Rosario: ‘These kids today?’ OK boomers. Read this.

John Tillotson vividly remembers one of the two winners of the 1997 Optimist Club of St. Paul Youth Appreciation scholarship award.

His name is Damian Allen, then a senior at Humboldt High School of limited means who called Tillotson about the then-$500 award.

“I told him this was great and asked what he was most excited about,” recalled Tillotson, a longtime St. Paul resident, club member and senior vice president at Stifel, a Minneapolis-based investment services firm.

“He told me he was going to have a bed,” said Tillotson. “This was a game-changer for me.” Tillotson added that Allen later graduated with a degree in chemistry from Northwestern University.

Since 2001, the club has awarded nearly a half-million dollars in Youth Appreciation scholarships to St. Paul public high school students, mostly from low-income families, high achievers in spite of severe hardships and tough odds.

Incarcerated or deceased parents. Severe economic realities. Juggling culture shock, school, jobs, caring for kin or other obstacles, somehow these students have tapped into a resiliency that should be bottled for all of us to ingest when we need such moxie.

Each year at this time, Tillotson drops off an envelope with the now 15 winners of the $1,500 award. And each year, since 2005, I’m moved, inspired and compelled to write up these kids. This year’s batch of promise and grit is no exception.

“The dictionary defines optimism as ‘hopefulness and confidence about the future with a belief of a successful outcome,’ ” Tillotson wrote in an email. “When you fathom all the issues and circumstances these young adults have faced it is clear to me that they all fit this definition.

“They just won’t be stopped and it is an honor and privilege for us to recognize them for their efforts.”

Be Be Say, a senior at Washington Technology Magnet, is one of this year’s award winners.

Be Be Say is a senior at Washington Technology Magnet in St. Paul. (Courtesy of Be Be Say)

Say, along with both her parents and several siblings, are Karen and lived in a Thailand refugee camp before relocation to St. Paul in 2010.

On April 6, 2015, Say’s mother took her own life. Say was in the seventh grade at the time. Two year ago, her father died by suicide.

“As tragedy struck her family, Be Be had to grow up very fast,” her school counselor, Jill Vestrum, wrote in a nomination letter. “She had to take care of herself and take care of the little ones in the family. (She) is not only a survivor of this trauma; she is the epitome of grace, kindness, and tenacity.”

A member of the National Honor Society, Say is an all-conference badminton singles player and captain of the school’s varsity soccer team. She was selected homecoming queen last year. The kid who knew not one word of English when she came here has taken five advanced courses through the University of Minnesota and ranks 51st out of 251 seniors in her class. She hopes to apply to and attend the University of Minnesota-Morris.

“I want to get into the social sciences field, like psychology, and work with people and prevent bad things from happening,” she told me during a recent chat.

Tiwonge Kafera, a native of Malawi and a senior at Great River School, was orphaned at the age of 2 when her mother died of HIV. 

Twionge Kafera is a senior at Great River School in St. Paul. (Courtesy of Twionge Kafera)

Her father’s identity and whereabouts are unknown. William Harper, who served in the Peace Corps in Malawi during the 1990s, and knew the family, learned about Kafera’s orphan status after a return trip. Kafera’s mother, Christina,  worked alongside Harper in HIV prevention care before she died. Kafera came to Minnesota three years ago after Harper and his wife were able to obtain custody and legal guardianship.

No slacker, Kafera will graduate in the top 10 percent of her class with a weighted 4.0 GPA. She is a leader of the Metro Youth Student Council, which strives to improve education in Dakota County. A gifted dancer involved in theater, Kafera is also an organizer in IRACE, a diversity conference that trains more than 500 students and faculty in educational equity.

“Tiwonge knows hardship and she knows what it’s like to live with hunger and the deepest of poverty.,” Harper explained in an email. “She grew up an orphan in rural Malawi (7th poorest country on the planet) raised by her grandmother.  Despite all the challenges she has a gleam in her eyes, an absolute passion for learning, and a determination to be a leader.”

