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The Martin Luther King Jr. Youth Leadership Awards honors outstanding 7-12th grade students for their dedication to the beliefs of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through community service and leadership. To align with this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Week (MLK Week) theme, “Choose Love Over Hate,” students were asked to submit essays sharing their experiences, advice, or the actions they’ve taken to choose love, support, and nonviolence when encountering intolerance or hate.

The following students were nominated and selected for their attitudes and actions of social consciousness and will be honored at a celebratory event during MLK Week, January 14 – 20, 2023.

Dennise Garcia

12th Grade
Hunter High School

After surviving a school shooting, Dennise harnessed her anger into educational efforts to combat gun violence in West Valley. “She has been very passionate about helping students overcome the mental health issues that came from the shooting that impacted our school’s community last year,” said Dennise’s nominator. “From the moment Dennise knew that the shooting occurred, she has been helping the families affected by donating food for funerals and helping with the vigil.”

Dennise spent the last year working on a project detailing causes of gun violence and feasible solutions. The project was entered into a competition by Primary Children’s Hospital, where Dennise received first prize and was offered a sponsorship to implement her project. As part of her nomination, Dennise shared her award-winning presentation and an essay detailing the actions she took to educate her community on gun violence.

“I noticed that the hatred that swept our community had seeped into the homes of our community. I noticed that fear and angriness due to the shooting had found its way into people’s homes and it was beginning to spiral. The hatred in people’s homes found its way back to the school and it all felt like a cycle. [… I] decided to turn that anger into something that would benefit my community and those suffering in the cycle of gun violence.”

Kennedy Hawkins

9th Grade
Mountain Creek Middle School

“Kennedy has always been an absolute joy to be around. She is a true team player and fosters positive, diverse, equitable, and inclusive environments,” said Kennedy’s nominator. Kennedy is a 9th grader who keeps busy with school, competitive dance, and volunteer work at local homeless shelters.

As part of her nomination, Kennedy wrote about biases toward people experiencing homelessness and the actions she is taking in her community.

“My goal is to help spread kindness everywhere and I believe that if you have a voice you should use it. I am going to use mine to bring awareness of what’s happening to homeless people and how we can help. I want to bring the community together and get more people involved in helping the community as well. […] I always try to remind myself that it’s up to you if you want to choose kindness or not and how much of a difference you can make.”

Elliot Helbling

8th Grade
Nibley Park School K-8

The youngest recipient of the 2023 Martin Luther King Jr. Youth Leadership Award, Elliot “embodies the concept of choosing ‘love over hate,'” said his nominator. “I appreciate his gentle spirit in my classroom and so do his fellow students. I always know that if someone needs assistance, Elliot will jump right in to help, whether he knows them well or not.”

Eight grader Elliot wrote about his experience, providing examples of communal love, and how he spreads love through his community.

“The way I can eradicate hate in my community is to make everyone feel accepted and welcomed no matter what color, race, sexuality, weight, height, or disabilities. I will have conversations with my friends so we can give love and support in our communities. I can make sure to care for everyone and give love to everybody no matter how mad they make me feel. I will do my best to give people love and hope in this world. We as humans can show love and compassion to everyone and it might just be a bright light in someone’s dark and depressing day. We may not end hating, it will always be there but if we are all able to be the best people we can be and be loving and kind, then we can make things better.”

Ivette Hernandez

12th Grade
Cottonwood High School

With multiple honor certificates, Ivette’s dedication to academics expands to her community service as well — with regular volunteering at the Utah Food Bank and Special Needs Activity Program. “Ivette is quick to respond to action when it comes to helping the community. She has demonstrated the ability to not only dedicate time and effort to her studies, but also give of her time and effort to help organizations.”

Highlighting examples of bias and hate in her essay, Ivette shared her approach to promoting love and acceptance.

“I have decided to take the approach of service toward others within my community to promote peace. Since summer, every Thursday evenings, I volunteer to help facilitate activities for people with different abilities. I laugh, color, play, and do arts and crafts with an assigned person. I love to do this kind of service because I know this is a group that gets discriminated and bullied, but every week, I choose to show them patience, love, and acceptance.”

