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Meet San Diego’s 25 most remarkable teens

25 students were honored for their accomplishments in the first Most Remarkable Teens in San Diego awards.
Credit: County News Center
These 25 students were honored for their accomplishments in the first Most Remarkable Teens in San Diego awards.

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Public Defender’s Office recently honored local teens for their accomplishments in 25 categories including civic involvement, leadership, arts and culture, technology and courage to overcome adversity.

The awards are called the Most Remarkable Teen and were coordinated by the Public Defender’s Office and the San Diego County Public Defender Youth Council, a team of civically engaged middle and high school students developing and working on projects that will make a difference in their schools and communities.

The Most Remarkable Teens were presented with the awards last Friday at the San Diego Central Library. The program recognizes San Diego youth, ages 13 to 19, for their contributions and efforts. They were all nominated by the community.

“We are excited to bring this program to San Diego and thrilled by the community response and the 201 nominations our office received from throughout the county,” San Diego County Public Defender Randy Mize said. “It was difficult choosing just 25 from so many amazing kids, but it was also encouraging to learn that San Diegans want to talk about the good things San Diego teens are doing. And that is a good conversation to have in itself.”

San Diego County Supervisors Nathan Fletcher and Kristin Gaspar and San Diego City Councilmembers Barbara Bry and Monica Montgomery presented the awards to the 25 teens.

All nominees interviewed received a certificate of recognition from the Public Defender for the honor of being nominated from among the thousands of San Diego youth.

Here are the 25 teens selected this year:

Youth Activism: Endiya Griffin

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Endiya Griffin at San Diego Metropolitan High School. She is an intern at the ACLU and a freelance writer for YR Media, an NPR-affiliated network. Her work has been published by NPR and Teen Vogue. She is a social media strategist for a nonprofit that aims to transform the lives of youth and communities. She is graduating high school in 2020 and will also receive an associate’s degree in sociology from Mesa College the same year.

Community Service: Matthew Campos

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Matthew Campos at Valhalla High School. He has a heart for people with disabilities and is an advocate for this community as a volunteer at Noah Homes, a residential community for adults with developmental disabilities. He is also a leader in Norse Crew, his high school transition program that mentors underclassmen. Matthew will be attending Azusa Pacific University in the fall and plans to study psychology in order to be a Special Education Teacher or Occupational Therapist.

Courage to Overcome: Julia Sarnoff Espinosa

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Julia Sarnoff Espinosa at Del Lago Academy. She was born with a rare genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis (NF1). Despite eight major surgeries and chronic pain due to tumors growing along her nervous system, Julia uses her time to fundraise and raise awareness for NF1, and mentoring other young people with the disorder. Her determination, drive, and dedication to helping others and finding a cure for NF1, fuels her dream to one day become a medical doctor.

Creativity: Soyon Kim

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Sonyon Kim at Canyon Crest Academy. She is a “mathlete” and artist who is dedicated to encouraging more girls to become interested in math and STEM fields. She founded the Girls’ Math Club at school and organized the Math and Art Program at the Solana Beach Public Library, where she teaches elementary students about combining math and art. Soyon  will attend the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in the fall studying mathematics and art.

Public Speaking: Miguel Aldrete

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Miguel Aldrete at San Diego State University. By age 8, he had founded a nonprofit, “Kids 4 Our World,” with a mission to help end deforestation, and funded it by writing two children’s books. Miguel partnered with La Reserva Forest Foundation in 2015 and with his nonprofit, both have now planted more than 16,000 trees in eight countries. Miguel has given motivational speeches at schools in San Diego, Los Angeles and Mexico City, and a TEDx Talk.

Youth Humanitarian: Habon Hassan

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Habon Hassan at Crawford High School. Born in Somalia, Habon lived in Kenya for nine years until coming to the U.S. at the age of 14 as a refugee. She believes she must “fight for what’s right for those who have been wronged.” She is part of the Crawford Law Academy where she works on the California Innocence Project. She also serves as a translator for new refugees and is a leader in the International Rescue Committee’s Peacemakers program.

Most Enterprising: Emily Hada

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Emily Hada at Mount Miguel High School. She is in the four-year program, Matador Business Academy, and is president of the academy’s union. She is CEO of a student-created virtual business, an online streaming music and content platform for students and teachers. She serves as the Career, Technical and Education “Champion of Champions” in entrepreneurship and is on the School Site Council. She will attend SDSU in fall studying aerospace engineering.

Technology: Antonyio Powell

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Antonyio Powell at San Diego City College. He is an audio engineer in music production with the David’s Harp Foundation Business Pod program and is an Artist Mentor Instructor at Oak Park Elementary, inspiring youth to choose a positive direction. He is also a dancer in The Junkyard Dance Crew, a local hip-hop dance crew that is focused on influencing others to stay off the streets and away from gangs.

Courage to Overcome: Syria Myers

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Syria Myers at Monarch School. At the age of 8, she and her mother became homeless. She missed most of fourth to eighth grade living on the streets and in various shelters. She is now in foster care and her artwork has been exhibited in Art San Diego. She aspires to study art or mental health.

Performing Arts (Dance): Hannah Lopez-Powers

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Hannah Lopez-Powers at San Diego High School. She has studied classical ballet since the age of four with the San Diego Civic Youth Ballet, spending 14-18 hours a week practicing and performs in four ballets a year. She also plays violin and piano and sings in her school choir.

