Taking Charge

To the world at large, September spells the start of the school year; to us, it heralds our annual presentation of ten extraordinary teens. As in the past, the members of this year’s group come from different backgrounds, and have different interests. One is an aspiring filmmaker; another writes sophisticated computer code; still another is on his way to inventing the next big thing in renewable energy. But it’s what they have in common that is most appealing: They are bright, ambitious, talented, and, above all, kind. They dream big—so big, in fact, that they all have already accomplished more in their young lives than most people manage in a lifetime. Their energy and enthusiasm will carry them far—to some of the country’s best colleges and beyond. After you’ve had a chance to meet them, we’re confident you will agree.
Cracking The Code

Francesca Narea likes to know how things work. Case in point? When she was twelve years old, she taught herself Python, a general- purpose programming language, in order to understand the mechanics of the online video games she enjoyed.

Today, the Greenwich Academy senior is proficient in JavaScript, Objective-C, Swift and HTML, among other advanced computer languages. She is one of a new generation of young female computer coders who are breaking down barriers and leaving glass ceilings in shards. This past spring Francesca was selected to attend the #include Fellowship Program sponsored by the Silicon Valley-based She++ organization. While there she had an opportunity to meet industry leaders, attend classes at Stanford University, and participate in panel discussions at Facebook and Google. “It was amazing to be in a place where everyone is really passionate about computer science. These were my people!” she says.

As a prerequisite, she had to create a comp sci initiative and elected to design an Intro to Java course for teens, which she taught at Greenwich Library last spring. “I wanted to share my wealth of comp sci,” she says. “To give them something I never had.”

Languages have always played an important role in the seventeen year old’s life. She studies Spanish, plays classical guitar “to wind down” and prefers a good book to a movie. She is also a gifted writer whose work has been recognized by the Scholastic Arts & Writing organization, and the web editor of GA’s literary magazine, Daedalus, and a new online fashion magazine, Tartan. “Coding is very creative,” she says. “You can do it differently than someone else will, once you have the basic syntax of a language.”

This summer, Francesca commuted to New Haven every day, where she worked full-time at a Yale Entrepreneurial Institute-sponsored start-up called Umi, a web-based home-cooking delivery service. As the only programmer, she redesigned the website and developed an iOS app. The work gave her a chance to further her knowledge base and get hands-on experience of what it takes to develop a business from the ground up.

Meanwhile, back at school, Francesca is used to being the lone girl in Brunswick’s advanced computer science classes. “The boys realized that doesn’t change anything,” she says. “My code speaks for itself.”

Eye On The Prize

Transitions are hard at any age. Just ask Alberto “Chile” Larraguibel, the Boys & Girls Club 2015 Youth of the Year. The club’s highest honor, the award is presented annually to a member who embodies its core values of service, academic excellence and a healthy lifestyle. For Chile, being named Youth of the Year was a “jaw-dropping” moment. “As a kid I remember seeing the pictures of the previous winners,” he says. “I never thought I would be up there, too.”

He was just ten years old when he, his mother and sister moved to the United States from Chile to be with his father. “It was pretty terrifying not knowing anyone, the language or the culture,” he recalls. A week later, two new friends introduced him to the Boys & Girls Club. “That was pretty scary, too,” he says. “But there were a lot more people speaking Spanish, so I was able to find my way around more easily.”

The club not only eased Chile’s transition into a new country, it also provided him with a much-needed father figure. His parents divorced soon after the family was reunited. “I had a huge absence in my life,” he says. “The athletic director became my second dad, my best friend. He was there when I needed someone most.” A gifted athlete, Chile took up basketball and soon became a valued member of the club’s traveling team.

The challenges he faced as a youngster taught him valuable life lessons. “I learned to keep my eye on the prize. To not let external things affect my life in school or the gym.”

From his mother, Chile learned the importance of perseverance. “She always had high expectations for me,” he says. He spent two years at Greenwich High, where he excelled academically. “I’m not the brightest, but I am the most persistent,” he says. “If I have something in front of me, I won’t walk away until it’s done.” It’s that determination that earned Chile a scholarship to Greens Farms Academy in Westport, where he commutes two hours a day by train.

Chile continues to volunteer at the club—something that will always be a part of his life. “It’s great to give money, and I hope to be able to do that someday. But if I’m able to or not, I will give back as much time as I can.”

Science of Compassion

Other than a brief fascination with paleontology, Max Minichetti always knew he wanted to become an engineer. “I got my first set of Legos way under the recommended age,” he recalls. “My mom risked it. It was a huge part of my childhood development.”

Good call. Last spring the Stanford University freshman graduated from GHS, where he won just about every honor available to a student scientist/engineer for his work in renewable energy. “Stanford was my dream school. It’s a great atmosphere to learn with the best in the world.”

