20 Westchester Teens to Watch
These local students are making medical breakthroughs, embarking on globe-trotting humanitarian trips, and breaking athletic records—all before they get their high-school diplomas.
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Photography by Cathy Pinsky
Hairstyling by Diane Mamanna and Amanda Bisignano of Salon Posh
Makeup by Jill K. Imbrogno of JKFlashy Makeup Service
The Entrepreneur & Musician
Grade 12, Woodlands High School, Hartsdale
Originally from Ghana, Eugene Boakye-Firempong is thrilled about the opportunities he has had in Westchester to develop his entrepreneurial and musical skills. He was a semi-finalist in the Westchester County “bizplan” competition for Fly Kickz, his custom-art sneaker business plan. “I made it to the top five,” he says.
And playing the marimba, he made it to the national Afro-Academic Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO). “Music is a very big part in my life,” he says. “Growing up, I would listen to songs on the radio with my family. But it wasn’t until I came to the U.S. that I was introduced to jazz.”
“He came here not knowing how to read music,” says Iantheia Calhoun, Woodlands High School’s band director. “He learned it faster than most of my other students, and now he’s our percussion and drum leader. I hate to lose him.”
Though he wants to be a mechanical engineer (and his own boss one day), Boakye-Firempong would like to keep music as a central part of his life.
Grade 12, School of the Holy Child, Rye
Helen Brosnan is a true humanitarian. She’s traveled to a variety of cities in South America, Africa, and Asia, learning about the hardships many third-world citizens face. In “What’s Buggin’ Brosnan,” her column for the school newspaper, readers learn about the issues she cares about.
In the fall of her sophomore year, Brosnan co-founded Project India, which raised more than $4,000 to help build an all-girls school in Calcutta. Her inaugural trip abroad was to Peru with her school in June 2010, when she was a rising junior. There, she volunteered at an orphanage for a week. She then traveled to Ghana, again with her school. “This, I am certain, has changed my thinking, my morals, my life forever,” she says. “As expected, poverty was ubiquitous. But there was something other than overwhelming poverty that struck me—the people.”
Brosnan also has used her column in Holy Child’s newspaper to express her opinion on political and social issues that irk her, hoping that a more aware and informed American youth will prompt them to do more humanitarian work overseas. “I think writing and communicating are integral steps in changing the world,” she says. In addition, she writes an online column for PolicyMic, a Harlem-based organization where she has a full-year remote internship.
“She’s stellar,” says Colm MacMahon, head of the upper school at Holy Child. “She understands her responsibilities in her small community and in the larger world. She has a tremendous passion for global issues. And she also feels a deep personal responsibility—she never tries to pass the buck.”
Brosnan plans to continue to be an activist after graduation. She’s been accepted to Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service; she plans on majoring in international politics. “I want to work in state office or as an ambassador, whether in the outer sphere or more directly in policy, but I also want to write,” she says. “At some point in my life, I plan to do journalism, too.”
Grade 10, John Jay High School, Cross River
T hanks to numerous medals and triumphs over international golfers, as well as the prospect of an LPGA title, Nicole Morales is one of New York State’s top golfers. Nevertheless, her teachers will tell you, Morales is humble, respectful, and hardworking.
Tagging along with her dad to the golf course, Morales hit her first golf ball at age four—and she hasn’t stopped since. As a freshman, she made the boys’ varsity team and went to states. She won medals in several matches and also won the New York State Junior Girls Amateur Championship by 14 shots. This past Thanksgiving, she won the AJGA Polo Golf Junior Classic, an international event in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. She beat 78 girls, four of whom were All-American.
“She’s a natural golfer—she’s one of the best girls in the world in her age group right now,” says Cheryl Anderson, Morales’s longtime golf coach. “She’s played in a futures tournament with professional golfers and she finished thirtieth, so she’s already competing against people who do this for a living. She works harder at her game than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
“Golf has taught me honesty, integrity, and respect,” Morales says. “It’s a game that asks everything of you and gives nothing back—so if you want it, you have to love it and work hard at it.”
The Pianist & Scientist
Grade 10, Walter Panas High School, Cortlandt Manor
Alan Cha knows how to compete and he knows how to perform. On an average day, he can be found acing college-level music classes and playing piano in front of a full house—or winning international science competitions.