Katie Kim

12th Grade
West High School

Katie was nominated for her exceptional service work with marginalized and underserved communities: “Katie takes an empathic approach to her endeavors that emanates from her award-winning art pieces, and draws others to her, both socially and through her service work with marginalized members of our community. [She] is a shining example of a young person who is humble and unassuming, yet has the quiet confidence and moral compass to seize opportunities to lead, even when it’s hard.”

For her nomination essay, Katie expressed how community service can promote love over hate:

“I became interested in not only the causes and effects of social and economic inequity, but more importantly, how to minimize them by spreading love in my community through service. […] I’ve created bonds with the kids that I hope will continue to grow as the months pass. When I think back to how I felt about my culture at their age, my heart aches at the fact that I felt the need to separate myself from important parts of my identity in fear of being deemed strange by my peers. So through volunteering, I hope to teach them that music can be a way to connect with others, no matter how different they may seem on the surface. I also hope that they learn to never feel ashamed of things they cannot control, or the things that make them uniquely themselves, so that they never have to feel the way I did growing up. Differences should not be reasons for division, but instead opportunities to learn, unite, and spread love.”

Achol “Shushu” Mayar

12th Grade
Judge Memorial Catholic High School

Shushu is passionate about social justice in her community. While at Judge Memorial Catholic High School, she served as the Black Student Union’s president and co-developed an educational series on racism, White privilege, and microaggressions. “[Shushu] is able to speak in a way that is mindful, relatable, intelligent, and powerful to any group and helps people to understand her position,” said Shushu’s nominator. “When she graduates from Judge Memorial in the spring we will be losing a strong voice and model for self-advocacy.”

Shushu’s essay shared a personal story of growth into self-love — and by extension — community love.

“Within my community, we see this immense racially charged target on people of color, from people who hold hatred and ignorance in their hearts, and can’t look beyond the tones of others. […] We can promote love, by embracing our differences, educating one another, and creating solutions to problems that set each other back. That is how we can create change, but it must start within us and then with each other. It is my responsibility to promote change, and I carry it with such honor.”

Gabriella Miranda

11th Grade
Rowland Hall

Gabriella uses her strong communication skills to support her peers and community while raising awareness about critical social issues. She has worked for Planned Parenthood’s Teen Council and the Utah Attorney General’s Youth Advisory Committee. “Gabriella is a stellar student and leader, someone who takes seriously her responsibility to be a steward of her community,” said her nominator. “The leadership she demonstrates within both her school and local communities is a testament to the attitudes and actions of social consciousness — her ability to bring people together, her recognition of the power of solidarity, and her moral conviction that it is everyone’s responsibility to take action towards social change.”

Gabriella’s essay featured her perseverance when encountering hatred in advocacy work.

“I forget that anyone may have the capacity for hate, but even more that anyone has the capacity for love. Love has a greater endurance than hate. It isn’t corrosive and volatile as hatred is, though it often takes more effort to sustain. In order to enact change and remedy the issues you find in your communities, I’ve learned that you have to balance compromise without forfeiting your own principles.”

Leticia “Leti” Ocampo Duran

12th Grade
East High School

Even while serving in various East High School leadership roles — senior vice president, Keys Club vice president, Latino/a Student Union historian — Leti enthusiastically volunteers in her community and participates in the U’s TRIO Upward Bound Program. “Throughout the program, Leti has been eager to learn, attentive to our staff, and has always demonstrated a strong desire to excel in all of her work,” said her nominator. “[She] commits herself wholeheartedly to everything she does.”

In her essay, Leti recounted examples of how she promotes a sense of community in her student government and leadership roles.

“Our school hall, which was absent of love and filled with animosity, was now illuminated with hope and smiles as a direct result of our actions. When we say choosing love is a personal choice, it is one that is needed especially now. It is important that we influence others to do the same, so that there are no more fights and instead friendly gatherings.”

