March-April 2021

Top teens

From an accomplished opera singer to an author of a kids book about the pandemic, the winners of our 12th annual Extraordinary Teen Awards are making their marks

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Hewan Kidanemariam

Senior, John F. Kennedy High School

Having moved to the United States from Ethiopia when she was 5, Hewan Kidanemariam is aware of inequities in the world—especially when it comes to health care. She says her early interest in medicine was influenced by her mother, who was a medical aide during that country’s civil war and would tell stories of bandaging wounded soldiers.

“It really comes down to impact. There are other professions where you can help people, but it’s more indirect,” says Hewan, 17, who lives in Silver Spring and aspires to be a physician. “In health care, you have a more intimate relationship with a patient and a direct impact on a patient’s life.”

As a junior at Kennedy, Hewan earned her license as a certified clinical medical assistant. This school year she has an internship at Holy Cross Hospital. Though it’s virtual because of the pandemic, she’s learning about the opioid crisis, social determinants of health, and other topics by reading medical journals, writing reports and having online discussions with staff members. She also recently started volunteering at Holy Cross’ COVID-19 vaccination clinic, administering vaccines.

As a participant in the Leadership Training Institute at Kennedy, Hewan has been involved in community service activities. “Hewan is the quiet leader. She doesn’t tell you what she’s going to do, she just does it. And people gravitate to her,” says Kofi Frempong, a teacher at Kennedy and coordinator of the institute.

For her senior project in the leadership program, Hewan and two friends hosted a pair of drives they called “Helping Everyone Around,” collecting toiletries, masks and other essential items for donation to A Wider Circle, a nonprofit based in Silver Spring. Hewan got the idea after volunteering there, organizing household items to be distributed to people in need.

Hewan is president of her school’s chapter of the National Honor Society and is involved in the Minority Scholars Program, where she has advocated for narrowing the achievement gap in Montgomery County and helped organize a spirit week at Kennedy focused on Latino students.


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Dhruv Pai

Junior, Montgomery Blair High School

When Dhruv Pai went grocery shopping with his grandparents as COVID-19 cases began to emerge in Montgomery County, he noticed the fear in their eyes when other customers didn’t wear masks or socially distance. Dhruv, who’d volunteered with the Difference Makers club in middle school and with the American Red Cross VolunTeen Program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center over the previous two summers, knew he had to do something.

“I wanted to find a way to ease their burden, and that’s where Teens Helping Seniors really started,” says Dhruv, 17, who lives in Potomac.

Teens Helping Seniors, which Dhruv launched last March with his friend Matthew Casertano, connects older adults or immunocompromised people with teenage volunteers who will deliver groceries for only the cost of the items.

What began as an effort among Dhruv and his friends grew through social media. Teens Helping Seniors boasts 800 volunteers in 33 chapters in the U.S. and Canada, and has made more than 2,500 deliveries. “He just contagiously made all these kids to be kind and think outside of themselves,” says Farzaneh Nabavian, the parent community coordinator for Blair, who helped the group achieve nonprofit status.

Dhruv, who once delivered groceries to more than 15 people in a week, now makes three or four weekly deliveries. He also sings in four virtual choirs and serves as chief technology officer and brand ambassador for the teen-run nonprofit Arts-n-STEM 4 Hearts, which provides art kits to children in hospitals and to seniors in nursing homes, and STEM kits to underresourced communities.

Passionate about what he describes as “STEM with a humanitarian focus,” Dhruv is currently using satellite imagery of crops to analyze disturbances to the food supply chain during the pandemic with a mentor at the University of Maryland. “The entire reason I’m interested in science, it’s the same reason I’m interested in volunteering,” says Dhruv, who is considering expanding Teens Helping Seniors after the pandemic to include other services, such as lawn-mowing. “It’s really to make an impact and to improve people’s lives. So I don’t think one could exist without the other.”


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Sammer Hajhamad

Senior, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School

Sammer Hajhamad left her home in Kuwait when she was 13, immigrating with her mom and siblings to Maryland, where she enrolled in Bethesda’s predominantly white Westland Middle School. There, Sammer, who is Black, says she received backhanded compliments for being “well-spoken” and not looking “fresh off the boat.”

These microaggressions, the 17-year-old says, eroded some of the pride she had in her identity. “I had to sort of shut that door to be more accepted into our school environment,” says Sammer, who lives in Silver Spring. “It wasn’t until I actually got into advocacy that I started speaking up more.”