Commitment to Personal Excellence: Angelo Salazar

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Angelo Salazar at Patrick Henry High School. He excels academically and plays on the varsity rugby and football teams. He also mentors and tutors special needs children, coaches a youth basketball team and tutors students for the ACT exam. He is attending United States Military Academy at West Point and hopes to study law.

Singer/Songwriter: Kieler Muller

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Kieler Muller at Bonita Vista Middle School. She is a singer, songwriter and actor and plays guitar, ukulele and trombone. She has been a featured actor and soloist in regional performing arts productions of the Bonitafest Melodrama, Christian Youth Theater and the Sweetwater Kids Theater. She is in choirs and has performed in 40 shows.

Personal Determination: John Finkelman

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John Finkelman at Canyon Crest Academy. He grew up in a household marked by neglect and violence, but he never lost hope. He pushed himself to strive for greatness and created his own nonprofit, Equal Voice Initiative, to teach English and life skills to San Diego’s refugee community. He will attend Stanford University in the fall and hopes to effect positive change.

Social Justice: Karolyn Curtis

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Karolyn Curtis at Morse High School. She is the president of a school club that educates students about local and global social injustices. The club supports a pantry that provides food and clothing to Morse families, and hygiene products for a shelter for abused women. She is a district Student Equity Ambassador and lobbies continuously for school safety. Karolyn also is a youth ambassador for a program focused on humanitarian crises and community issues.

Writer/Filmmaker: Mel Deorsola

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Mel Deorsola at Point Loma High School. She is a writer and filmmaker. Three of her short films have been shown at the San Diego Film Festival in the Emerging Filmmakers category and one at the Mesa Film Festival in Arizona. She crafted a Public Service Announcement on not stereotyping people and is the editor of the Pop Culture section of her high school newspaper.

Courage to Overcome: Cindy Maldonado

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Cindy Maldonado at Orange Glen High School. She grew up with seven siblings and a mother who abused drugs to escape domestic violence. They lived in a community riddled with gang warfare. When she became a single mother at 15, she was determined to give her daughter a better life, so she became an emancipated minor at 16. She plans to attend Palomar College in the fall.

Campus Leadership: Sidney Adame

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Sidney Adame at San Marcos High School. She serves as student director of the Associated Student Body and helps freshmen transition to high school. She also serves as a School Board Representative giving updates to the district board. She also goes to local elementary schools to talk about the importance of living a drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle.

Graphic Arts: Santiago Lopez

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Santiago Lopez at Ideate High School. He draws, paints and creates digital imagery and stories. His mythological art was featured on a German children’s television show. His art has been exhibited at the Nickelodeon Gallery and the California Center for the Arts. He works with young children to help them discover art’s power to express emotions and unlock potential.

Perseverance: Enrique Gonzalez

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Enrique Gonzalez at King Chavez Community School. A year ago, his family lost their home, and he and his mother, stepfather and four siblings have been living in a van, shelters and finally Father Joe’s Village. Enrique says his struggles have made him stronger and he is focused on his education and playing guitar. He aspires to be a high school music teacher.

Leadership: Crystal Sung

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Crystal Sung at Classical Academy High School. She is an executive junior political coordinator with the Republican Party of San Diego County. She previously interned for Assemblywoman Marie Waldron and Senator Joel Anderson. She also is editor of her high school newspaper for the third year in a row. She plans to study international policymaking.

Performing Arts: Emily Pilkington

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Emily Pilkington at University City High School. She is an accomplished violist, pianist and singer and has been a musician for 14 years. She is also a percussionist in the school orchestra and marching band. She plays for the San Diego Youth Symphony and other orchestras. She has been a Girl Scout since kindergarten and volunteers as a Girl Scout in the community. Emily won a full scholarship to study music education at Brigham Young University.

Social Conscience: Azareel Canizales

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Azareel Canizales at La Jolla High School. He is active in an organization in Barrio Logan, where he lives, which aims to break the cycles of poverty by preparing underserved youth to go to college. As president of Circulo de Hombres, a support group for men of color, he develops and leads workshops to help them feel empowered.

Non-Traditional Sports: Phonisha Pruitt

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Phonisha Pruitt at Lincoln High School. She has wrestled competitively throughout high school and is the first person in the school’s history to qualify for CIF State Championships four years in a row and is a Cheer Captain and Homecoming Queen. She also was Associated Student Body president in her junior year and included the largest number of special education students in the government body.

Citizenship: Tha Dah Say

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Tha Dah Say at e3civic High Charter School. He was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after his parents fled violence in Myanmar against the Karen people. He came to San Diego at age six and is now an honor student and leader, heading a food drive for a food pantry and military food distributions. He also volunteers at Alvarado Hospital and raised money for a medical mission in Honduras. He became a U.S. citizen in February 2019. His dream is to become a surgeon.

Most Promising Teen: Payton Smith

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Payton Smith at Muirlands Middle School. She is the president of the Allied Action Club, an anti-bullying group and helps new students transition to her school. She coaches a youth basketball camp, a cheer camp for kindergarten to fifth grade students and she also established her own dance camp last year. Dancing since she was three years old, she now teaches ballet, jazz, and hip-hop to young children.