It's no secret that many young people share a sense of invincibility and joie de vivre that insulates them from the harsher side of reality.
That innocence makes it all the more difficult for youth to deal with a sudden loss. Consider Riverview High's Morgan Leigh Rodgers, who lost her friend Brooke Coats to a tragic bull riding accident this year.
"She was one of the most caring, beautiful, unique people I will ever meet in my entire life, and I'm forever grateful to have met her," said Rodgers, fighting back tears. "After she passed away my entire school was in a state of shock because no one could understand how someone so amazing could leave this world in such a tragic and sudden way."
Rodgers, an aspiring actress who balances a rigorous course load with extracurricular activities, shared the spotlight with nine other outstanding students at the Athena Society's annual Young Women of Promise luncheon April 7.
Each year since 1981, the prestigious group of female leaders has turned an eye to the future and honored 10 outstanding high school juniors.
The society asked each honoree to stand and speak about one of her proudest accomplishments, no easy task given that the room was full of judges, chief executive officers, elected officials, doctors and other successful women.
I've treasured the opportunity to write about many of the winners over the years, but I can't recall a previous luncheon at the Centre Club containing, to paraphrase Leto High's Jocelyn Macho, so many complex and beautiful emotions.
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Rodgers and two other honorees, Durant High's Shelby Paige Terihay and Robinson High's Sophia Tahiri, were all winners who found leadership in their resilient approach to losing a loved one.
With Riverview High students struggling to cope with Brooke's death, Rodgers partnered with classmate Laura Robino to stage a variety show for Brooke's family. The show also benefited the family of East Bay graduate Jason Rodriguez, who was gunned down in February while sitting in his car in Orlando where he attended community college.
The show raised more than $1,600, but Rodgers took away a more intangible value from the effort.
"We were able to show those families how much support they had from the community," Rodgers said. "A lot of times, when someone is going through grief like that, they think they're alone and completely cut off from the rest of the world.
"Having those families there and seeing them looking back at the crowd, I know that it made a difference in their lives."
Like Rodgers, Shelby Terihay also grew emotional when talking about the death of her cousin Sarah Geltemeyer, who succumbed to cancer in May 2009. Terihay shared that even when Sarah battled the disease, she displayed concern for others.
"When we would come to see her, she would always be helping all the children on her ward," said Terihay, a member of the National Honor Society. "She was so selfless."
To honor her memory, Terihay turned to her friends at Durant, Newsome, Strawberry Crest and Bloomingdale high schools and organized a charitable dance. The price of admittance was one toy.
Terihay and her friends ended up delivering more than 300 toys to the children on Geltemeyer's former ward at Children's Hospital of Southwest Florida in Fort Myers.
"All the nurses on her ward were crying and they were just so impressed that people cared this much to help patients," Terihay said.
Plant City High's Shelby Johnson didn't offer a tribute to deceased friend, but her presentation was no less emotional. She fought back tears as she spoke of her involvement in Best Buddies, a group that fosters friendships for the developmentally and learning disabled.
"It's a big deal because he's like my little brother," Johnson said of her buddy, Chris. "His dad left him and left his two baby brothers with him.
"Now he's going to college. He's just an amazing kid. He has the biggest heart."
In addition to her volunteer work, Johnson succeeds in sports (golf, basketball) and music (viola, piano) while maintaining high grades.
Other winners are Jamila Blake, Wharton; Ana Herbst, Academy of the Holy Names; Cynthia Anne Matar, Tampa Prep; Alison Preston, Plant; and Jasmine Santiago, Middleton.
All the winners found ways to inspire on a day they were supposed to receive inspiration. Underneath their youthful innocence lies all the intangibles needed to conquer the realities they will face in the future.
It's what makes them so promising.
That's all I'm saying.