Once she started high school, she joined the Minority Scholars Program (MSP). “I realized I was not the only person that felt invisible,” Sammer says. She found a passion for social justice advocacy and now serves as vice president of B-CC’s Black Student Union, financial coordinator for MoCo EmpowHER (a countywide student organization that lifts up young women and offers them space for dialogue), president of MSP, cultural awareness coordinator for the Montgomery County Regional Student Government Association, and diversity editor of The Tattler, B-CC’s student news magazine.

The project she’s proudest of, though, is Youth for Equity, which she and student Neha Kohli developed in March of 2020 through the Lazarus Leadership Fellows Program, a community service initiative at B-CC. Youth for Equity, now with 113 student members, strives to create equitable education through monthly town halls that result in “action steps”—such as leading a professional development meeting for teachers to instruct them on how to be actively anti-racist and to develop safe spaces for students.

“Adversity didn’t break her—it inspired her,” says Bruce Adams, founder of the Lazarus program. “She lifts up others, and that’s the mark of a true servant leader.”

Sammer hopes Youth for Equity expands to more schools and credits the community and her experience as an advocate with helping her emerge from her shell. “I feel like I am developing into the person I…lost awhile ago,” says Sammer, who plans to double major in marketing and international relations in college.


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Abby Pashkoff

Senior, Winston Churchill High School

Much of Abby Pashkoff’s life revolves around children. The oldest of many cousins, the Potomac 18-year-old has tutored elementary school ESOL students through Churchill’s Homework Club, volunteered as a camp counselor in Costa Rica, and spearheaded the annual Purim carnival as executive vice president of the Washington Hebrew Congregation Temple Youth Board. “I just think I have a natural inclination towards working with kids,” Abby says.

When the pandemic curtailed her in-person, kid-focused activities, Abby fulfilled a longtime goal to write and illustrate a children’s book. A Kids’ Guide to: A Pandemic, self-published through Amazon last April, is meant to help kids through the unusual times.

“I just couldn’t even imagine how confusing and scary it was for younger kids who had been taken out of their normal routines and all of a sudden quarantined from everything that they knew,” she says. “Nobody in elementary school is really watching the news, but they do need something that’s still informative that can kind of help them grasp what was going on.”

Abby wrote the book on Google Docs, explaining ideas like virus transmission in easy-to-understand language, and drew the illustrations using the iPad Procreate app. It has sold more than 100 copies, with a portion of the proceeds donated to Save the Children’s Coronavirus Response Fund.

“I can tell you the number of times I’ve had kids say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to write a book,’ or, ‘I’m going to do some kind of big project,’ and there are very, very few times where those are actually things that happen,” says Ira Miller, youth group adviser at Washington Hebrew Congregation. “The fact that she saw it through…is really great.”

She followed up in September with another self-published picture book, Don’t Wait To Advocate, which helps kids promote causes they care about by providing strategies, such as starting petitions.

“I really just hope that they learn that they are important and that they have a place in changing the world,” says Abby, who established the Churchill chapter of Girls Who Start, a club that promotes female entrepreneurship, as a junior. “Kids are young, but that doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of making change.”

Abby is a lawyer on Churchill’s Mock Trial team and a member of the Spanish Honor Society. She will attend Vanderbilt University and is considering studying sociology or law.


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Sujay Swain

Senior, Montgomery Blair High School

In 2016, while visiting a rural village in India where some of his extended family live, Sujay Swain was shocked to see people drinking water from a contaminated stream. After returning to his home in Gaithersburg, he devoted his eighth grade science fair project to devising a low-cost way to purify water.

Sujay continued his research, worked with mentors and developed a simple system to filter water using shredded sugarcane, aluminum foil and sunlight. Early last year he co-founded a company, STEM In Life, with his brother, Sudhish, now 14. Sujay presented the water purification idea at the International Ultraviolet Association conference in Orlando, Florida, where he received the IUVA RadLaunch special student award given for innovation. Sujay, 17, who speaks Hindi, Kannada and Sanskrit, as well as English, hopes to return to India when the pandemic is over to field-test the system and show it to locals for feedback.

According to James Schafer, a physics teacher at Blair, Sujay has a genuine interest in using science to solve problems. “He’s very passionate about learning and applying what he’s learned,” Schafer says.

As a freshman, Sujay started an intense, 24-hour computer design competition known as BlairHacks, which has continued each year since. “It’s a combination of a cool engineering project and a really interesting idea behind it,” he says of the student-run “hackathons.” “You are not expected to come up with a final product, but a proof of concept.” Among his hackathon projects: a device to remind people to take their medicine, and an app to send personal messages from donors to charity recipients.

Sujay is captain of Blair’s history club and a leader with blair3sat, a student group that designs and builds miniaturized satellites.

