San Jacinto Valley students honored in February


Diane A. Rhodes | Contributor

The Hemet/San Jacinto Student of the Month program held its most recent recognition breakfast at the Maze Stone at Soboba Springs Golf Course, Feb. 16. Seven local high school seniors were recognized and honored for their character, love of learning and commitment to academics in addition to their involvement in school and community activities and their ability to overcome difficult life challenges. And they do this all in a setting that honors God, America, family, community and free enterprise. Students are nominated by teachers or other school personnel for making a difference in their homes, schools and communities.

An opening prayer by San Jacinto Assembly of God Pastor Jeff Johnson, reminded everyone that February is a month of celebrations with Black History Month, Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Day “but today is to celebrate our students.”

Program founder and event facilitator Karena Zermeno also represents one of the sponsors, Altura Credit Union. Backpacks filled with gifts, a Student of the Month award, certificates of recognition and much more were donated by the program’s sponsors to the award recipients. Each student was invited to the podium to share their personal story, past challenges and future goals with a room full of supporters that included principals, teachers, peers and family members, as well as community and school district dignitaries.

February’s students of the month from Hemet Unified School District schools are David Emiliano Delgado Bazaldua, Aiden Featherstone, Erik Pomares, Jazmine Lou Riveral and Hazel Joi Taclay. San Jacinto Unified’s honorees for February are Christina Mehlman and Michelle Rodriguez.

Hemet Unified School District

David Emiliano Delgado Bazaldua

Tahquitz High School selected David, stating he is multidimensional and a standout soccer player. He is known to be a role model for younger players at the school. He has faced challenges, including his mother’s cancer diagnosis this past November. In June of 2022, she broke her knee and was immobilized for three months. During the summer of 2020 she was hospitalized for two months with COVID-19 and on the brink of life and death. He said he felt lucky to still have his “strong beautiful mother with us,” adding that what they went through affected every aspect of his life and has taken a toll on his family. He took the initiative to figure out how he could invest in himself and his family and through association with positive people, self-help books and online influencers, he found his motivation. “By doing this, my mind, body and soul have become potent and I look at myself now and I’m healthy and positive-minded. I’m a power-washing business owner and a varsity soccer athlete. This has also helped me set up a clear goal for the future,” David said. He plans to study business, economics and finance and open a digital technology business. He said, “I love creating new things and finding ways to innovate. I know I have to stay positive and strong.” He reminded everyone to take time to say “I love you” to their loved ones. “I want to inspire everybody to realize that we don’t have much time here. We can only do so much, and time is our enemy,” David said. “But with the time we have here, I know there’s a difference I can make so the only choice is to go forward, keep pushing and to not give up and to find motivation to stay disciplined.”

Aiden Featherstone

Hamilton High School’s top choice this month was Aiden. Principal Jeff Franks said although he was sidelined by an injury during his first year of varsity football, he stayed on to cheer on his teammates. His nominating teacher Keith Gwyn said, “Aiden is a two-sport athlete and is indicative of what we as teachers hope to see in all of our students. He is inquisitive, hard-working, dedicated and motivated. I am positive Aiden will continue to set the standard as he moves forward in life.” Aiden loves learning about and playing sports. “Sports have pushed me to learn and be a better person and to never give up on anything,” he said. As a freshman, he said he had a hard time with reading in front of people because he wasn’t confident in his reading skills. “I struggled with writing as well, but my teachers gave me extra time to do my work and helped me with writing and other assignments,” Aiden said. “Now, as a senior, I’m way more comfortable with reading and writing.” He plans to study fire science in college and aspires to be a firefighter. Aiden’s father said, “It takes a tribe to raise these good kids” and thanked everyone for their support for his son and all the students being honored.

Erik Pomares

Hemet High School singled out Erik for his honesty, humility, leadership and genuine love for people. He is a member of the Young Black Scholars, PLUS Leadership program and ASB. His nominating teacher, Lindsay Brown said, “I know that one day he will change the world; he has already changed so many lives at Hemet High School.” Erik said his parents divorced in 2013 and it was a rough time for him and his two younger sisters. Being a nurse, their mother worked long hours and she admits she had to lean on Erik a lot during that time. During COVID, his family dealt with the loss of two of his aunts, a cousin who was his same age and Erik lost his grandfather, who was a huge role model in his life. Learning how precious life can be, Erik cites his little sister as his biggest role model because she encouraged him to help family and others. “She was there for me when I needed it most,” he said. In his junior year, Erik earned straight As, started the Young Black Scholars group and served as its president and joined all the clubs he could in his senior year. He plans to attend college and then serve in the U.S. Army Reserves. “What I hope to give back to this community is a place where students like me who have big dreams but come from such a rough childhood could now have that dream come true because I care about putting smiles on everybody’s faces,” Erik said. “I want to be an inspiration to all those students.”