It’s hard to believe, but the seventeen-year-old wasn’t always an academic whiz kid. Elementary school got off to a “bumpy start,” he explains. But once he moved to North Street School, something clicked. “My fifth-grade teacher gave me the confidence to believe the sky’s the limit,” he says. During his time at the high school, Max took on the most challenging course load available. “It’s just because I never want to waste my time.” He was a three-time exhibitor at the Connecticut Science and Engineering Fair, and as a finalist for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair; his sophomore year, Max earned the distinction of being the youngest to qualify in GHS history.

Although he is an enthusiastic athlete who played varsity tennis and soccer, Max is a scientist through and through. The National Merit Scholar was the only senior in his class to work on an independent project. The project, which explored the use of specially engineered, fully transparent polymers for generating electricity from ambient light and heat sources, won the Office of Naval Research-U.S. Navy/U.S. Marine Corps Award for Excellence in STEM, and Max was invited to present his findings at the Connecticut Invention Convention.

Max carried his passion for science into his volunteer work, where he organized the Cool Kids Chemistry after-school program, founded the GHS Science Research Club and volunteered at the Bruce Museum Seaside Center. As a recent inductee into the National Honor Society, Max spoke on the meaning of character, during which he talked about the attributes of a good leader. “Integrity and character should be the aim of education. Mental acuity means nothing if you’re a bad person.”

The Power Of The Pen

In some ways, Alana Galloway is a typical teenager: She enjoys hanging out with her friends, playing with the family dogs, horseback riding, snowboarding and traveling. But in some ways, she is not. A writer with a passion for journalism and photography, the Sacred Heart senior has taken on some weighty topics over the past three years: anti-bullying, human trafficking, prison reform and teen suicide. “I may be just seventeen years old, but I am capable of recognizing issues around the world,” she says. “I want to make a difference in whatever way I can.”

Her work has appeared in her school newspaper, The King Street Chronicle, the Stewardship Report, the Greenwich Time, and the Huffington Post. In February, Alana received the J. Luce Foundation Global Leader Award, which is presented to young people who are making a difference in the world. In March, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal presented her with a special congressional commendation. “It was pretty incredible,” she says, describing the event, which was held in Bridgeport.

Despite a demanding AP and Honors course load—Alana loves English, science, history and psychology—she finds time to help those in need; since 2010 she has been a Teen Health Advocate for the National Meningitis Association. Still, she can’t remember when writing and photography weren’t a part of her life. “Growing up I always seemed to have cameras hanging around my neck,” she says.

She remembers the moment when she knew journalism was her calling. She transferred to Sacred Heart her sophomore year, not long after former GHS student Bart Palosz committed suicide. For her first assignment on the paper, Alana had to write an editorial about something she cared deeply about. His story touched her.

“I wondered what if I had met him? Could that have changed something?” she says. After the piece was published, Bart’s sister reached out to Alana to tell her how much the story moved her. “It was just me writing something I felt strongly about, and it ended up having an impact on the family,” Alana says. “I realized then that maybe my writing could help people. Even if it’s just one person, then it’s worth it.”

Strength & Courage

As a child, Ashley Annakie remembers watching her older brother David head off to the Boys & Girls Club every afternoon after school. “He was having so much fun,” she recalls. “I couldn’t wait to join him.”

A member for the past twelve years, the Greenwich High School graduate has made it her mission to give back to the club community that played such a big role in her life. During high school, Ashley logged more than 2,000 hours as a volunteer—doing everything from helping kids with their homework and working as a counselor-in-training at Camp Simmons to organizing the Keystone Club’s annual fundraiser, Girls Night In Slumber Party. This past spring she received the Team Community Service Award and was also a 2015 Youth of the Year Award finalist. “The Boys and Girls Club gave me such an amazing childhood,” she says. “I wanted to be a role model for this generation.”

Ashley knows all about the importance of being a role model. Shy and introverted as a young girl, she was subjected to bullying in grade school. “A lot of it was based on my race, my hair, the color of my skin,” she says. She also suffered from a knee disorder that required her to wear a cumbersome brace, which earned her hurtful names like “cripple” and “peg leg.” “I knew once I hit high school I wanted to help other kids going through the kind of thing that happened to me.”

At GHS, she was part of the Names Team, a program that educates incoming freshman about anti-bullying. She says the work helped her find her voice. “I was quite timid in middle school and now it’s pretty hard to get me to shut up.” For the Keystone Club, she was instrumental in helping raise money for an earthquake-ravaged Chile. She is also an avid equestrian and a gifted musician, who played the clarinet in the high school band. When the group visited Cuba in 2014, she arranged to have 200 hygiene kits donated to Cubans in need.