He plans to study electrical engineering in college and credits his father, a physicist, and his mother, an engineer, with inspiring his innovative thinking: “Hearing both of them talk about technology in a way that it is solving problems and addressing a need in the world has been my driving force.”


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Fiona Gallagher

Senior, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School

For her 11th grade oral history project, Fiona Gallagher interviewed Barbara Ives, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who was admitted in 1976 as part of the first class that included women. “I loved listening to her story,” says Fiona, who drove to St. Mary’s County to talk with Ives in person. “She showed how women can be really successful in the military despite obstacles.”

Alex Haight, Fiona’s history teacher at St. Andrew’s in Potomac, admired her ambition in securing the interview with a female trailblazer and says she crushed the 10-page paper. “It speaks to her passion for women’s issues, the military and history,” he says.

The day after former President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, Fiona went to the Women’s March on Washington, joining women of all ages from her church who, she says, inspired her feminism. The following year, when her mother, Deirdre McCarthy Gallagher, ran for a spot on the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee, Fiona helped with the campaign, which she says further ignited her interest in politics and was a great experience for both of them even though her mom wasn’t elected.

Last fall, Fiona, 17, who lives in Rockville, made phone calls for Joe Biden and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon of Maine. “I had some awesome conversations with people who have very different political beliefs, and I’ve really enjoyed the chance to listen and try to understand them,” says Fiona, who volunteered as a poll worker in November and recruited other area teens to get involved in the election.

At St. Andrew’s, Fiona is chair of the student advisory board and runs on the cross-country and track teams. She is also an accomplished Irish dancer, competing for more than 10 years and qualifying for the North American Irish Dance Championships for the past three years.

Fiona plans to study political science or government in college. She hopes for a career in which she can make the most impact as a public servant: “It would be a dream to be an elected official in Congress.”


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Andrew Gray

Senior, Landon School

Andrew Gray began studying the violin before he could properly hold one. At 3, he started training with the Suzuki method, practicing with a cardboard instrument before transitioning to the real thing.

Since then, the 18-year-old Potomac resident has brought his lifelong passion for the violin to the Kennedy Center, Strathmore and Carnegie Hall stages. He says that joining orchestras and chamber music groups helped him acclimate when he moved to Maryland before high school.

“Being immersed in the music with everyone, and everyone working together—that made me feel at home,” he says.

Andrew is the concertmaster (the first violin section leader who helps guide the orchestra) of the 90-person Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras’ (MCYO) philharmonic and plays in Landon’s advanced string ensemble. He also takes weekly private lessons with violin teacher Lya Stern, who compares him to a “kid in the candy store” when he’s asked what he wants to learn next.

Andrew’s love of music goes beyond the violin. When the National Symphony Orchestra Summer Music Institute went virtual last summer due to the coronavirus pandemic, he spliced together individual videos of the chamber group he was a part of. For the past two years, he’s played the viola in his Landon orchestra, rather than the violin, because the only violist graduated. He also crafts his own compositions.

“One thing about Andrew that stood out was that he had this key sense of musicality,” says Kristofer Sanz, the music director and philharmonic conductor of MCYO. “It was coming from somewhere inside, very, very special, that not a lot of kids his age have yet discovered.”

Andrew heads Landon’s Chess Club, Math Club, Science Bowl and It’s Academic teams, and plays varsity squash. He says he enjoys collaborating with others in all of his activities, and that it’s his favorite part of music-making. “It’s like a puzzle when you’re playing with others,” he says. “You’re always making sure that you’re fitting with everyone else, and you can also try and do your part to lead people when it’s appropriate.”

In college, Andrew is considering a dual degree in the music and STEM fields.


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Alex Campero

Senior, Col. Zadok Magruder High School

As her Magruder High School girls volleyball team walked into the state finals in November 2019, Alex Campero says it was intimidating to hear the announcer tick off their opponent’s past state titles and to see the size of their crowd.

The Rockville school team got off to a shaky start, but after losing the first set, the Colonels managed to come back. “On the last point I was so nervous. I just couldn’t believe we did it,” Alex says of the victory over Northern High School of Owings, Maryland—the first time Magruder won the state championship in the school’s history.

Alex’s coach and Magruder social studies teacher Scott Zanni often refers to her as the “rock of the team.” He named Alex captain for the virtual season this year and praises her dedication on and off the court. “When she decides something is important to her, it’s important for her to work hard and do well at it,” Zanni says.

Whether it’s sports or academics, Alex, 18, who lives in Derwood, says she tries to prove the skeptics wrong. “I’m someone who likes to help underdogs,” she says.