Added school counselor Teresa Hichens-Olson:“The fact that she’s able to get A’s in Physics, IB math and English when she has just arrived in the United States is mind-blowing.”

Kafera is in the process of applying to various area universities, including the University of St. Catherine, St. Olaf and Augsburg, among others.

She plans to pursue a career in medicine and hopes to one day go back to her home country to help address the HIV crisis that claimed the life of her mother “and also to help with the economic development,” she told me.

Avery Welna, born in the southern Russian port city of Rostov-on-Don, was way too young to recall the fire that caused permanent third-degree burns on the left of her/his face, arm and torso.

Avery Welna is a senior at Central High School in St. Paul. (Courtesy of Avery Welna)

Then came another jolt: Welna was put up for adoption by her/his parents at age 4. Welna was ultimately adopted by a St. Paul couple and brought here.

Welna is still dealing with the familial and societal ripple effects caused when she/he came out as transgender shortly before entering Central High School.

In spite of the physical scars and the backlash in response to coming out, Welna, now a senior, has excelled in studies and become a leader at the school. The list of accomplishments includes selection as an ambassador for #CentralSTRONG, a student-led group that promotes positivity and nonviolence. Welna, according to the nomination letter, was also instrumental in the school securing a $45,000 grant for restorative justice practices. Welna also serves on the school’s Gender Sexual Alliance (GSA) board.

A musician, Welna has graduated from multiple levels of the Suzuki violin program and has earned spots on regionally competitive orchestral ensembles.

“Welna has the personality of an old soul, someone who is wise beyond her/his years,” school counselor Micha Landenberg wrote in the nomination letter. “Avery has overcome great adversity and uses his life experiences to empower others so that they cannot only survive but thrive through life’s ongoing challenges.”

Welna, with sights on the University of Northern Iowa among other colleges, plans to pursue a career in international relations.

“I would like to work at the United Nations,” Welna told me. “I guess what I really want to do, seeing what we are seeing in the world right now, is help people. We need to all work together, come together and combat issues.”

Tillotson wanted to do something beyond just writing a check to these kids and sending it in the mail. So he contracted a lawyer and helped set up a Youth Appreciation Foundation nonprofit that distributes the award money and also treats the winners and family members to a recognition ceremony and dinner. The event was held this past week.

“The kids we do honor tend to go to school the next day and tell others, ‘Wow, you wouldn’t believe what happened to me last night,’ ” he added. “This tends to light a fire that keeps building for these kids and others around them.”

Two previous winners tragically are no longer with us. Medard Prosper, who survived a civil war in his native Congo that claimed the lives of his parents and nine siblings, died in 2012 two months before graduating from Highland Park High School. The school and the Optimist Club partnered three years ago to raise a scholarship fund in his honor.

Zahra Mohamed, a 2016 winner and refugee whose father was murdered by a terrorist group in Somalia in 2010, realized her dream of becoming the first person in her family to attend college. But the University of Minnesota student was struck and killed by a car earlier this year while crossing a street near her family’s home on St. Paul’s East Side. A younger sister is among this year’s winners.

“So hard to see kids up against so much breaking out and then they are gone,” said Tillotson, who attended Prosper’s funeral.

“During the service, they focused so much on our award and what optimism meant to him,” he recalled. “I had ideas we were making an impact but just didn’t know how deep.”

The other award winners this year are:

  • Brinna Faughanan and Lucienne McCallum, Central High School.
  • Ikran Ahmed, Gateway to College.
  • Omar Moujid, Great River School.
  • Cierra Carter and Edward Stockard, Johnson High School.
  • Tania Perez Barrios, Saline Her, Maryan Mohamed, Amanye Reynolds and Melanie Viniegra, Harding High School.
  • Brian Saldana Almaraz, Washington Technology Magnet.

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