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Athena Society honors 10 inspiring high school juniors

Standing before an audience of judges, attorneys, doctors and achievers — including a congresswoman — teenager Emily Sasso delivered her speech with such clarity and confidence it made people think she could teach a class on public speaking.

Actually, Emily does teach such a class.

The Berkeley Prep student heads the list of 10 high school junior girls honored by the prestigious Athena Society with the Dr. Sylvia Richardson Young Women of Promise award.

Since 1981, the society has annually selected teenagers who display academic excellence and have established themselves as leaders at their schools and in the community.

I carved out time for the society's luncheon on Thursday to capture the ladies' inspiring examples.

They did not disappoint.

Emily Sasso traces her volunteer work back to when she donned a Superman costume as a 5-year-old and handed out candy with her older sister Jennifer at a Halloween event for children at the Spring.

She blossomed after that into someone willing and able to conquer big challenges.

Sasso assumed control of the nonprofit established by Jennifer, Creative Kids Count, and set about impacting lives, including raising $1,200 for a paralyzed student who needed money for expensive equipment that would allow him to drive his car.

She also created Confidence for Communication, a speaking course that more than 200 Boys and Girls Club kids have enjoyed.

"I have seen a young boy who stutters march up to the podium and deliver a perfect speech," Sasso said. "I have seen my wonderful community respond to the plea of a young girl, and now a teenager, for help."

All of the winners echoed that last sentiment, pointing to projects that fuel their drive.

Robinson High's Shaneece Lane works with soccer players with disabilities, and started a group called Knights K.A.R.E. (Kids Achieving Remarkable Effort) to tutor students at Lanier Elementary, a Title I school.

"Not only is it academics but beyond that, I've come to realize these children need attention," Lane said. "They just want someone to listen to them. After my first visit, I had only known these children for an hour, and they were telling me their life stories of their family hardships.

"It was completely heartbreaking that these children were willing to open up to a mere stranger. This has not only helped me appreciate the blessings that I have, but it's also sparked a passion in me to go further."

Tampa Bay Tech's Jhulianna Vivar helped start Redefining Beautiful at her school. It's a club to promote female empowerment and deal with the pressures of the "beauty industry."

Chamberlain High's Ashley Klap spurred a church program at Faith Lutheran to help deliver toiletries to the homeless.

Academy of the Holy Names' Meagan Gonzalez works to provide funds for clean water in underdeveloped nations.

Plant City's Ellen Taylor Adams puts her Spanish lessons to good use by helping translate for Spanish speakers at the United Food Bank.

Sickles High's Kelsey Gemmill includes working with youth at Robles Park among her many outreach efforts.

"I can't think of a better way to spend a Saturday than at Robles Park, playing with the young children," Gemmill said. "Those big smiles that the kids have on their faces remind me that innocent things, like being there to push them while they swing on the swing, can make a difference in someone's life."

Tampa Prep's Kathryn Krueger formed a group to help fellow students focus on community needs. She also volunteers at Brandon's Emergency Care Help Organization (ECHO).

Steinbrenner High's Emma Goldberg gave up an aspiring gymnastics career because of injury, but now teaches the sport to younger girls.

"In the words of Audrey Hepburn, 'Nothing in the world is impossible. Even the word itself says I'm possible,' " Goldberg said.

Hillsborough High's Yael Marks, a native of Israel, embraces the new culture she adopted four years ago and strives to promote diversity.

All of the young women displayed a passion to go further. It will be exciting to see what lies ahead in their future.

"With passion, hard work, determination and a desire to help others, we can and we will change the world, because we must," Sasso said of herself and her fellow winners.

I hope she realizes the women of Athena will hold them to that promise.

That's all I'm saying.

Program's namesake

The Athena Society renamed its Young Women of Promise program after Dr. Sylvia Richardson, who has dedicated considerable time and resources to the program over the years as the committee chairwoman.

"Sylvia exemplifies the very best of the qualities for which we honor young women each spring," Athena president Rachelle Bedke said. "Moreover, Sylvia loves this program."

For many years, Richardson, 91, introduced each of the 10 winners with a mix of praise and wit, using her humor to put the girls at ease.

Although she no longer handles introductions — that duty now belongs to University of Tampa vice president Linda Devine — Richardson's charm continues to be as much a part of the event as the girls' amazing resumes.

Athena Society honors 10 inspiring high school juniors 04/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 7, 2012 4:31am]

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