The Gazette's Best & Brightest award marks 30th anniversary with 20 winners in the class of 2021Updated
The 20 graduating high school seniors who win the Best & Brightest scholarship are different each year, but their accomplishments have been consistently stellar for three decades.
Since the annual community recognition program began 30 years ago, The Gazette’s Best & Brightest award has drawn the best of the best.
More than 100 students applied for this year’s award, sponsored by The Gazette Charities Foundation and the ARDI Foundation, which, in support of academic excellence, provides endowed academic chairs at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Outstanding academic achievements and contributions to the community are among the criteria 20 prominently community leaders looked for in judging the 2021 applicants.
Winners receive $500 and individual profiles in The Gazette detailing their successes. Profiles will be published beginning on Monday.
Many previous recipients have gone on to realize personal, professional and civic triumphs.
This year’s winners are:
• Aadi Nashikkar, The Colorado Springs School
• Abraham “Brima” Kamara, William J. Palmer High School
• Atharva Vispute, Rampart High School
• Brooke Heinicke, Cheyenne Mountain High School
• Gisselle Zamora Ruelas, Harrison High School
• Henry W. Taylor, Lewis-Palmer High School
• Jace Leimkuhl, Mesa Ridge High School
• Jack O’Neil, The Village High School
• Jevon McKinney, Widefield High School
• Joselyne Cimpaye, Harrison High School
• Karah Harris, Vista Ridge High School
• Kathryn Kummel, William J. Palmer High School
• Lauren Shrack, Pine Creek High School
• Lena Olsen, Pine Creek High School
• My Linh Bui, Coronado High School
• Oliver Nguyen-Lopez, Rampart High School
• Rachel Suter, Pine Creek High School
• Sierra Dooley, Manitou Springs High School
• Tiia Shea, Discovery Canyon Campus High School
• Vrushali Patel, Discovery Canyon Campus High School
Honorable Mentions went to:
• Alden Kruse, home school
• Caleb Boutelle, Pine Creek High School
• Lindsay Baker, Pine Creek High School
• Ritarka Samanta, Cheyenne Mountain High School
• Sara Conroy, Pine Creek High School
• Sydney Jones, Rampart High School
• Gabriella “Gabby” Ward, Palmer Ridge High School
• Kimberly Jones, Rampart High School
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: Athlete uses disability to competeUpdated
Jack O’Neil has flipped his disability on its head and turned it into an ability.
“Much of what I do every day is geared towards lifting up my community of disabled athletes and fighting for equality,” the soon-to-be Village High School graduate said.
As an amputee who has been involved with sports his entire childhood, O’Neil considers himself fortunate to be a part of that community.
At the young age of 9, O’Neil had to make a grownup decision: whether to allow doctors to amputate his left leg above the knee. After numerous operations to try to correct genetic defects, they had run out of surgical options.
O’Neil and his family were optimistic that he’d be able to walk, ride a bike and run while wearing a prosthetic leg. But an infection caused severe pain and led to a poor recovery.
“After months of trying different things for my prosthetic, we started to think that I would never walk again and I would live my life on crutches or in a wheelchair,” O’Neil said.
Luckily, he found he could still swim, which he had started to do competitively at age 7.
The water became a safe place where he could escape reality, frolic with friends and forget for a while his crushing problems.
“My daily swims and time with teammates were exactly what I needed to reset physically and emotionally, and remind myself that things would get better,” O’Neil said. “It’s what saved me from losing hope.”
On most teams, O’Neil has been the only athlete with a disability, yet he’s always trained and competed alongside able-bodied teammates — “which is exactly what I’ve always wanted,” he said.
But not everyone thinks that youth sports teams should allow athletes with disabilities, including O’Neil’s first swim coach, who told his parents he “didn’t belong” on his team.
O’Neil’s parents didn’t agree.
Since that confrontation, O’Neil has advocated for inclusion of youth athletes with disabilities, pushing boundaries and making progress.
He speaks publicly on the issue and personally educates coaches, teammates, competitors, race directors, officials and spectators.
“I feel that I have a responsibility to ensure that the opportunities I have had remain available for future generations of youth athletes with disabilities,” O’Neil said.
A turning point in O’Neil’s life came five months after the amputation, when he met Melissa Stockwell, a decorated Army veteran who lost her leg while serving in the military.
Since becoming an amputee, Stockwell has competed in triathlons and represented Team USA, winning a bronze medal in the Rio Paralympics.
Stockwell watched O’Neil swim and told him that he had what it took to reach the highest level of sports.
She invited him to a triathlon camp, where he met a prosthetist, who was able to make a prosthetic that was comfortable and eventually helped O’Neil run — for the first time.
“Overcoming the hurdles after my amputation has taught me that things can always get better, if you focus on the positive things that you can control and reach out to others for support and encouragement,” he said.
