In the summer before her sixth-grade year, doctors diagnosed Konner Brewer with Type 1 diabetes and told the active 11-year-old she needed to curb her foray into athletics. • "They told me I could no longer participate at such a high level in sports, that it was no longer safe for me," said Brewer, now a junior at the Academy of the Holy Names. "In my mind, I thought, 'Can't do something? Hmm. Challenge accepted.' "
Brewer had never competed in swimming, but she took up the sport that same year and qualified for the Junior Olympics.
Suddenly, a room full of women far more accomplished interrupted her story with clapping approval. Last fall, Brewer helped the Holy Names 200-meter freestyle relay team place third in the state, but admiring applause from the Athena Society proved to be a far larger victory.
And she wasn't alone. The prominent organization of professional women honored Brewer and nine other high school juniors as Young Women of Promise recently at the Centre Club.
Each stepped forward to share what they define as their biggest accomplishment. Each left the room full of successful women impressed and inspired.
The academic achievements and volunteer hours tell only part of the story of the promising women. The reach of their efforts leaves an indelible impression. Brewer is an A1C Champion in the diabetes support program and travels the nation to talk to other young people about how to manage the disease.
As part of her "Warming the World" nonprofit, Berkeley Prep's Rachel Weinbren delivered knitted caps for premature babies to Aurich, Germany, the city her great-grandparents and grandmother had to flee to avoid the Holocaust.
Tampa Prep's Caneel Dixon not only led an effort to turn pillowcases into pants for students, she took them to children in Nicaragua. Ditto for Hillsborough High's Niritta Patel, who delivered school supplies to children in Nairobi, Kenya.
"Altruism is the best way to give back to yourself," Niritta said.
Linda Devine, chairwoman of Athena's Young Women of Promise Committee, challenged the girls to pay it forward.
These young women also stand as the antithesis of "mean girls." Bloomingdale's Ashley Halstead volunteers at A Kid's Place, an emergency shelter for abused, neglected, or abandoned children in Brandon. Newsome's Sydney Fee balances her volunteer work with dancing with Brandon Ballet.
Freedom's Julia Jansen advocates for students, even going so far as to write a nonpartisan education bill for the state Legislature.
Abby Rinadli of Chamberlain, a self-described shy youth, didn't boast about how she overcame her reserved nature. Instead, she explained how she helped an 8-year-old break through her quiet ways as an intern at Lowry Park Zoo.
Plant's Savannah Walker and Robinson's Julia Lewis both work as mentors to middle school girls.
"I see myself in every single one of these girls," Savannah said. "I see the drama. I see the insecurity. I see the anxiety, but most of all I see this burning curiosity that's only going to grow as they grow.
"As much as I've given to this program, it's given me so much more."
Each girl stood in awe in meeting the judges, CEOs, doctors, lawyers and business owners. Each Athena member drew strength from how the girls belied their youth with such staggering achievements. This mutual admiration envelops the room every year Athena fetes young women. The energy radiates the hope that today's winners will someday guide the next generation of promising achievers.
In fact, it's already happening. Walker noted that in 1988, Athena named Carrie Lynn Mahon a young woman of promise. Now Mahon is Savannah's girls basketball coach and "best friend" at Plant High.
Never underestimate the sisterhood cultivated by this group.
That's all I'm saying.
Here are the 10 high school juniors honored as Young Women of Promise by the Athena Society:
Konner Brewer Academy of the Holy Names
Among her many accomplishments, Konner has handed out free hamburgers to the homeless in downtown Tampa since she was in seventh grade. Konner raises the money to buy the hamburgers by running a summer camp for girls that she started when she was 11.
Rachel Weinbren Berkeley Preparatory
Rachel's Warming the World nonprofit has provided more than 1,300 knitted caps to premature babies nationally and internationally, including Cuba, Germany, Russia and Haiti. She's a member of Berkeley's Global Scholars program and hopes to study medicine or business. Or both.
Ashley Halstead Bloomingdale High
Ashley has spent three years volunteering at A Kid's Place and a local soup kitchen. Her desire to become a doctor stems from her mother's cancer diagnosis when Ashley was 11.
Abby Rinaldi Chamberlain High
Abby serves as the managing editor of her high school newspaper and as a staff writer for tb-two*. She enjoys tackling stories that will bring about positive change in the world and doesn't shy away from controversial topics.
Julia Jansen Freedom High
Julia is on a quest to improve Florida's funding of education, drawing applause when she noted that the state Constitution guarantees a quality education but doesn't guarantee fair funding. She's founder of the Student Alliance for Hillsborough Schools.
Savannah Walker Plant High
Savannah mentors young girls at Christ the King Middle School and also stars on the Panthers' girls basketball team. She's an aspiring artist and also has ventured into the business world by creating unusual cupcakes.
Niritta Patel Hillsborough High
Not only did Niritta raise money for school supplies and meals for a school, in Nairobi, Kenya, she personally delivered the supplies. The IB student is fluent in Spanish and Chinese and hopes to become a neurosurgeon and work with Doctors Without Borders.
Sydney Fee Newsome High
Sydney has served on her class council since she was a freshman and participated in the University of Florida's Youth Leadership Program. She also dances with Brandon Ballet Company and takes pride in both balancing academic rigor with her artistic passion. She aspires to be an engineer.
Julia Lewis Robinson High
Julia, the daughter of lawyer Bill Lewis and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, loves working with children and co-founded the Ophelia Club, which mentors younger girls at Monroe Middle School. She wants a career that will help boost the lives of children and young women.
Caneel Dixon Tampa Preparatory
Most Tampa Prep students choose a STEM track or a Global Studies track. Caneel chose both. She earned a Girl Scout Gold Award with a project that turned pillow cases into pants for children, and she also participates in soccer, tennis, swimming and crew.