It's no secret that many young people share a sense of invincibility and joi de vivre that insulates them to the harsher side of reality.
That innocence makes it all the more difficult for youth to deal with a sudden loss. Consider Robinson High's Sophia Tahiri, who lost her cousin and best friend, Kalen Watson, to brain cancer last summer.
"Kalen has raised the bar for me, and I feel like I've been given the gift of life for both of us," Sophia said, fighting back tears. "Time is a precious gift that cannot be wasted. My family has always been unusually close, but now I understand how vital relationships are to living a fulfilled life."
Sophia, who is in the International Baccalaureate program at Robinson, shared the spotlight with nine other outstanding students at the Athena Society's annual Young Women Of Promise luncheon on April 7. Since 1981, the prestigious group of female leaders has annually 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 their 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's Jocelyn Macho, so many complex and beautiful emotions. Sophia and two other honorees, Durant's Shelby Paige Terihay and Riverview's Morgan Leigh Rodgers, were all winners who found leadership in their resilient approach to losing a loved one.
"Watching her handle her illness and her ever-increasing loss of self with such amazing courage and dignity has changed me," said Sophia, who volunteers at the Children's Cancer Society and is determined to raise awareness of brain cancer.
"I want to do with my life what Kalen did with hers: live it to the fullest and have no regrets."
And all of the winners found ways to inspire on a day they were supposed to receive inspiration.
Middleton's Jasmine Santiago represents a path that surely resonates with the Athena women, finding a way to succeed on the school's male-dominated robotics team. She was one of only three girls when she joined two years ago.
"I didn't even know the difference between a nut and a bolt," explained Jasmine. "But I really dedicated myself to it. I stayed at every practice. I went to every competition."
Now Jasmine serves as captain and one of the chief designers of the team's robot, which took top honors at a statewide competition at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.
Academy of the Holy Names' Ana Herbst also shared a triumph, but her story was more personal. She was a foster child for five years, never going to the beach, never learning to swim. But when her third-grade teacher heard the story, she took her to the Central City YMCA for lessons.
Now Ana has come full circle and actually teaches swimming at the same YMCA. And that third-grade teacher? Tina Herbst adopted Ana and her three brothers.
Plant High's Alison Preston continues to develop her deep love for reading and writing, having already completed her first novel as she prepares to pursue writing as a career.
"It can move people to action without money, without force, without them saying anything out loud," Alison said. "My dream is to touch people like that and spark a love of learning in other people."
Tampa Prep's Cynthia Anne Matar presented one of the more engaging stories, sharing that she took debate class just to get a history credit, but was pressed into service for the debate team because someone dropped out.
Lo and behold, she partnered with Chloe Costa and ended up winning. Although she plays piano, volunteers at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and aspires to be a chef and own her own restaurant, she cited her debate experience as her biggest accomplishment because it taught her a valuable lesson.
"People who had never stepped outside of their comfort zone and tried something new … would never understand how I felt," Cynthia said. "I feel sorry for those people because I feel fabulous."
The other Young Women of Promise for 2011 are: Shelby Johnson, Plant City, and Jamila Blake, Wharton.
Each honoree can say they found ways both big and small to step beyond their comfort zone. It's what makes them so promising.
That's all I'm saying.