As a senior member of the Pikes Peak Athletics swim team, O’Neil inspires everyone, said Kelsey Floyd, his coach of five years and a manager with Team USA Swimming.
“He has a steadfast work ethic that really sets the tone for the team and creates an environment where the expectation is to give nothing less than your best every day,” Floyd said in a nomination letter for the Best and Brightest award.
O’Neil will attend the University of Wyoming’s Honor College, where he will focus on journalism and disability studies. He’s also secured a spot on the school’s Division I swim team, which Floyd said is a significant accomplishment for anyone and an “historical accomplishment” for an athlete with a disability.
His ultimate goal is to become a Team USA paralympic athlete.
“The impact of Jack’s future college career is unknown, but certainly he is trailblazing a path for other athletes with disabilities in the collegiate world of sport,” Floyd said.
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: AI developer an emerging leaderUpdated
Aadi Nashikkar, a Colorado Knowledge Bowl state champion, a Stanford University-bound young man and a Colorado Springs School senior with a 4.499 grade-point average, lost his name sometime during the eighth grade.
In Sanskrit, Aadi means “beginning.” When Nashikkar first ran for student government in eighth grade, he was quite unenthusiastic about his first name, because it seemed nearly everyone had their own pronunciation for it.
“I never corrected anyone,” Nashikkar said. “It was easier to fit in if I let people take my name and mold it to their liking. I was no longer saying even my own name correctly.”
When he recounted his disappointment about losing his first election, Nashikkar’s mother, Kshama Belsare, stopped him and asked him what he had just called himself. Nashikkar pronounced his name wrong. His mother set him straight.
“Having ignored the pronunciation of my name for so long,” Nashikkar said, “I had played into my own whitewashing. When I confidently embraced my name, my leadership improved. I could fight for others because I was fighting for myself.”
Nashikkar became treasurer in 10th grade and went on to be elected student government president two years in a row. When members of student government questioned the necessity of a mental health initiative, Nashikkar defended the measure, reminding them that there were people who were unable to stand up for themselves.
Nashikkar’s commitment to standing up for those without a voice became the founding principle of his organization, All in AI. Inspired by his own experience struggling to find artificial-intelligence resources designed for high schoolers, Nashikkar developed his own curriculum to teach absolute beginners how to code.
“The goal is to inspire students,” Nashikkar said, “especially those from underrepresented groups to consider futures in AI."
The former student is now teaching AI at his former high school. “I am continuing what my mom did for me so many years ago, and my students will continue after me,” he says proudly.
Nashikkar is adamant that his organization All in AI will not cease to exist while he is in college. He believes it is vital that those creating technology that diverse groups of people will be using should also themselves be diverse.
“If we use peer-to-peer education to propagate AI at the high school level,” Nashikkar said, “we generate a new generation of diverse AI developers and professionals. Statistics say that groups like students in underserved areas and minorities won’t have their voices heard at tech companies, discouraged by various social and economic obstacles.”
In addition to his work with All in AI, Nashikkar has been involved in Model United Nations, Matchwits and Academic World Quest. He was a state finalist in Colorado’s National History Day competition, creating a documentary about the Bangladeshi genocide. As a part of the documentary, Nashikkar interviewed a survivor of a Pakistani internment camp.
“We cannot separate ourselves from our history, especially when terrible tragedies like this are so recent, and still happening today, Nashikkar said. “It makes you feel that you must take action to right injustices that you are aware of.”
David Benson, history department chair at the Colorado Springs School, calls Nashikkar one of the “most passionate, dedicated and brilliant scholars and young leaders I have had the pleasure of working with in my 25 years of teaching.”
Benson said that Nashikkar is trusted and respected by his peers and teachers and in addition to his rigorous academic schedule and All in AI work, he’s also taken on the responsibility of helping ninth-graders adapt to the stresses and challenges of COVID-19.
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: Dark moments motivate aspiring doctorUpdated
Taekwondo, painting and science don’t seem like complementary endeavors.
But they are for Vrushali Patel, a Discovery Canyon High School senior who finds inspiration and purpose in the intricacies of each.
“I pay attention to details and form — brush strokes, competitive kicks, clarifying experiments.”
She was first attracted to painting as a child in India, where every Sunday she rode her bike to art class. “I drew pictures of my dad working on his laptop or flowers in our garden.”
Recently her brush strokes helped feed the hungry. Her paintings were auctioned at a fundraiser where her father works. The proceeds benefited Care and Share.
But using her art that way was scary, she said. She had to get over the idea that people would not like her or want something done by a teenager.
Many of her acrylic paintings depict Colorado mountains or religious deities from her native India. Over time, she figures her $2,000 in donations translated into 17,000 meals.
Like creating brush strokes on an empty canvas, she says, she has worked hard to create her competitive attacks in Taekwondo. Describing how she competed in a state championship, she wrote, “My heart pounded, my legs were trembling, my hands were sweating in my gloves, I was drowning in thoughts of a gold medal.” She added, “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated. She kicked very strong and very fast.”
