When Junior Achievement of Arizona set out to identify some of our state’s extraordinary young people, the goal was to celebrate future leaders, change makers and innovators. People who will change the world.
In the hindsight of this year’s extraordinary challenges, recounting the achievements of these “18 Under 18” is a welcome dose of reassurance. These dozen and a half young people represent only a small fraction of those who have what JA describes as “positive impatience” to make a difference. They aren’t willing to wait until adulthood.
“We wanted to help people see how amazing these students are and be inspired by the collective hope our youth bring to this state,” said Anne Landers, marketing and development senior director for JA Arizona, in describing the three-year-old awards project. “This cohort is a representation of the many, many thousands of great students we have [in Arizona], and what they’re doing already. They are going to change the future for us, make our future better.”
The 2020 awards winners — who were selected for entrepreneurial spirit, community service, leadership and extraordinary skill sets — were celebrated via web conference last month. Their energy, determination, ingenuity, creativity and resilience is just what our society needs as we all navigate the challenges ahead.
Their stories are below, numbered to match the photos.
1. Elaina Ashton
A recent graduate of Arizona College Prep – Erie Campus in Chandler, Elaina channeled her passion for coding, mathematics and robotics toward co-founding Education Empowers, a nonprofit organization operating in partnership with Girls Scouts of Arizona to provide STEM curriculum to underserved communities at 45 locations.
2. Kayli Battel
A recent graduate of Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, Kayli enjoyed and excelled at science and math. She partnered with like-minded teens to create Sisters in STEM: Girls Inspiring Girls, which recruits girls ages 4-15 to the world of science, technology, engineering and math. “To see that we can impact those kids through robotics gave me a lot of confidence,” she says.
3. Alexander Burt
A BASIS Scottsdale recent graduate, Alexander took on a challenge to help others live with serious and socially aggravating food allergies. He’s working on an app, to be released by the end of the year, that helps consumers with food sensitivities or preferences find restaurants with safe menu options. “One of the most meaningful things I’ve learned is the impact something you’re interested in can have on other people,” he says.
4. Viveka Chinnasamy
She just finished her junior year at Hamilton High School in Chandler, but Vicki has already formed a nonprofit organization to support medical treatment and care for the underprivileged. Medical Hope, inspired by her experience in a school club for students interested in healthcare-related careers, has fundraised to support Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Ronald McDonald House Charities and other local organizations.
5. Jordan Davis-Wiley
Jordan’s inspiration came from a love of books and a song lyric that just popped into her head. “Dreamcatcher” the song led to “Dreamcatcher” the self-published book. Before she knew it, this Phoenix North High School student had her own publishing house, Nickelberry, and her work was being sold in airport bookstores across the country. She hopes to encourage other young, aspiring writers to find an audience. And she has two more years left in high school!
6. Cameron Deal
A recent graduate of Sunrise Mountain High School in Peoria, Cameron is a classical music fan who wanted to make sure all children have opportunities to try different musical instruments. Through his organization, Music Makers, he recruits local musicians to visit Boys & Girls Clubs to perform and allow the children to interact with the instruments — “kind of like a musical petting zoo,” he says.
7. Laura Dunham
A recent graduate from Willcox High School in Willcox, Laura was inspired by a teacher’s encouragement to try her hand at robotics competitions. She was hooked. Working with AmeriCorps, she started a program to bring robotics and coding opportunities to elementary and middle schoolers in the Willcox area. She plans to study computer science at the University of Arizona.
8. Heather Jensen
This creative writer and recent graduate of Red Mountain High School in Mesa started Creative Youth of Arizona — the only youth-operated arts organization in Arizona — to bring together young artists of all media to connect, compete and share ideas. The organization’s signature project, the Phoenix Youth Poet Laureate program, is sending its first poet laureate out on a nationwide tour.
9. Leila Khan
A recent Scottsdale Preparatory graduate, Leila founded Bridge the Gap to help refugee students get the tutoring support they need. Inspired to organize summer tutoring workshops after befriending a 16-year-old refugee student struggling with freshman-year studies, she has now helped 89 other students and has expanded into online tutoring. “Though I’m quite young, anyone who has a passion can make a difference,” she says.
10. Dominique Luna
At Sandra Day O’Connor High School in Glendale, where Dominique recently finished her sophomore year, she made it a mission to get recycling bins on campus. After numerous unsuccessful attempts, and not taking “no” for an answer, there is now recycling on campus. Her success has been infectious and she is collaborating with other high school students to work toward positive change.
11. Jonathan Martinez
As a sophomore at Catalina Foothills High School in Tucson, Jonathan was also an accomplished nationally ranked chess player who thought others would enjoy this sixth-century game of skill and strategy. Through the Pawn Initiative, he teaches chess to members of the Boys & Girls Clubs, refugees, and seniors at St. Luke’s Home. “The seniors I’m teaching right now are getting more focused and their minds are a lot sharper,” he says.
12. Hannah Mason (photo at top)
As a senior at Westwood High School in Mesa, Hannah volunteered for Interact, the youth division of Rotary Club. She raised $26,000 for mobility devices and was one of six students chosen to travel to Africa to distribute the walkers, wheelchairs, braces, crutches, and other devices. “I was quite literally a life changing experience,” she says. “It made me realize I had a passion for service.”
13. Arjun Moorthy
During a medical mission trip to Costa Rica with his mother, Arjun realized he didn’t need to wait for medical school to help people. The BASIS Scottsdale student, who just completed his junior year, developed healthcare-related apps for identifying melanoma and guiding decisions about skin cancer prevention. And through his organization Screening on Wheels, more than 200 people have received cancer screenings and referrals to local healthcare providers.
14. Chandler Plante
As a freshman at Camp Verde High School, Chander already had a reputation as a visionary and change maker. He attended Camp Verde City Council meetings and set up personal meetings with the mayor and town manager to push for an three all-abilities swingsets for his community, and raised $5,200 to make it happen. He’s organized numerous food, clothing and bicycle drives. “When I start something, I can’t stop halfway,” he says.
15. Suraj Puvvadi
While a junior at BASIS Scottsdale, Suraj worked on the development and implementation of a variety of apps and skills for virtual assistants. His “Promise” app lets parents set expectations and helps children understand rewards and consequences. His EpiFinder voice assistant helps patients and doctors communicate. QRBooks, developed with friends, is a QR code that can be installed inside textbooks to guide readers to additional links, descriptions and updates.
16. Ethan Scher
Ethan, who just finished his junior year at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, was looking for a way to fund his own obsession with high-end sneakers. He and his brother built software to make it easier and faster to acquire new-release sneakers — and then sell them at markup. Now his home-based business has clients from Los Angeles to New York.
17. Grace Schlenker
A recent graduate of Arcadia High School, Grace started Arcadia’s Dream, a local extension of the nonprofit DreamCatchers organization, a network of high school and college clubs dedicated to fulfilling end-of-life dreams for people in hospice care. She and her classmates have arranged for and funded fulfilling experiences including a trip to Disneyland and a three-generation fishing trip.
18. Ryan Vakil
During a family trip to visit relatives in Iran, Ryan was shocked to see children in a poor neighborhood working in the streets without shoes. When he returned to his junior year at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, he created Hearts to Soles, a nonprofit organization that helps refugees and children around the world by providing new or gently used pairs of shoes he distributes through the International Rescue Committee and locally through the Welcome to America Project.
Learn more about “18 Under 18”
Read more detailed descriptions of this year’s winners at 18under18.org, where you also can sign up for email notifications about the 2021 program. Nominations will open in November. For more information about Junior Achievement of Arizona, visit jaaz.org