Cha admits he does get nervous performing at some of the storied venues he’s visited, including Carnegie Hall. “I try to just think about the music,” he says. “I don’t want the audience to affect my playing.”
But there is much less anxiety when vying for science prizes in competitions such as the international RoboCup. “It basically involves two-on-two soccer matches with homemade robots and an infrared-emitting LED soccer ball,” he says. “In 2010, when we went to Singapore, we finally managed to get first place, along with a pretty handsome trophy.”
The Javelin Star &Medical Researcher
Grade 12, John Jay High School, Cross River
Stephanie Riocci is no typical high-schooler. When she isn’t making medical discoveries, she’s breaking records throwing the javelin for John Jay. She is ranked No. 1 in New York State.
Riocci spent her last two summers as a member of the therapeutic proteins department at the Regeneron bio-pharmaceutical lab in Tarrytown. Last summer, Riocci basically, “found a way to add a gene to DNA, or add DNA to DNA.” Last year, as a junior, she used this project to compete in the Westchester-Rockland Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, in the biology category of the competitive poster competition—and received the first-place award. During her second summer at Regeneron, Riocci discovered a unique way to cut the drug discovery process down from five to three days. She plans on giving a PowerPoint presentation on the subject at this year’s Westchester-Rockland Junior Science and Humanities Symposium.
She took up javelin to stay in shape for soccer season. “I have never liked running—in soccer I’m a goalie—so I looked to try out for one of the three throwing events my school offers,” she says. “I soon realized that I didn’t have the right size and build to ever be very good at shot put, and I never really got the spin of the discus quite right. Javelin was not just about brute strength—it required speed, agility, arm strength, and a lot of focus.” After winning All-League, All-County, and All-Section, her coach thought she should enter the Eastern States Championships competition. Her first time out, she ended up taking third place and breaking the javelin all-time school record.
Grade 12, Pelham Memorial High School
Let’s face it: most people don’t even know what competitive oratorical declamation is, or that you can be “back-to-back state champion in forensics speech.” Omar Gouda has achieved that distinction, along with being ranked No. 5 in the nation in said category. Gouda is also a two-time student-body president and a member of an award-winning chorus.
Gouda says he started in forensics because his height prevented him from getting lead roles in the school play. Once involved, he found it was like putting on a one-man play.
This past year, Gouda stretched himself even further, entering in two other categories: Humorous Interpretation, where he had to perform a multiple-character comedy by himself, and Original Oratory, where he had to recite a speech of his own creation. “Compared to oratorical declamation, they are both much, much deeper,” he says. “With oratorical declamation, it’s someone else’s voice—steady and easy to assume because it’s all set in ink before me. A champion of original oratory is a true wordsmith and a master of his own personality. If I can do that, then I will truly be allowed to call myself a champion. Maybe I’ll even be able to get a date one day!” Gouda is planning to go to Williams College in the fall.
Catherine Ann Gray
Grade 12, School of the Holy Child, Rye
There is a lot that ought to be fixed in this world, and people like Catherine Ann Gray have made it their personal mission to do so. She has volunteered her time to help people affected by natural disaster and deadly epidemics.
Having had a Hurricane Katrina survivor cry in her arms during a volunteer trip to New Orleans, Gray knows just how much her efforts can make a difference. “We’d go down to the Lower Ninth Ward, which was the most affected area and clear lots for building new houses,” she says. “We’d rake debris and clip weeds. Knowing that our work might improve the quality of the lives of those who have been displaced left a lasting impression on me.”
Back home, she vowed to continue helping people who need it, no matter where they may be. Two years ago, she introduced her school to a program called Nothing But Nets, which raises money to purchase mosquito nets for malaria-affected regions of Africa. “Malaria remains one of the deadliest diseases on the continent,” she says. At a basketball-themed fundraiser she planned, more than 60 Fordham Prep and Holy Child students raised more than $2,000 for the campaign.
“She really is passionate about the cause,” says Dorothy Harris, the director of campus ministry and diversity director at Holy Child. “She understands, however, that you won’t get anywhere unless you can get others involved, too.”
Gray notes, “I’ve also worked closely with students in the grades that follow so that when I graduate, the work and success will continue.” Another Nothing But Nets event is planned for this spring, and Gray is eager to take the idea with her to college. “My sister goes to Boston College and they have a similar fundraiser called Hoops for Hope, so whatever college I end up at, I’d love to create my own club if they don’t have one.”
Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, Hartsdale
As a young man with type 1 diabetes, Jason Jakoby has become an outspoken advocate and a member of JDRF, formerly known as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and has gone nose-to-nose with U.S. Congress members about the importance of finding a cure for diabetes.
Some of Jakoby’s most rewarding moments have been the speeches he has given on behalf of JDRF. He was chosen by the foundation after it discovered a moving letter he had written to President Obama about the issue of stem cell research. As a result, he met with Congresswoman Nita Lowey to discuss the importance of diabetes-related legislation. “Afterwards, she agreed to co-sponsor vital legislation,” he says. The following year, he was selected as New York’s delegate for JDRF’s Children’s Congress, one of 150 kids who traveled to Washington D.C. last June to explain to members of Congress why research to find a cure for diabetes is so critical. “There is still much more work that needs to be done,” he says, “and I intend to do it.”
Grade 9, Briarcliff High School, Briarcliff Manor
“Isn’t it the duty of those who are more fortunate to help those who are less fortunate?” Grace Lee-Niosi asks rhetorically. Lee-Niosi views her annual charity work in Nicaragua as common sense. She has traveled for the past three years to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, to work at an eye clinic at the local elementary school. “I go on ten-day trips with an organization called VOSH that my mother was involved in,” she says. “It’s mostly adults; I’m one of the only kids there. Doctors give us prescriptions, and we’re in this huge room with thousands of pairs of unsorted glasses, so we have to go through them and try to find the closest match.” VOSH-CT serviced more than 2,700 patients on its last trip.
“Grace is an integral part of the team; we couldn’t do the mission without her,” says Audrey Blondin, clinic co-director of VOSH-CT. “She is mature beyond her years—graceful, poised—and an asset to the entire mission. She is the youngest on the team age-wise, but certainly not professionally.”
Lee-Niosi is planning to go again next year. “Every year we see improvements,” she says. “There is no greater feeling in the world than seeing the smile on a young child’s face. It makes all of the grueling hours worth it.”
Grade 12, Saunders Trades and Technical High School, Yonkers
Devin Marrero was affected by cerebral palsy from an early age. “In second grade, I realized I was different,” he says. “At recess, when all the other kids played tag, I wondered why I couldn’t keep up with them.” Still, he had dreams that he refused to put aside. “I wanted to accomplish more to prove to myself and to my doctors that I could do anything I put my mind to.” Today he is a successful competitive swimmer, having won gold and silver medals in the 50-meter freestyle at the Special Olympics.
“I once thought making the varsity swim team was as likely as winning the lottery,” he says. “But I made it.” The tough training he went through not only improved his strength, it actually helped his walking ability.
Marrero is also involved in community service, raising money for cancer research through Relay for Life for the past five years. He raised $3,500 the first year he was involved, and, this year, he was named a Top Youth Participant for raising $7,000. “Devin’s participation in this event shows how he has turned tragedy into triumph, inspiring others around him to join him in the fight against cancer,” says Kerry Wong, manager of special events at the American Cancer Society. “His charisma, energy, and dedication shine, so that others can’t help but join in.”
Marrero hopes to become a special education teacher.
Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, Hartsdale
Hannie Everett, who is studying Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew, is a member of the nationally acclaimed Solomon Schechter Moot Beit Din team, which is similar to Mock Trial, but with a focus on Jewish law. Last year, she was selected to be one of three students sent to the national competition in San Francisco.
Moot Beit Din demands rigorous, writing- intensive preparation. Everett and her team had to prepare a 10-page, single-spaced, written argument about human cloning, then present it in the “court room.” Then, they had to submit to a barrage of questions from the judges. Teams were tasked with making a ruling based on modern and ancient code—from Judaic law to UN-inspired proceedings. Everett competed against 20 teams from around the country. Her team placed first in its division.
Everett, who is also a three-season varsity athlete, says that harnessing language is the key to creating international peace and acceptance. “If we could all understand each other through language and also understand each other’s values and beliefs, I strongly feel that worldwide acceptance and tolerance could be achieved,” she says. “A key belief in Judaism is ‘tikkun olam,’ or repair of the world. While we may not be able to complete the job in one generation, we must start the process.”
She plans on defending her title at this year’s national competition. After that? “I definitely want to go into international relations, but right now all I’m worrying about is the SATs.”