Patel held her own during the match, concentrating on intricate scoring strategies and vanquishing negative thoughts. She led 3 to 1 with 27 seconds left. But another powerful kick by her opponent to her abdomen threw her to the floor.
She lost the gold medal and felt “dark clouds of sadness.” But on reflection she realized the loss could not cover up all the hard work she had done to get to that point of winning the second place silver medal.
It was another dark moment that propelled her to choose medicine as a career. As a child, she read over and over a book that had topics like what happens when you hiccup and how ears help your balance. She played with doctor toy sets, and later in high school, dissected frogs and found “the depths of the human body intriguing.”
Her counselor, Mitchell Burke, a biomedical science instructor, said that she is one of the most exceptional and motivated students he has taught in 21 years.
He noted she is adept at skills that most don’t know much about, if anything, such as restriction enzyme digest, multiplex polymerase chain reaction and bacterial formation. She is an expert in the use of a compound light microscope, thermal cycler technique and DNA extraction, and expertly designs experiments and analyzes scientific data.
It was two years ago that her career decision was cemented. She and her family were visiting her grandfather in India when he got deathly sick. “When we got to the hospital, I wanted to be with him. I felt trapped in the cage of the waiting room.” Sometime after midnight, she said, “It hit me. We had to trust the doctor. Doctors are our hope.”
Her grandfather recovered. But the incident did not leave her. She pondered how not everyone has access to health care.
“The need to be healed is universal.”
She also sees how medicine must be much more than just the science.
”I want to be the doctor who cares. One who understands. One who reassures. One who heals.”
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: A love of learning and helping othersUpdated
Even at a young age, Viet Nam native My Linh Bui dreamed of learning about the world, and of other cultures and customs.
My Linh got her wish. By age 6, she was adopted and brought to the United States where a fourth-grade teacher taught the child to read, cultivating a passion for education and teaching. Because of the teacher’s willingness to work with My Linh, the youngster quickly grew to love learning and everything associated with education.
In fact, My Linh believed so strongly in the U.S. education system that she became a math tutor in her freshman year. She is grateful to have studied and taught in a country where a quality education is available to everyone.
“Education should be enjoyable and a place of discovery where children are passionate about learning. This belief led me to become a math tutor…,” the 18-year-old Coronado High School senior said of her selection as one of Colorado Springs’ Best and Brightest Students for 2020.
“I believe every student has the potential to learn and understand, but you must be willing to give them the opportunity. These students needed someone to believe in them and I wanted to be that for them.”
Guardian Lila Rioth encouraged My Linh to pursue her academic and extra-curricular ambitions. From 2017-2020 she tutored struggling math students and served as president of the CHS Environmental Club.
From 2018 to the present, she served with the National Honor Society, and from 2019 to the present earned a CHS academic letter with pin. From 2020 to the present she participated in the French National Honors Society, and in 2021 participated in the Art National Honors Society.
In 2020 she participated in the National Society of High School Scholars, and from 2020 to 2021 was named a QuestBridge National Scholar. Despite her many extra-curricular activities, My Linh managed to maintain a 3.98 cumulative GPA.
Despite her many academic achievements, My Linh also faced social challenges, especially when seeking to fit in with her peer group. Bullied and unaccepted by other students because of her Vietnamese heritage, My Linh for a time worked to disguise her heritage until a visit to her native homeland during the summer of her freshman year taught her to be proud of who she is.
“I am growing and realizing that everything that happens shapes us, and that we can blame our past for the way we are, or grow from it,” said My Linh who plans to attend Colorado College following graduation.
In a letter of recommendation, math teacher Paul Kaufer praised My Linh for her dedication in helping others. “(She) has a servant’s heart, and her desire to assist other people is something I wish more teenagers had. (She) truly cares about helping less fortunate people and getting involved in the community,” Kaufer wrote.
My Linh thanked Counselor Diane Summers for her guidance. “I would have not succeeded without her. She was my number one cheerleader for all my achievements and was there for me during tough times. If there were a Best Counselor in the World Award, it would definitely go to her,” My Linh said.
My Linh sees her selection as a Best and Brightest honoree, as a reflection of everyone who supported her during her journey to where she is today, she said. “This recognition matters to me because I get to show others, like me, that where you begin does not define who you can become. I hope to someday impact children as I was once impacted by having a great teacher,” My Linh said.
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: Taking a leadership role in constructionUpdated
Not everyone needs to go to college to figure out what career would make them happy and fulfilled.
Jace Leimkuhl knew from an early age that he loved working with his hands and building things – and, like his dad, was good at it.
Now that he’s older, Leimkuhl still enjoys picking up a hammer and building, say, a house as a school project, but he’s also realized something else.