After seeing only a few Latino students like her in STEM classes at Magruder, Alex, whose parents came to the U.S. from Bolivia, co-founded Latinos in Engineering and Science as a sophomore. With trivia games and fun science experiments, she was able to help attract about 30 active participants to the club before the pandemic. Alex is also president of Magruder’s Young Women in Engineering club and the National Technology Honor Society.

Since her freshman year, Alex has been part of the school’s Best Buddies program, which encourages friendships among students with and without disabilities. “I know how these kids feel when they can’t make friends easily,” says Alex, whose older brother has an intellectual disability.

Last summer, Alex interned virtually with the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg. She worked with artificial intelligence, a field she wants to pursue in college along with computer science.


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JD Gorman

Senior, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School

JD Gorman was about to turn 7 when his father, Michael Blom, died of lymphoma. When JD was 9, he and his family started raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS). Since then, he has captained the Wingman Walkers team (Wingman was his father’s nickname) for LLS events, raising thousands of dollars over the years.

“You get this broader sense of empathy,” says JD, now 18. “You start to think, ‘What can I do, how can I help? …How can I play any sort of part to better those around me and make sure that people don’t have to go through the situation that I had to?’”

In the summer of 2019, JD co-founded Connecting Cultures, an organization that has hosted about 10 community discussions with the goal of broadening perspectives. He serves as an executive producer for B-CC TV, where he was co-winner of a student production award from the local chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. He has also been class president throughout high school.

In February 2020, during B-CC’s annual charity month, JD helped revive the winter dance as a fundraiser for LLS. The event raised about $2,000, and the school received the 2020 Holt Weeks Trailblazer Award, given to a Washington, D.C.- area high school that develops a creative LLS fundraiser.

“Every teacher has moments where you’re like, ‘I can’t do this anymore, this is so much, this is overwhelming,’ but then you have kids that come in and make it worth it,” says Jennifer Lloyd, an English teacher at B-CC and senior class sponsor. “JD is one of those kids that makes it worth it.”

JD plays bass and guitar and is in the B-CC Jazz Ensemble. When his father, a musician, was in hospice, JD’s family started monthly “music nights” at their Bethesda home, open to anybody to play or listen. After JD’s father died, they continued the tradition and began taking pledges for LLS donations. “It’s been one of the main reasons why my sister and I still play music,” JD says.

He’s considering liberal arts as his major in college.


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Juliette Bostrom

Senior, The Academy of the Holy Cross

Two years ago, after Juliette Bostrom watched The True Cost, a documentary about the negative impact that mass-produced clothing can have on workers and the environment, she stopped buying “fast fashion” and turned to secondhand clothing and brands with sustainable manufacturing practices.

“I immediately decided I didn’t want to participate in an industry like that,” says Juliette, 17. She also shared what she learned with family and friends to encourage them to be responsible consumers.

As secretary of the Young Progressives Club at Holy Cross, Juliette hopes to start an awareness campaign at the school about the issue. She has long been concerned about climate change, and in elementary school asked for donations to save polar bears rather than birthday gifts.

Last fall, Juliette volunteered through St. John’s Norwood Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase to write letters to unregistered voters in Texas to boost turnout. “Regardless of political affiliation, I think increasing people’s engagement with elections and politics is incredibly important,” says Juliette, who grew up in a military family, moving to Bethesda in 2019. She lived in Germany for almost the first 10 years of her life and is fluent in German.

“Juliette has been exposed to a variety of different cultures and lived in many places,” says Anna Dettbarn, who was the teen’s AP human geography teacher during her junior year. “I think all of this has contributed to a very mature understanding of issues in my class—government, religion and social-economic factors that influence geography around the world. She is keenly aware of societal problems.”

Last March, Juliette was one of about 100 students from the region selected to participate in the 2020 West Point Leadership and Ethics Conference at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. She says the discussions about ways to handle confrontational situations reinforced the importance of communication and being open-minded.

Juliette has excelled academically at Holy Cross, and has also played on the school’s field hockey and ice hockey teams. She hopes to use her German language skills in a future career, and may study international business, environmental science or political science in college.


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Jolie Rosenstein

Senior, Walt Whitman High School

Before becoming a member of the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department during her sophomore year, Jolie Rosenstein had never set foot in a hospital. Interested in learning more about medicine, the Bethesda teenager began as an observer at the station and then trained to become a probationary member.

“I feel like I have to always be doing my best because I’m the youngest,” says the 18-year-old, whose co-workers on her weekly shift are all older. “I just don’t want to do something that is wrong because, obviously, people’s lives are in your hands.”

Once, Jolie responded to an opioid overdose call, providing oxygen and Narcan, and helping to carry the patient to a stretcher. She was working until midnight, “and then I had to go to school the next day.”

