San Jacinto Valley students honored in November

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Diane A. Rhodes | Contributor

The Hemet/San Jacinto Student of the Month program held its most recent recognition breakfast at the Soboba Casino Resort Event Center on Nov. 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 circumstances. And they do this all in a setting that honors God, country, family, community and free enterprise. Students are nominated by teachers or other school personnel for making a difference in their homes, schools and communities.

Local 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 community 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.

November’s students of the month from Hemet Unified School District schools are Trillis Payne, Rhianna Salazar, Isaiah Suso, Rey Urtiz and Luke Wright. San Jacinto Unified’s honorees for November are Sahid Aguilar and Sunshine Alvarado.

Hemet Unified School District

Trillis Payne

West Valley High School Principal Gerardo Zavala said Trillis was chosen to be recognized for excelling at building connections and establishing meaningful relationships with his peers which has led to him being one of the most well-liked students on campus. Football head coach Brent Perez said Trillis contributes to West Valley on and off the football field. He said the senior demonstrated the power of improvement through perseverance after he had to suspend him from the football program in his junior year. After five months of no contact, Perez felt it was time to reconcile and realized that he was the same as Trillis at one point and everyone deserved the power of a fresh start. This year, Trillis became team captain, but Perez said it is not the title but the influence he has on his teammates that shows how far he has come. Trillis has been accepted to North Arizona University and will pursue his dream of becoming a judge while playing football at the Division 1 school and then attending law school. “My biggest contribution to my school is being a campus leader and helping the younger students,” Trillis said. “About two years ago, when I was a sophomore, I was a kid that teachers didn’t like. I was like a messed-up kid to everybody. That made me want to do better.” He said he learned that if you don’t make smart decisions, you can’t get smart results.

Rhianna Salazar

Tahquitz High School recognized Rhianna in November for being a humble example of what it means to overcome, persevere and embrace change and improvement in one’s life. Jeff Prickett, who teaches math, physical education and AVID and served as Rhianna’s mentor while she was a Teaching Assistant for him, said he was impressed that she had turned her life around, allowing herself to be guided by peers to stay on a solid path. Prickett said, “The life she led before was not the life she wanted to define her in the future.” Rhianna said her greatest contribution to her school is that she is an active student, playing volleyball, soccer and being on the track team and participating in AVID and ASB. She plans to major in medicine to become an anesthesiologist. “One challenge I have overcome in the past is not letting difficult challenges identify who I am,” she said. “I am someone who was misjudged because I tried to carry myself in a way that may be more mature than some of my peers. Rhianna has suffered the loss of dear family members to drugs and illness and was most upset hearing the sorrow of her mother after her grandmother passed away and knowing there was no way she could help her. “I think the most significant life lesson I can take with me going into college is that when bad things happen to not let them keep me down. I need to realize that everything is a learning and experience,” Rhianna said.

Isaiah Suso

The Western Center Academy singled out Isaiah and Executive Director Paul Bailey said he appreciated the opportunity to share the words of nominating teacher Benjamin Brandt, who was unable to attend. “He has demonstrated such amazing character that not only does every staff member highly respect him but so does every student who knows him,” Brandt wrote. Last year, the student body awarded Isaiah with the Top Gentleman of Western Center Academy. Brandt said he is always building up his classmates and has learned how to share his opinions while treating others with the dignity they deserve. His mother, Holly Suso, said, “The past 18 months have been very challenging for our household. We have had a series of unfortunate events, starting with the loss of Isaiah’s cherished fur baby.” Due to layoffs in the tech sector, Holly has been unemployed for the past nine months and that subsequently led to the family losing their home. “Through it all, I’ve watched Isaiah persevere and somehow make a way out of no way,” Holly said, adding that despite an inadequate work/study space, he has excelled in numerous AP, Honors and college courses. He has risen through the ranks of AF JROTC and has a 4.5 GPA. He recently attended Boys State to represent Hemet and the Western Center Academy. Isaiah said, “This year has been a greater test of my academic performance than all the years I’ve been alive and admittedly a greater test of my willpower.” He said after the financial hardship his family began to face, new stressors began to emerge which “made up the largest mountain I have ever needed to climb in my life.” He said it became difficult to balance the stress of home life and school life, which already had its own stressors. “But one thing worse than being trampled by hard times is your human conviction being extinguished,” Isaiah said. “I choose to keep moving forward so that one day I can tell the next kid who’s going through the same thing what the other side of the mountain looks like.”