Now a freshman at the University of Rhode Island, where she is studying entrepreneurial management, Ashley dreams about working for a company as a project manager. “I like leading people,” she says. “I prefer to take an active role, helping people accomplish their goals.”

Leading The Way

By all accounts, Eric Knorr is a natural born leader. For his Eagle Scout project three years ago, he convinced fifteen people to help him build a composting center at the Armstrong Community Gardens. He was just fourteen at the time. “When I was young, I was shy,” he says. “The leadership roles I’ve taken on have pushed me outside my comfort zone.”

Eric inherited his passion for Scouting from his father and joined the Cos Cob troop as a Cub Scout. Along the way, he learned important lessons about effective communication skills, setting a good example and rising to a challenge. Last year, for instance, as the only junior in King’s AP chemistry class, there was a moment when he thought he was in over his head; he considered dropping the class. Instead, he stuck with it—and the results paid off. “It was a good lesson for me in terms of perseverance and commitment,” he recalls. This past spring, Eric received the prestigious Bausch & Lomb award in recognition of outstanding academic scholarship.

As a student leader at King, Eric has played an integral role in revitalizing several clubs, including the Math Help Club and the Outdoors Club, which has grown to forty members. “It’s kind of cool to share my passion for the outdoors with other people,” he says. It’s no surprise that he is a varsity cross-country runner. “I really enjoy it,” he says. “It requires a lot of self-motivation, but you’re also part of a team. It’s sort of a unique sport that way.”

He has been involved with Project HOPE (helping other people excel) since his freshman year, and during the summer he volunteers as a counselor at Camp Seton. A recent inductee into King’s cum laude society, the King Scholar attributes his academic success to his passion for learning. “Everything I learn gives me a chance to improve myself,” he says, “and that allows me to give to others. I think it’s satisfying to see someone suddenly grasp a concept—whether a middle school student grasping simple fractions or a Boy Scout learning to tie a knot—and know I was a part of that.”

Technically Speaking

Gifted artist, star athlete, academic standout and community leader—Taylor Jean-Jacques, a senior at Phillips Exeter Academy, is proof that when you want something done, ask the busiest person in the room. “I’m fueled a lot by the idea of giving back and creating solutions to problems,” she says.

One prime example is the website she cofounded, BoardersReport.com. Taylor came up with the idea for the news aggregation site when she was doing her own prep school research. Dismayed by the dearth of information available, she set out to create something unique—a place where prospective students could get a sense of a school’s character. “There weren’t a lot of resources,” she recalls. “I was struggling to find the pulse of each school’s community.”

Although she had never written computer code before, much less developed a website, Taylor taught herself Java and HTML in order to fulfill her vision. Her interest in economics and computer science led to a summer internship at a Silicon Alley start-up. For the past two years, Taylor has been involved in everything from grant writing and coding to donor development. “The work at the start-up really supports my interest in international development,” she says. The recipient of an Exeter Summer Research Fellowship, she also spent part of this summer in Haiti, where she studied the impact of technology on education in developing countries.

A high-honors student who plans to study economics and math in college, Taylor says her time at Exeter has given her the chance to pursue her passions. “The best part is the resources I have,” she says. “Not just the programs, but also the people and the teachers. They are incredibly enlightening and supportive.”

In her downtime she enjoys painting, a hobby she picked up as a young girl. She is also an avid athlete: Taylor was voted captain of the school’s tennis team, and was ranked number one in both singles and doubles play; she was named a NEPSAC Volleyball All-Star, and was part of the award-winning 2014 Division III National Squash Team. Somehow she managed to find time to start a nonprofit tennis club, offering lessons to local residents. “Playing sports is an excellent way to develop diligence and perseverance,” she says.

Community Voice

As a senior at Greenwich High School, James Plewniak wears many hats: varsity fencer, member of both the National Honor Society and the Chinese National Honor Society, Boys State representative, Homework Liaison, and student government representative. He is also the new chairman of the town’s First Selectman’s Youth Commission and a past Lodge Chief of the Greenwich Chapter of the Order of the Arrow. For James, it’s all a question of priorities. “I am driven and focused,” he says. “But I put effort into things I am passionate about.”

Modest and self-effacing, James discovered his passion for community service as a Cub Scout. He was already an Eagle Scout by the time he reached ninth grade, an experience that required him to develop excellent leadership skills. “I didn’t have the strongest voice in the room. I learned the best way to lead is through the strength of the ideas, to make everyone feel like they are an integral part of the project’s success.”

He’s put these skills to good use in recent years—whether raising money for the Boy Scouts or working to improve relations between students and the administration in his new role as Youth Commission Chairman. For James, actions always speak louder than words. “It’s one thing to have the title,” he says, “and I feel honored to be recognized as someone who will do well and help the community. But to me, it’s what I can do in that role that’s important. I feel like now I want to make an impact.”