During her junior year, Jolie spent 30 hours a week in a class to become state and nationally certified as an emergency medical technician, earning the Richard B. Thompson Award for finishing at the top of the class. A travel soccer player for many years, she gave up the sport when it conflicted with the course. “I spent my entire Sundays there every week, and it was a lot of at-home reading and work,” she says. “But it was worth it.”

Justin Peel, a sergeant at the station, says Jolie has a command of the technical skills and the mental stamina that the job requires. “She’s definitely more of the unflappable type…if something goes very wrong, you don’t want to be immediately emotionally affected by it,” Peel says. “She’s definitely shown that level of courage and stability.”

Jolie took a break from the job early on in the pandemic but is now working toward becoming an EMS Provider 1 (which would include taking the lead on calls). When she’s not on duty, she tutors in math and leads Whitman’s Bracelets for Cheer club, which sends friendship bracelets to patients at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Before the pandemic, she volunteered at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington and played lacrosse.

Jolie will attend the University of Michigan and plans to focus on psychology or pre-med studies.


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Arya Balian

Junior, National Cathedral School

Arya Balian performed in her first opera at age 7 at the Lisner Auditorium, playing Gretel in a production of Werther.

“I kept on singing and never looked back,” says Arya, who has been cast in nine operas with the Washington National Opera and has performed around the world, including stops at the Sydney Opera House in Australia and Carnegie Hall in New York City. She’s flown above the stage as the Third Spirit in The Magic Flute, and played a boy, Miles, with a dramatic death scene in The Turn of the Screw at the Miami Classical Music Festival.

“When I step onstage, there is this burst of energy. I feel like I’m where I’m meant to be in the world,” says Arya, 17, who lives in Chevy Chase. “The fact that I can get up there and teleport audience members to a whole other world and form these bonds with my cast members is so amazing.”

Vocal coach and nationally known conductor Michael Rossi says Arya is the most accomplished teen he has worked with in his career. “She has a fantastic voice, a fantastic stage presence and she acts beautifully,” Rossi says. “It’s a combination of natural talent, hard work and enthusiasm that makes her an all-around performer.”

At National Cathedral School, Arya sings in the honors choir and is co-president of the glee club. During the pandemic, she has shifted to recording music online and has been teaching free virtual vocal lessons to kids through the One Voice Mentors program.

Arya is dedicated to making the arts accessible and promoting opera to young people. She is a member of the Kennedy Center Youth Council, president of Capital Opera Teens and co-president of the National Opera Teens Advisory Committee.

Beyond the opera stage, she has sung the U.S. national anthem at a Washington Wizards game in 2019 and a Baltimore Orioles game in 2017 at Camden Yards—with her sister, Sareen, now 19, performing alongside. Arya is from an Armenian American family and has made her voice heard as an advocate for peace as part of the Armenian Youth Federation and performed at various events at the Embassy of Armenia.


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Danielle Peters

Senior, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School

Danielle Peters, 18, has a mind for business that rarely shuts off. “If I think of an idea at 2 a.m., I’ll get up, grab my computer and start doing research,” she says. “I’m very aspirational and determined. … Even if I fail. I have to try it out.”

One summer, when she was 13, Danielle baked cupcakes every Thursday to sell at a local farmers market near her home in Potomac. At 15, she bought wholesale jewelry and resold it online through DC Kollections, a business she created, doing nearly $5,000 in sales over two years.

Danielle was inspired to start Girl-ish Magazine (girlishmagazine.squarespace.com) after attending a leadership conference at Harvard University during the fall of her junior year. “I wanted to give girls a platform to have their voices heard,” she says of the online publication. Danielle put out a call for writers on Instagram and received nearly 200 applications. She selected 22 between the ages of 14 and 20 who provide articles for the lifestyle and fashion magazine on topics including body image and women-owned brands.

Danielle has produced 10 episodes for her Girl-ish podcast, interviewing teens about being a beauty pageant queen, racial justice advocacy and how to start a podcast in high school.

At St. Andrew’s, Danielle has been an active member of the Black Student Alliance, and last October she co-founded the Students of Color Association. The group was needed, she says, in the wake of George Floyd’s death to encourage Black, Indigenous and people of color to become leaders at her school and stand up for voices that are not heard.

“She’s a compassionate leader who has an incredible sense of activism. She’s not just a leader with words; she carries out with actions,” says Lorraine Martinez Hanley, a Spanish teacher and the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the private school. “And she does it in such a positive and thoughtful way.”

Danielle hopes to bring diverse perspectives to a career in marketing and business.