hours of practice a day, water polo is a grueling endeavor. It requires endurance, strength, quick reflexes and fast thinking. And it’s more bruising than onlookers might suspect. But that’s one of the things Sam likes about it. “It’s kind of a contact sport,” he says, “and it’s got its share of drama, too.”
At Stanwich, chemistry and physics are his favorite subjects. College is still a couple years away, but Sam says he’s sure he wants to go to a school with a top-flight water polo program, where he can get a lot of playing time. Down the line, he’s thinking about a career in chemical engineering, though law school is a possibility, too.
When not in the YMCA pool practicing or competing, Sam can be found, well, at the YMCA pool, teaching younger kids the game. “Water polo is kind of my life,” he says.
Playing Fair on Global Ground
Carolyn Schnackenberg wants to create a better world, and in some ways she’s already broken ground. The University of Virginia (UVA) freshman was still in high school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart when she spurred Greenwich to declare itself a Fair Trade Town, encouraging residents to buy products and patronize businesses that support responsible labor practices and equitable prices for Third World goods and services.
“Many people go to the grocery store and buy products without knowing where they come from, or who they are benefiting or hurting by buying the products,” she says. “I’ve had so many people tell me they had no idea that they had a choice between buying products that are made with child labor and those that are not, and that they’re really going to look out for that Fair Trade seal.”
Carolyn, who was co-valedictorian at Sacred Heart’s commencement this spring, has been interested in the Fair Trade movement since learning about it for a school project in eighth grade. Two years later she decided to put her knowledge into action, working to add Greenwich to the growing list of communities around the country that are getting behind the movement. She gathered information, enlisted supporters, and with the help of First Selectman Peter Tesei, even drew up the resolution that proclaimed the town’s support of fair treatment for those in developing countries who produce everything from coffee to clothing that Americans buy every day.
Nor did she stop there. Carolyn continued to spread the word, discussing the subject with elementary school kids at Sacred Heart in a class she developed called Global View, which focused on social justice. She also arranged for Fair Trade representatives, including a Guatemalan coffee farmer, to speak at her school. She’s already thinking about starting a Fair Trade organization at UVA.
International relations and global affairs, particularly as they relate to Latin America, are Carolyn’s big interests. She’s fluent in Spanish. And she hopes someday to work as a human rights lawyer. “I really want to stick up for the rights of workers,” she says, “especially those workers that cannot stick up for themselves.”