1. Pasco

Humanitarian efforts earn award for high school junior

HUDSON — Christina Johnsen, a 16-year-old River Ridge High School junior, was puzzled after being sent on several dead-end errands by teacher Beth Hess.

"I had no clue what was going on," Christina said.

During the fake errands, Hess scurried to assemble classmates, Christina's parents, Stephanie and Richard Johnsen, grandparents Marge and Tony Johnsen and school staff in the school's media center. They'd gathered to hear Christina announced as the 2019 River Ridge recipient of the Anne Frank Humanitarian Award, given through the Florida Holocaust Museum.

Established in 2001, the award goes annually to a high school junior in each of the public and private high schools in the Tampa Bay area. The award honors those who improve the lives of others in and out of school, reflecting the spirit of Anne Frank who, despite hardships, never abandoned her ideals while in hiding during World War II.

Christina was nominated by Hess. The two met when Christina went to talk with Hess about Advanced Placement classes. Hess is River Ridge AP Coordinator and head of the New Teacher Academy.

"She rolled her wheelchair into my classroom, struggling more severely than usual with her condition called Charcot-Marie-Tooth," said Hess.

The condition, named for the three doctors who defined it, is an inherited neurological disorder. For Christina and her dad, who also has the disorder, it has affected their balance and reflexes.

Hess asked Christina if she'd considered teaching. An idea was born, and soon Christina was in the Academy.

"She's discovered her dual gift – teaching children and modeling resilience," Hess said.

Christina follows in the footsteps of her mother, Stephanie, volunteering in church, scouts, schools and more.

Christina's volunteering also reflects her dad's focus of giving back to others.

"The most valuable commodity in life is time," says Richard. "Giving your time makes much more of an impact than throwing money at a cause."

Christina's list of giving goes back to her 6-year-old days when she was participating in equine therapy at Horse Connections at Rockin' Horse Farm. She knew she wanted to help others the way she was being taught. Christina is at the farm every Saturday now, helping those who want her to buckle their chin straps or teach them how to groom a horse.

Her "students" range in age from 7 to 35 years and include one who's on the autistic spectrum and another who has Down syndrome.

"I try to find the balance of helping them, but also allowing them to do on their own," Christina said.

Her other activities include Teen Trend Setters, helping Schrader Elementary students build literacy skills, the River Ridge High Interact Club and serving as the River Ridge student council executive secretary.

As the Johnsens' four children grew out of being toddlers, their mother returned to school and with her husband's encouragement, gained teaching credentials. She's working on her master's degree in curriculum and instructional technology. Her teaching and volunteering serves as a guide for Christina.

"You never know whose lives you are going to touch," Stephanie Johnsen said.

Other Pasco County recipients of the Anne Frank Humanitarian Award are: Anthony Adrian Jr., Sunlake High; Bayli Baker, Wesley Chapel High; Elijah Ferreira, Land O' Lakes High ; Karina Frey, J.W. Mitchell High; Paige Gray, Wendell Krinn Technical High; Madison Kachurak, Fivay High; Raghan Pickett, Pasco High; Kaitlyn Steward, Hudson High; Jorlyanys Suarez-Ayala, Zephyrhills High; Lori Tang, Anclote High: Tenee Taylor, Gulf High; Joseph Vreeland, Cypress Creek Middle High; and Kara Weihman, Wiregrass High.

Gail Diederich is a retired Pasco County teacher of 32 years. She writes feature stories with an education focus for Pasco and Hernando counties. She can be reached at