“I have learned most trade companies are struggling to find good workers because not many people are working in the trade industry,” he said.
Though Leimkuhl always had an inkling he wanted to work in construction, it wasn’t until he got involved with the Manufacturing Industry Learning Lab -- a vocational education campus operated by Widefield School District 3 and Peyton School District 23-JT -- that he decided project management was what he really wanted to pursue.
Teachers recognized Leimkuhl’s talent and put him in charge of class projects, including the current 1,200-square-foot house MILL students are building.
“Once I started to take these leadership roles, I learned that I really love to see a project go from nothing all the way through to completion,” he said.
Leimkuhl said he feels proud of what students accomplish and relishes the responsibility of overseeing jobs and making sure everything is executed properly and in a timely manner.
“In a construction project management career, I’ll be able to help build the community I grew up in,” said Leimkuhl, whose father, Jason Leimkuhl is a community leader in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system industry.
For his hard work, interest and dedication – like going to the vocational campus on a surprise snow day to shovel and keep the under-construction house from being ruined -- Jace Leimkuhl has become a spokesperson for the MILL.
The vocational training ground uses industry professionals and curriculum from the Home Builders Institute to train high school and college students and military in construction trades. There’s also a woodworking program.
Throughout high school, Leimkuhl has served as the MILL Skills USA Chapter President for Widefield School District 3.
Being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 4 also presented personal adversity, as he had to learn how to monitor his health and become responsible for keeping his blood glucose levels in check.
Spending the night at a friend’s house, participating in sports and eating snacks all were a challenge. But Leimkuhl said he has mastered managing the disease.
“I now accept that it is just a part of life and know that I can control it,” he said, “instead of it having control over me.”
In 2019, Leimkuhl won the state championship in the Skills USA Plumbing competition.
Leimkuhl is the MILL’s top construction student, said Widefield D-3 Superintendent Scott Campbell.
During all four years at Mesa Ridge High, Leimkuhl has taken construction classes at the MILL, while also enrolling in advanced placement classes in core academic subjects -- and excelling, Campbell said in his recommendation letter for the Best & Brightest award.
“Jace is unselfish, not driven by greed or his own advancement,” the superintendent said. “He is simply a person with tremendous character and integrity that not only leads the way to our future but ensures he brings others along as well.”
Leimlkuhl said he hopes someday to return to the MILL as an industry professional and “give back to the program that helped me get to where I am today.”
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: Volunteerism teaches student value of community serviceUpdated
If she gets her way, Karah Harris will bring communities together through both volunteerism and professionalism.
“Serving my community is one of my greatest passions… Dedication to volunteer work throughout high school has taught me valuable lessons about the internal value that can stem from helping others who aren’t as fortunate,” said Karah who has been selected as one of Colorado Springs’ Best and Brightest students for 2020.
The daughter of Dierdre Dias, the Vista Ridge High School senior, 18, is honored to be selected for this recognition because it proves her hard work is finally paying off, she said.
“The opportunity to be selected as a Best and Brightest scholar means that, despite all the hardships I have dealt with in and out of school, I have developed tenacity and character that sets me apart from my peers; making me extremely grateful for all the trials I have experienced throughout high school,” Karah said.
In addition to completing more than 200 hours of community service, Karah was active in numerous extra-curricular activities. Each year from 2017-2021, Karah was an Air Force Junior Reserve Officer's Training Corps Academic Letter and Academic Ribbon recipient, and in May 2018 received an AFJROTC American Veterans Award.
In May 2019, she earned an AFJROTC Celebrate Freedom Foundation Award, and in May 2020 was presented with an AFJROTC United States Daughters of 1812 Award.
Since 2017, Karah has worked several jobs all while maintaining a cumulative 4.36 GPA. From 2017 to 2019, she served as a food and services champion at Taco Bell, and from 2019 to 2020 served as a hostess at Till Kitchen. Presently, she is a stylist at Maurice’s, where she assists customers, processes freight and maintains loyalty program standards.
Karah in December endured a major hardship when she learned that alcoholism claimed her dad’s life. Despite his death, Karah pressed forward to fulfill the dream her dad had for her.
“The relationship I had with my dad was strained the last few years of his life because of custody issues, a toxic marriage and addiction. While acknowledging my need for grief, I did not let the loss of my dad hinder me from achieving what I knew he believed I could accomplish,” Karah said.
Following graduation, Karah will attend the University of South Carolina in Columbia to study biochemistry and molecular biology on the pre-medicine track. She is seeking a career as an infectious disease doctor and a commission as an Army Medical Corps officer.
Retired Air Force Col. Jon Ullmann, who is a senior aerospace science instructor at VRHS, described Karah as an involved woman whose life centers around community service whether tutoring students or participating in local events.