Rey Urtiz

Hamilton High School Counselor Jason Sonnier welcomed CTE teacher Louie Vega to the podium to speak about the student he nominated for this month’s award. Vega said that during his two years in the construction program, Rey has displayed a hunger for knowledge and is always ahead on projects. He said Rey is patient and challenges other students, adding that he thinks with those attributes Rey should consider becoming a teacher. Rey said, “What I believe is the greatest thing I do for my friends and family is talk to them because communication is one thing that we all should do but we do not do enough.” He said back when he was shy and didn’t talk with others he felt as if no one cared about him so he challenged himself to just talk to everyone he could. He said that is the greatest life lesson he learned and encouraged others to communicate more. “Even if it’s just for a minute, you will make people feel like they’re appreciated,” Rey said. His future career plans are to be a megatronics engineer, which is an integration of multiple technologies to create mechatronic systems that can perform complex tasks autonomously.

Luke Wright

Hemet High School’s top choice this month is Luke and principal Jeff Franks said he is an “amazing example of how to learn to adapt and dominate.” With a 4.3 Grade Point Average, his math teacher Kristin DeWit explained how Luke recently moved here from London, England. “Besides being a knowledge seeking, outstanding math student, he is the most polite student that perhaps I have ever taught,” she said. Luke has lived in seven different countries, learning multiple languages. Luke thanked many supporters including his parents “for being my pillars of strength, embodying the values of resilience and determination to me.” He went on to say, “As a child, I had the unique opportunity to travel to various countries with each experience being very different from the last.” He said the constant moves and need to repeatedly sever and build connections left a lasting impression on him emotionally but instilled in him the importance of living in the moment. Luke said each move brought new curriculums and cultural nuances. In June, after his parents divorced, Luke moved to California with a mixture of excitement and a deep ache for the bonds he had to leave behind. “The challenges were different but the resilience I acquired from my earlier experiences became my guiding light,” he said. He was able to overcome cultural barriers and gain respect and understanding for different cultures. He is aiming to major in computer science at college with a minor in foreign language as he believes that through language “we can connect with other people on a greater level.”

San Jacinto Unified School District

Sahid Aguilar

San Jacinto High School chose to honor Sahid, a straight-A student who has earned a 4.5 GPA while taking multiple Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and MSJC dual-enrollment courses. Activities Director and San Jacinto High School alumna Danielle Powell described him by saying, “Sahid is a phenomenal student who possesses a steely determination and takes on any challenges that come his way.” She shared that he is part of the WorkAbility I Program and has paid work experience from the SJUSD IT department setting up new Chromebooks for students at district schools. Last summer he went to Sacramento as a participant in the California Youth Leadership Program sponsored by the California Department of Rehabilitation. He also tutors UCR students in math. “Sahid, you are an amazing student and we are very proud of you and your accomplishments,” Powell said before introducing Instructional Aide Lora Wood, who nominated him and has worked with him since he was in seventh grade at North Mountain Middle School. “I’ve seen him overcome quite a bit,” she said. Sahid said, “My life evidently has not been a normal one. I was born with a rare genetic condition known as Freeman-Sheldon Syndrome. Out of eight billion people on this planet, only 200 share this experience and it’s been a challenging one.

I’ve had a plethora of surgeries since birth.” He said that through it all, he has found the power to persevere and thanks God for that power. “I don’t let it get to me,” Sahid said. “I think of myself as a normal person.” After a major surgery in the summer of 2019 caused him to miss his entire eighth grade of in-person schooling, the onset of the pandemic led to a second year of isolation. “Again, through it all, I found the power to persevere and I think that’s something we all need to learn and know that things will get better,” he said. “Take me for example. My parents were told at my birth that I would never walk and 17 years later, I walked up here to give my speech today.”

Sunshine Alvarado

Mountain Heights Academy’s Sunshine was nominated by teacher Sarah Heritage, who said the outstanding senior has overcome personal struggles of depression and self-doubt. She said to her, “I always knew you could do it Sunshine and I’m glad I was able to help encourage you to see the best in yourself and realize you could do anything. I always want you to remember that the path you take is less important than the journey and your final destination.” Sunshine said she believes her greatest contribution to her family and community is how sympathetic and emotional she is. “Being compassionate is one of the biggest contributions you can give and receive. It is something I have always looked for in others,” she said. She shared a favorite quote of hers from Mother Teresa that states, “Never be so busy as not to think of others.” Sunshine said a major challenge in her life has been overcoming trauma from a young age that led to the self-doubt she continues to struggle with today, with depression being a huge part of it. This led to her being unable to attend school on a regular basis, causing her to fall behind. “The most significant life lesson I will take with me is to never give up,” Sunshine said. “I realize now there is always time to change and start over and be a better you.”

For more information, www.studentofthemonth.net.

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