Jazmine Lou Riveral

West Valley High School’s choice for February was Jazmine, who is the commanding officer of 137 cadets in the school’s Navy JROTC program. She plans to enlist in the U.S. Navy after graduation. Her nominating teacher, Warrant Officer Alfonza A. Walton, reminded everyone that JROTC is not a recruiting program and offers no pathway to military service unless it is decided on by the student. “We teach leadership skills to be great citizens,” he said. Walton said Lt. Commander Jazmine has acquired many outstanding attributes during the four years she has been in the JROTC program. She has devoted 500 hours to community service as part of the program and said it is her way of giving back to her community. Her father is deployed a lot and with five children in the family, Jazmine has a bigger responsibility at home. It’s a lot of team effort and having multiple responsibilities has taught her time management, a lot of patience and how to tackle tasks in a given timeframe. “The life lessons I’ve gained in JROTC of not giving up when the road gets tough have enabled me to overcome any obstacles,” Jazmine said. While enlisted, she hopes to earn her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. “My parents laid the foundation for me to build my dream,” she said. West Valley Principal Gerardo Zavala thanked all the students for “demonstrating to all of us that it is possible to remain positive through adversity and tragedy and keep a positive outlook on life.”

Hazel Joi Taclay

Alessandro High School’s Hazel was introduced by Principal Matthew Centofranchi who said that all his students face adversity in one form or another and that it has been a joy to have Hazel on campus and rewarding to see her get on track for a successful graduation. Nominating teacher and advisor James Nuce said her middle name fits in very well with her attitude on life. He said, “She’s focused on her future; she knows exactly what she wants to do and she knows how to get there.” Hazel said, “In my freshman year I focused on anything but education.” She said the COVID shutdown felt like a forever summer break that gave her more reasons not to focus on school. In her sophomore year she got pregnant. She transferred to a different comprehensive school during hybrid learning but was still not motivated. After failing two years of high school, she knew Alessandro, an alternative continuation high school, was her last chance to turn things around. She started her junior year there with only five credits but soon became the student she always aimed to be. “It just took some courage and a very firm motive and at this point I had gained a very strong trait of ambition,” Hazel said. “I now believe if you really want something you’ll do everything you need to do to get it. The teachers at Alessandro really care about their students’ wellbeing and future.” She felt encouraged and supported at Alessandro and only needs 20 more credits to graduate. “I’m a fulltime mother and student with a minor job,” Hazel said. “I’m still with the boy who watched me grow from an arrogant brat to a young woman who’s on the right track.”

San Jacinto Unified School District

Christina Mehlman

San Jacinto High School chose to honor Christina for her courage and willingness to make it her mission to provide hope for others. She is described as being generous, patient, kind, faithful and committed. Nominating teacher Mayra Aldana said she has seen very few people have such a balanced perspective on life. Christina said she first met Aldana in her junior year Math III class. “At the time, I was personally struggling with the loss of my mother six months before the school year started,” Christina said. “She showed me love, kindness, respect and for that I will forever be grateful to have you in my life. She became like a second mom to me. Everyone deserves a support system. After losing my mother unexpectedly, I jumped into a mothering role for my siblings. People ask me why and I said it’s something that needed to be done so I stepped up and did it. I’m sure every student here today has a passion or a dream and on that I commend you all.” Christina plans to attend California Baptist University to study psychology.

Michelle Rodriguez

Mountain Heights Academy’s Michelle was nominated by her independent study teacher Gabrielle Henderson who said her student was always motivated and on task while balancing all the things going on in her personal life. Michelle said she has two older sisters she helps wherever and however she can. She plans to study microbiology before attending medical school with the goal of becoming a forensic pathologist. “I’ve always been amazed at how the human body works and I want to help families understand why loved ones are no longer here,” Michelle said. “Helping people to understand this is very important to me because of my own personal experiences.” In December of 2018, her mother was detained at a checkpoint near the Mexican border and was eventually deported back to her home country. “My mom encouraged me to keep on studying in the United States even though she knew this separation would be a great challenge to us both. This was very difficult for my dad as well for now he had to support two homes, but he was our rock.” Unfortunately, their father died in a traffic accident on Dec. 3, 2020. “Everything turned into a blur,” Michelle said. Enrolling in the online program offered through Mountain Heights Academy allowed her to continue studying at an American school while living with her mother in Mexico. “Hard work really does pay off,” she said. “I promise to use my skills to give back to society and to this community.”

Closing remarks

Zermeno asked all the honored students to stand and be applauded once more. “You all possess something that not many students out there have and that’s the ability to overcome, to thrive and to be leaders,” she told them. “You could have easily said ‘this is too much, I can’t’ but you believed in yourselves and said ‘I can.’” Hemet Unified School District Director of Secondary Education Nereyda Gonzalez said, “What I have learned from the kids today, and what I needed a reminder of, was that it doesn’t matter about your falls or bumps, it’s your response that you can control so thank you for reminding me of that.” San Jacinto Unified School District Superintendent David Pyle said to the students, “Challenges build character and the amount of character that you all have at this stage of your life is probably beyond the vast majority of the adults in this room.”

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