“In the community, Karah is involved in many service activities to include persistent tutoring of middle/high school students, Salvation Army Bell ringing, Care and Share Food Bank of Colorado and many other community events. I would eagerly welcome her into any organization of which I am a part,” Ullman said.
Karah thanked her mom for her support and sacrifices so she could pursue her dream. She also thanked her stepfather, Joey, for stepping in to be her dad when she needed a consistent father figure and for always supporting her goals.
“Finally, I would like to thank my dad for always supporting me from a distance and inspiring me to use my talents to become the best person I can be,” Karah said.
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: Overcoming obstacles provides inspirationUpdated
Tiia Shea was saddened to see homeless people wandering downtown streets. Wanting to do something, to help, she used money from her part-time restaurant job to buy toothpaste, toothbrushes, lotion, soap and other hygiene products to distribute. She was a bit frightened of approaching the strangers when she started her giveaway program. But she had no unpleasant encounters. “They were all grateful and nice,” she said.
It was thoughts of that experience that helped her deal with the aftermath of the international debate competition last year.
Shea and three students from other area schools had been chosen to compete as a team in the National Speech and Debate Association’s World Schools Debate championship.
They endured endless hours of research, case writing, analysis, and practice. “We were exhausted but wanted to win, and had high hopes,” she said.
Shea has always had intense motivation that inspires others, her forensics coach Jeremy Beckman said. “She helps others become the best version of themselves”
Because of her leadership skills she was chosen the first ever sophomore to be associate student coach at Discovery Canyon High School, a post she has held three years, he noted. She was also named an Academic All American for Speech and Debate her junior year, based on performance, community service and leadership.
She used her skills to teach debate camp online to raise donations for Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp that helps underprivileged children.
The NSDA world competition was on Zoom because of the pandemic. In many ways it was even more intense because online competition tends to water down intricate facial expressions and nuanced voices.
Her team was one of only four to go undefeated in preliminary rounds, and eventually became one of 16 teams in the finals. The final topic was daunting: “Should former colonial powers remove all restrictions on immigration for citizens from their former colonies?” The topic was one of a dozen that they had studied, tackling both sides of those arguments.
They came in 9th place out of 160 teams that had competed in the tournament. Shea was named one of top 50 individual speakers out of 700 competitors.
Coach Beckman noted that Shea had turned the team into a “well-oiled machine that went against schools with means well beyond ours to be ninth in the world.”
But Shea was at first shattered. “I’d never felt so defeated. There were so many arguments I could have stated better.”
But after self-criticism, came reflection. It brought to mind her homeless service project. She took inspiration remembering a woman she had met who was unemployed, lived in her car, but was optimistically job hunting. “She had hope that she would eventually overcome obstacles.”
Shea said, “The defeat was not the end of what we could do. We keep going. It’s only one obstacle of many I expect to face in life.”
She has seen how such perseverance pays off. They qualified for the national tournament again this year. She was chosen First Team All State by the National coaches to represent Southern Colorado on the World Schools Debate Team.
She may become a math teacher someday. It’s a subject, she said, where one works through obstacles one step at a time, just like in life.
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: Early challenges motivate student's activismUpdated
Gisselle Zamora Ruelas describes the night her mother left on a bus for Mexico as a dreadful, drizzling experience.
“The person who pushed me toward becoming a better version of myself was going to be miles away for a period of at least three months,” Zamora Ruelas said. “As a second grader, it broke my heart.”
During the months it took for her mother to acquire legal residency, Zamora Ruelas said she used the time to develop herself and to learn to be strong so her mother would be proud of her. She mastered flipping eggs, perfecting ponytails and, moreover, found the strength and the willpower that Zamora Ruelas said, “would influence me forever.”
While Zamora Ruelas’ challenges today are perhaps comparatively more difficult – such as her dual enrollment courses, volunteering, running cross country and organizing events for her school’s Dreamer’s Club -- Zamora Ruelas said she stays centered on the lessons she learned when her mother was gone: family, self-learning and self-motivation.
Ranked first in her class with a GPA of 4.625, Zamora Ruelas has been selected as a Gates scholar and Greenhouse scholar and will attend either Colorado College, Northeastern University or New York University in the fall.
Zamora Ruelas says both she and her mother have experienced doctors undermining their mental health concerns. These experiences have propelled her toward establishing ambitious goals for her future. She plans to establish a mental health business that integrates cultural norms into patients’ treatments.
In Mexican culture ‘machismo’, Zamora Ruelas said, is one such norm that has a profound impact on mental health for Latinx males.
“Men are taught not to cry and to be emotionless, which can detrimentally impact their mental health,” she says. “When I and other Latinas attempt to communicate with our fathers/brothers, we are left with a desire for heartfelt conversation.
“My goal is to help bridge access between people and their aspiring goals/futures,” Zamora Ruelas adds.
To that end, she has connected with Aspen Pointe and other mental health facilities to learn how to make her business affordable, and therefore a valuable resource for underprivileged communities.