He credits his parents with helping to shape his strong moral compass, and says he learned about discipline through his love of competitive sports, first figure skating and now fencing. “It’s a sport that’s as mentally challenging as it is physically challenging,” he says. “It requires a lot of quick thinking.”

Throughout his high school career, he has immersed himself in honors courses and AP classes. He started studying Chinese as a freshman. “I absolutely love it,” he says. A three-week stay at the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico in 2014 inspired a curiosity in the environment, and he hopes to pursue his interest in foreign policy with a focus on linguistic and sustainability studies. “All the top schools have great programs,” he says. “I have a list of twenty schools. But then I look at another and say, ‘I need to go there!’”

Movie Magic

At seventeen, Georgina Cahill is barely old enough to drive, but that didn’t stop her from creating a public service announcement about the value of old cars. Her two-minute piece, “Driving Towards a Better Future,” was the grand prize winner in the 2015 JASON Learning: Automobile Recycling Awareness Contest, earning the young filmmaker an all-expenses paid trip to Vancouver, B.C., to collect her award. “I didn’t know much about the car-recycling industry. But it made me realize film is a great way to communicate ideas to people,” she says. “It has a purpose. You can show awareness about issues in the world.” In April, Connecticut Lt. Governor Nancy Wyman honored Georgina with a special citation, praising her “exceptional ingenuity and creative talent.”

A senior at the Convent of the Sacred Heart and a member of the school’s highly lauded broadcast journalism and creative filmmaking program, Georgina (Gigi to her friends) got her start doing live action and traditional movies. She switched to stop-action claymation after watching Suzie Templeton’s Peter and the Wolf, a thirty-minute short that earned an Academy Award in 2008. “You take an inanimate object and see it moving across the screen, and it’s almost like magic,” she says.

The process is not for the faint of heart. While most claymation filmmakers shoot twenty-four frames a second, Gigi films at thirty frames a second. “I like the results better,” she says. “It definitely requires patience.” She makes the puppets that star in her films from modeling clay, sews each outfit by hand, and accessorizes with pieces she finds around the house. The attention to detail has paid off; Gigi’s work has won nearly every major award available to student filmmakers, including Gold and Silver Keys from Scholastic. She has been a finalist in the All American High School Film Festival and the National Film Festival for Talented Youth for two years running.

In 2014, Gigi had the opportunity to attend a six-week pre-college program at RISD, which allowed her to experiment with a variety of artistic mediums. But film is her first love, and she dreams about starting her own production studio one day. In the meantime, she strives to make a difference in the lives of younger students through an after-school claymation program. “I want to empower girls to feel inspired with whatever they do,” she says. “Whether art, film, science, math or technology. All people should have goals and not hold back.”

Triple Threat

Peter Ciporin knows the value of a positive attitude. A musician, athlete and community leader, the Duke freshman says he strives to maintain an optimistic outlook no matter what life throws his way. It’s a philosophy that has served him well. “I work hard, but I’ve tried to enjoy everything that I do,” he says.

During his time at Brunswick, Peter maintained a near-perfect GPA, while still finding time to write for the school paper; run on the varsity cross-country team; play trumpet with the school band, the Blue Notes; and volunteer to teach at a school for underprivileged children. In fact, it was his love of music that led him to Waterside School in Stamford, where the music program is run by a Brunswick alumni and former Blue Note. “They had been given a bunch of instruments and they needed teachers,” Peter recalls. “It was really gratifying to see kids who didn’t know how to play a single note, be able to play an entire song.”

Complementing his musical aptitude is an ear for language, especially Spanish. As a student, he spent time in Segovia and Buenos Aires, and even wrote an original composition for the school foreign language literary magazine, then translated it to English. “My goal is to be completely fluent by the end of college.”

One of his most satisfying memories of his time at Brunswick was his involvement with Hand in Hand, an Israel-based education program whose mission is to create a network of Jewish-Arab integrated bilingual schools. Peter had spent time in Israel when he was thirteen for his bar mitzvah, and the experience made a big impression. “We picked up some hitchhiking Israeli soldiers that were leaving their families the next day to go fight in Gaza. I remember my thirteen-year-old self being extremely disturbed at the thought that these men and women were going off, knowing that they might never come back, to fight in a conflict that was (and still is) mostly rooted in hatred between two groups of people who in reality aren’t all that different.”

To help support Hand in Hand, Peter founded a club at school to raise money for the program, organizing food sales and school-wide “free dress days” (days on which donors don’t have to wear their uniform). Between these fundraisers and individual donations, he raised more than $16,000. “While I don’t know yet what type of career I want to pursue, working to pacify that conflict in whatever way I can will always be of great importance to me,” he says.



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