Anika Rao

12th Grade
West High School

As the editor-in-chief for her school paper, Anika puts a tireless level of energy and optimism into running the “best version of this paper that we have had in many years.” According to her nominator, “Anika is the kind of person who looks at things the way they could be and says, ‘why not?’ And she is the kind of person who, when she’s looking for someone to make things better, looks in the mirror.”

Anika’s essay detailed her journey as a writer and how she is incorporating empathy and love into serving her community.

“I have used writing as a platform to promote equity, inclusion, and love in my school’s community and combat discrimination, hatred, and exclusion. […] As our communities become increasingly diverse, our future depends on our willingness to look beyond arbitrary barriers and love one another. From my involvement in my school and communities, I have developed the belief that creating personal connections is vital in our willingness to choose love over hate. Through a career in journalism, I hope to continue promoting inclusion to alleviate our society of the burdens of hatred and discrimination.”

Connor Ugaki Greally

10th Grade
Waterford School

Connor is a model student with as many honors as he has interests; he is a taekwondo state champion, National Spelling Bee participant, varsity Science Olympiad bridge-building competition winner, principal bassist for the Utah Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, and national ambassador for the Interlochen Arts Camp Program. “What impresses me much more than Connor’s titles and accolades is his tenacity, courage, and kindness,” said Connor’s nominator. “Connor has a genuinely compassionate heart, and he displays a rare gift of being able to see a social need and find a concrete way to address it.”

Connor co-founded and teaches at Park City Ninja Kids, an after-school taekwondo program for underserved children, which has received over $25,000 in grants from nearly a dozen community organizations. In his essay, Connor relayed a personal experience on something he learned about kindness:

“My experience with Ninja Kids made me realize that I could make a significant positive impact in the lives of others even through small acts of kindness. I used to think that unless I did something ‘really big,’ it would not be important. However, I have come to realize that even a small act of kindness or love – inviting someone to join a game at lunch or holding a door open for someone – can often be the difference between another person having a good day or a bad day.”

Annabella Vasquez Leon

9th Grade
Bryce Valley High School

Annabella is a leader in her community. She serves as freshman class president, actively participates in Bryce Valley’s student council, and acts as a liaison for her classmates. “Annabella is very willing to assist the entire school community in creating an inviting and inclusive environment. She does so with a maturity beyond her years, and it is quite evident that she has a global perspective that reaches beyond our very small community,” said her nominator. “I admire her ability to look forward, knowing that the decisions and efforts she makes now will give her the bright future she desires.”

As part of her nomination, Annabella wrote about witnessing bias in her community and expressed her drive to exhibit inclusion and acceptance.

“I wish parents would look and be okay with their children being able to share a classroom with somebody of color. I wish instead of the color of skin being seen and recognized by parents, this world would see each other for our different temperaments, talents, and conviction instead of color of skin.

“Martin Luther King Jr’s dream of all kids being able to hold hands has come to fruition however, we have not yet come to a point in society where judgment is not spread based on an individual’s skin color. But till then I will do my best to hold people accountable, and try to educate them on the severity of their comments. A way I could promote love is to be an example to my peers and show kindness to all regardless of their skin color.”

Adrian Zuniga

12th Grade
East High School

While academically excelling as an East High School senior, Adrian actively participates in the TRIO Upward Bound Program at the University of Utah. “Adrian has always sought out love and compassion over hate and exclusion,” said his nominator. “He innately creates spaces where all feel welcome, it is simply who he is, and I know he will be a great asset to our campus community and beyond.”

In his essay, Adrian wrote about his experience with bullying and his desire to use kindness to counter acts of hate.

“Choosing to do something kind and making someone smile is something we all should strive to do. I have learned that acts of kindness often do not need to be extravagant like buying an expensive gift; rather they can be something small like complimenting someone in class who is having a hard day or offering a hug to comfort them. It is easy to spread love, happiness, and positive energy all around, but it is just as easy to pull someone down and make their day worse thinking it will make you feel better. One of my goals is to create change by advancing STEM to underrepresented communities like my own, so nerds of color like myself are treated with more kindness and acceptance.”

Experiences  Identity  Social Justice  Spotlight