In the eighth grade, Zamora Ruelas began participating in Peak Education and was described by Program Director Vennita Browning as a “quiet student who wanted to leave Colorado Springs because she did not see any opportunities to achieve her goals or make an impact.”
In her first years of high school, Zamora Ruelas said she felt deeply the lack of opportunity as a Latina and as an aspiring change maker. But her perspective soon changed when she discovered the Leadership Pikes Peak program where students were taken on several trips to learn more about the region of Colorado.
“I came to appreciate the potential that Colorado Springs has,” Zamora Ruelas said. “While I still plan to study outside of Colorado, I want to give back to this community and help it reach its full potential because it is filled with aspiring projects.”
Zamora Ruelas has already been giving back through her extensive volunteerism and extracurricular activities. She’s passionate about increasing cultural and identity awareness, and to that end, she has formed a Dreamer’s and Pride Club which aims to educate the community. Zamora Ruelas’ Stepping Out of the Shadows event provided a platform for students and staff to share stories about the issues faced by immigrant and LGBTQ+ communities.
Browning applauded the fact that rather than simply going on her own journey of self-discovery and acceptance of her dual-heritage, Zamora Ruelas has motivated others to do the same.
“As she learned more about social justice, Zamora Ruelas didn’t hoard the knowledge,” Browning said, “but sought to educate others by informally teaching her peers about micro-aggressions. What we appreciate most about Zamora Ruelas is her ability to self-reflect and then immediately take action to become better. This is a rare quality for most young people and adults.”
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: Academic excellence merged with civic engagementUpdated
As a high school math tutor, Kathryn Kummel taught students to appreciate the beauty and practicality of mathematics in all facets of life.
“Math skills are often used as a cutoff point for academic, career and economic opportunities. Students can be denied because the math education system failed to serve them well,” Kathryn said. “I often work with students on two practical fronts: I help them catch up on assignments, and find and fill in gaps in their foundational math knowledge.”
Because of her dedication to community services excellence, the William J. Palmer High School senior is a 2020 Colorado Springs’ Best and Brightest Students recipient. Kathryn believes tutors are mentors that serve to remind others that success in math is attainable.
“This is the true spirit of civic engagement – to help someone and in helping them set them on a path to a better future – and is something I plan to carry into college through engagement in the college tutoring center or in volunteering at local high schools,” Kathryn said.
Kathryn’s lengthy achievements list read like a novel. Some of her more notable accomplishments include capturing second place honors in the May 2018 INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair American Geoscience Institute Special Award competition.
In April 2019 she secured second place honors Colorado Science and Engineering Fair Senior Division Plant Sciences competition, and in October was guest speaker at the Denver Posse of Westerners.
In February 2020, Kathryn earned first place in the senior division for Environmental Sciences in the Pikes Peak Regional Science Fair, and in February 2021 took first place in Senior Energy, Engineering and Physics at the Pikes Peak Regional Science and Engineering Fair. And, she accomplished this while going on to earn a cumulative 4.7641 GPA.
Kathryn has faced many challenges, particularly when it came to her tri-cultural background. She has lived in the U.S., but her dad is Czechia, and her mother Chinese, which has made her background difficult for students to accept.
“I gathered the courage to speak to the teacher and came away with the realization I could make a difference if I spoke up against injustices,” Kathryn said.
Climate change in the urban area is important to Kathryn. Her school is located in the middle of downtown Colorado Springs, an area affected by the urban heat island. As a result, elevated temperatures in the urban environment is felt each August as students return to school, she said.
“I conducted a Science Fair research project on UHI and found evidence of environmental racism in my city where minority and low-income neighborhoods feel the effects of UHI, leading to lower quality of life and heat-delated deaths,” Kathryn said.
“I proposed potential mitigation strategies that utilize surface hat fluxes to shed excess energy and I am working on publishing this paper.”
Following graduation Kathryn plans to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue forest ecology and atmospheric science with the aim of addressing the climate in urban and wilderness environments through science.
Kathryn thanked her parents and teachers for their support, and her 10th and 11th grade chemistry teacher for supporting her science fair involvement.
In a letter of recommendation, Jeremy Joiner, math teacher and theory of knowledge instructor at WJPHS said Kathryn is among the most exceptional students he has encountered during his teaching career.
“Her intellectual aptitude, problem-solving skills dedication to helping others and academic perseverance will ensure her success as a leader among the very best students in our community,” Joiner said.
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: Brushes with death inspire achievementUpdated
One day when Oliver Nguyen-Lopez was about six months old, he stopped breathing. His frantic parents administered CPR until the ambulance arrived.
The medical emergency was caused by an allergic reaction to the whooping cough vaccination, which most babies tolerate. He stopped breathing on three more Bruoccasions during the next six weeks, pulling through because of his parents’ quick action and hospital care.
