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Hooper: Athena's Young Women of Promise already making their mark

Academy of the Holy Names junior Elizabeth Dolan looked out from a stage at the 400-plus participants gathered for the Cross Out Cancer 5K fundraiser her new nonprofit organized last fall and saw so much more than a group that helped her raise nearly $50,000 for the families of cancer patients at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital.

As one of the Athena Society's 2016 Young Women of Promise, Elizabeth explained to a room full of Tampa's most prominent and successful business women on April 7 that she witnessed a gathering of caring people who would inspire her for years to come.

"I saw my academy sisters mixed with Berkeley (Prep) students, Robinson (High) kids, Plant (High) teenagers, cancer families from All Children's, a team of lawyers who helped me put together my nonprofit and all sorts of other people," Elizabeth said.

"In creating this 5K, I had created a community, a fellowship of teens, children and adults alike who came together to fight cancer and more importantly support these families who endure so much more than we will ever have to."

Elizabeth's remarks underscored an emerging theme among the 10 recipients: community. These dynamic teens, all high school juniors, have gone beyond simple service requirements to show true care for making our home a better place.

Plant High's Gillian Minnehan was part of the community Elizabeth described. She serves on the board for the nonprofit and draws personal inspiration to support cancer fighting cancers because she lost her father to leukemia.

Yet Gillian speaks with steely resolve, sharing how her failure to make the Florida All-State Band twice drove her to succeed on the third try.

Lennard High's Erin Hanson also helps raise money for cancer as a participant in multiple American Cancer Society Relay for Life events. She knows all too well the fear the disease can strike because doctors diagnose her with Stage 2 melanoma in 2014.

She can tell you the exact date if you want.

"I don't see my actions as heroic," Erin said. "I see them as an everyday part of who I am."

Hillsborough High's Meghana Bhimreddy created Student Scribes, a program that helps fourth- and fifth-graders at Mendenhall Elementary School produce a school newsletter.

She says she has learned as much from the students as they've learned from her.

Alexi Longo could revel in overcoming inattentive attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder to become a top student at Sickles High, but she goes beyond self and devotes much of her time to helping other students overcome similar mental disorders.

She hopes to make it her career.

King High's Heta Patel couldn't sit still after learning about the community's hunger and nutritional problems, so she led an effort through her nonprofit, Drives for Smiles, to collect 2,062 pounds of food for Feeding Tampa Bay.

The charitable donations also inspired Heta, a singer/songwriter, to compose a symphony.

Mira Rajani of Berkeley Prep doesn't write symphonies — not yet anyway — but she does write grants for the Toymakers of East Lake, a nonprofit that delivers handmade wooden toys to needy children.

Her latest grant application landed the group $19,500, its largest gift ever. But who's helping who?

"This organization has done more for me than I could ever do for it," Mira said.

As a freshman, Steinbrenner High's Mary Deschler gained a sense of community from her involvement with student government. Now backed by her "family," she's headed to Girls State.

Newsome High's Marcella Benner actually fostered a sense of family as captain of the school's cross country team.

Wharton High's April Olson spoke of varied achievements, but noted parents, teachers, counselors — essentially community — connected them all.

Elizabeth may have best summed up the sense of community connecting this year's winners with a keen observation:

"Life is not about money or success or even the jobs we will pursue or the places we will go," she said. "It's about the community along the way. It's about inspiring, about starting our own movements that emblazon us. It's about loving and uplifting.

"That is what impacts the world. That is how we leave our mark."

These young women of promise have already left their mark.

That's all I'm saying.

Athena Society's Young Women of Promise

Marcella Benner

Newsome High School

Marcella, 17, shines athletically and academically, maintaining a 6.08 grade point average while excelling in cross country, basketball and track. Her commitment to community includes volunteering for Meals on Wheels, Relay for Life and the FishHawk Road Race and Color Your Egg 5K. She's also the first violinist for the Newsome chamber orchestra.

Meghana Bhimreddy

Hillsborough High School

Meghana, 16, excels in the International Baccalaureate program and also stands out in student competitions such as Mu Alpha Theta, Model United Nations and Health Occupations Students of America. Meghana moved to this country from India with her parents at a young age and appreciates the opportunities offered in the United States.

Mary Deschler

Steinbrenner High School

Mary, 17, envisions a career as an advocate for child protection services, women's rights and environmental preservation. She serves as president of her class as well as four other student organizations. She will participate in Girls State in Tallahassee this year. Her community involvement includes serving on three different Relay for Life teams.

Elizabeth Dolan

Academy of the Holy Names

Elizabeth, 17, a cross country runner, founded her nonprofit, Cross Out Cancer, to raise money for needy families whose children battle cancer at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital. She organized and led a charitable 5K and raised nearly $50,000. She hopes to become a pediatric oncologist and has an outstanding academic record, highlighted by a 4.8 GPA.

Erin Hanson

Lennard High School

Erin, 17, adds the Young Women of Promise to a long list of honors that includes receiving the West Point Society's Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf Leadership Award. Erin ranks first in her class with a 6.44 GPA and hopes to find a cure for cancer as a biochemical research scientist. She also plays volleyball and flag football and runs cross country.

Alexi Longo

Sickles High School

Alexi, 17, serves as an officer in the Key Club and relishes the opportunity it has given her to work on projects and become more aware of community needs. She matches her successful academics (Science National Honor Society) with athletic participation, playing on the lacrosse team and cheering on the varsity squad.

Gillian Minnehan

Plant High School

Counselors say Gillian, 16, possesses a unique and mature combination of focus and drive. She's a success in academics and extracurricular activities, including cross country and band, where she's in the all-state orchestra and symphonic band. She also helped fellow Young Women of Promise Elizabeth Dolan with her Cross Out Cancer fundraiser.

April Olson

Wharton High School

Teachers boast about April's straight-A grades and her volunteer work, including tutoring fellow students, serving the homeless at Metropolitan Ministries and traveling outside the country on mission trips. April, 16, also is one of the leaders on the cross country team. She also works as a gymnastics coach and camp counselor for younger children.

Heta Patel

King High School

Heta, 16, has shared a love of science since the earliest years of her childhood, and plans to serve the disadvantage as a doctor with Doctors Without Borders. She ranks fifth out of 14,000 regional International Baccalaureate students. She's also a gifted singer-songwriter and enjoys creating personalized CDs for patients at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

Mira Rajani

Berkeley Preparatory School

Mira, 17, is an ensemble singer with the Center Stage Choir at the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts. The ensemble has opened for Jay Leno, the Goo Goo Dolls and others. She also provides music therapy to Mease Countryside Hospital patients. Mira also excels in the sciences and wants to combine her passion for science, writing and the arts.

Hooper: Athena's Young Women of Promise already making their mark 04/13/16 [Last modified: Thursday, April 14, 2016 12:44pm]
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