“I didn’t emerge unscathed,” he says. “Because of that lack of oxygen to my brain I learned new things slower and with more difficulty compared to my old self and others.“
In school he compensated by focusing intensely on tasks and working extra hard. New tasks took longer to learn, but he challenged himself and never made excuses, he said.
His academic record has been exemplary, and school counselor Delcine DelMonica lauds him for his discipline, leadership, creativity, and ability to inspire others.
Nguyen-Lopez says knowing he almost died has formed his positive attitude. “I want to embrace each day as as opportunity to make a difference in the world.”
His tenacity paid off for others in the community. After getting his driver’s permit, he felt that the street intersection at Lexington and Briargate which he passed every day seemed dangerous. It had no left turn signal. It was near a school, and the light was on a hill where it was difficult to see oncoming traffic.
He researched how getting a light could come about. He wrote letters to the city, collected petitions from area neighbors and spoke before the City Council. The city turned the request down.
“I didn’t accept the answer.” He kept at it, corresponding with his councilman and the traffic department, asking for a new study of the intersection. (There had been a study years before when traffic was lighter.)
The left turn lane was eventually installed. “I was so happy to make the neighborhood safe. It showed me what persistence can do, and that one person can make a difference in the world.”
One of his most satisfying efforts the past four years has been helping troubled teens as a volunteer with Colorado Springs Teen Court. The non-profit restorative justice program provides alternative sentencing options for certain offenders charged with fist-time misdemeanor offenses.
A trial is held before an actual judge, and a panel of the offender’s teen peers, including former defendants deliberate consequences. Nguyen-Lopez has served as a panelist, and foreperson to lead discussions. He passed an exam to become a “first year attorney” where he argues the case like an actual attorney would. The goal is to come up with creative options to promote self-esteem and promote positive life choices for the juveniles. Part of the process is making restitution where possible.
Nguyen-Lopez likes the role of defense attorney rather than prosecutor. “Some people view them as lost causes, but they have had difficult situations or made mistakes. We help them target specific problems and provide solutions to help them change.” Recidivism of former Teen Court defendants is only seven percent.
He notes that the Teen Court program has helped him learn more about himself. “They teach me much more. I’m exposed to a variety of backgrounds and experiences and from that I can learn from their mistakes and gain in appreciation of my own background.” He was named the Teen Court volunteer of the year last year.
Nguyen-Lopez recently served on a school committee to create mental health tips for students stressed by the pandemic.
He is working on his Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification so he can work in that field this summer before college.
He plans to go to medical school, and eventually work in underserved communities. “Healthcare workers and my parents saved my life and I want to pay it forward by helping save others.”
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: Harrison High School senior plans a career in geriatricsUpdated
When Joselyne Cimpaye helped care for her ailing grandmother, with the knowledge that it wouldn’t be long before her loved one would pass away, it occasionally made her sad.
But as she cooked, did household chores, and kept her grandmother company, she felt the sadness being replaced by an entirely different feeling.
“I really enjoyed taking care of her,” said Cimpaye, a senior at Harrison High School. “Cooking for her, cleaning, and just being with her toward the end, was a comfort to both of us. So I decided I would try to find a career in that field.”
When Cimpaye took a job at Sunny Vista, an assisted-living facility in Colorado Springs, she became even more convinced that she had found her life’s work in the geriatrics field.
“Being able to help people in their last moments is a blessing,” she said. “It gives me a sense that I’m doing something impactful.”
Born in Tanzania to a Rwandan mother and Burundian father, Cimpaye and her family emigrated to the U.S. when she was four years old. The family’s pursuit of the “American dream” soon suffered a setback when her parents divorced, leaving Cimpaye with increased responsibilities.
Because her mother speaks no English, Cimpaye has often had to serve as the family’s translator. She briefly considered a career as a language interpreter before finding her calling.
Despite her added responsibilities, Cimpaye has blossomed into an outstanding student. She has maintained a grade point average of more than 4.0, is a member of the National Honor Society. Because she obtained all the necessary credits by the end of her junior year, she has been getting a jump on college; she will finish her high school career with an Honors high school diploma and an Associate’s Degree from Pikes Peak Community College.
“I thought it was important to get a lot of the prerequisites out of the way so I can go straight into a nursing program,” she said.
In addition to handling a course load filled with challenging classes and holding down her job at Sunny Vista, Cimpaye has served in her school’s Leadership Class and Student Council.
Cimpaye admits to having an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. In her quest to learn as much as she can about the health care profession, she has obtained her Certified Nursing Assistant certification and has shadowed doctors and nurses at Memorial Hospital.
“I learned a lot there,” she said. “But in hospitals, they do mostly short-term care; you don’t really build a connection with the patients, which is what I prefer.”
Cimpaye’s drive and determination has not gone unnoticed.
“Joselyne’s level of commitment and work ethic is far beyond what I have witnessed in other high school students,” said Angela Wright, Cimpaye’s mentor at the Elevated college prep program. “Joselyne fully embodies the spirit of scholar and leader in her school and her community.”
Cimpaye is currently weighing her college options; she has been accepted to Regis University, University of Denver and University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Wherever she decides to attend, she is confident that her work ethic will help her succeed.
“No matter what your background is, with hard work, goals and aspirations, anything is achievable,” she said.
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: Future veterinarian wants to be the bridge between people and petsUpdated
Animal-lover Lena Olson believes veterinarians are the bridge between people and pets and she wants to be that bridge.
“Veterinarians are the essential link between people and the power of animals to improve life. I know I am meant to combine my intellect, intense love of animals and my deep connection with people to better the world through veterinary medicine,” said Lena whose can-do spirit secured her recognition as one of Colorado Springs’ Best and Brightest Students.
“Being selected for this recognition is such an incredible honor. I have worked so hard my entire life through an endless number of obstacles, and it is hugely validating to be recognized in this way.”
The daughter of Jim and Karla Olson, the Pine Creek High School senior’s academic and achievements record speaks of her passion for involvement. From 2018 to 2021 she served as president of Pine Creek Sources of Strength, and she earned an Activity Letter in Sources of Strength
Each year from 2019-2021 served on the Academy School District 20 Superintendent Student Advisory Council. From 2020 to 2021 she served as president of Pine Creek Theatre and president of Pine Creek National Honor Society.
During this period she also served as a Colorado State Thespian officer, and as secretary of American Sign Language Honor Society. In 2021 she was named International Honor Thespian and earned a 4.4762 cumulative GPA.
An advocate of community service, Lena each week volunteers at Destinacion's Equine Therapy LLC, an equine therapy and horse rescue center. Here, she leads clients in equine therapy and yoga on horses designed to forge connections between the client and horse in order to foster communication skills, trust and similar mechanisms for facing the world.
“I see people from military veterans with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to children from broken households to troubled marriages entirely rehabilitated by exposure to animals. Animals provide a safe, judgment-free space for all people, including those in emotional or physical turmoil. They comfort us while leading us out of our comfort zone and into true growth,” Lena said.
As a Colorado State Thespian officer, Lena represented theatre students statewide. “My greatest contribution to this service was creating a COVID-safe, virtual version of the Colorado Thespian Conference which, in a normal year, brings approximately 5,000 students to Denver for a weekend of workshops,” Lena said.
This fall Lena will attend New York University to study biology on the pre-veterinary medicine track. She wants to eventually earn a doctorate of veterinary medicine and open her own practice.
Lena’s career choice as a veterinarian doesn’t surprise PCHS College Career Counselor Stephanie Cornelio who has known the teen for years, and of her desire to help pet owners and their pets live a healthy life.
“Even when Lena was five years old she knew she wanted to become a veterinarian. She is a brave and caring leader, just the kind of person we need in today’s competitive world. I have no doubt she will succeed in her endeavors, but I wish she would consider a career in politics – Lena is that impactful as a leader,” Cornelio said.
From her challenges and personal hardships Lena has learned that each moment is a gift worthy of celebration, and thanked her mom, dad and three brothers for their support. “I would also like to thank my vocal coach, Ruth Schubarth, who is endlessly encouraging and has taught me that I am truly limitless,” Lena said.
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: Sacrifice and tragedy led to accomplishmentUpdated
Palmer High School senior Abraham Kamara describes himself as once “out of control” and credits his mother’s investment in him as the reason why he is where he is today.
Kamara’s family is Liberian, but he was born in 2002 in a refugee camp in Kaliahun, Sierra Leone, the last of 10 children. Because of the poor conditions in the camp, Kamara contracted tuberculosis as a newborn. The disease went unchecked, attacking his brain until he was diagnosed with tuberculosis meningitis. His mother, Baindu Kamara, sold fruits and vegetables until she was able to pay for Kamara’s lifesaving surgery. Eventually, in early 2007, the Lutheran Refugee Services was able to bring the family to Colorado Springs.
“In the years since, my mother has worked to gain her citizenship and raised her boys and grandchildren on her own, all while learning a fifth language,” Kamara said. “My mother’s sacrifices are the reason I am who I am today. Without these sacrifices, our family’s legacy might have come to an end before we got the chance to come to America.”
The years after immigrating to the United States were difficult, and Kamara at first struggled with the language barrier. His entire family worked incredibly hard at adapting to their new environment, and by third-grade Kamara left the ESL program and could speak English fluently.
Tragedy, however, was not far behind. While Kamara was still very young, his older brother died at age 15.
“I remember him being the sweetest brother,” Kamara said. “He was on track to be the first person in our family to go to college, but he died before he even got the chance. My hard work has been because I want to finish what he never got to start.”
Melissa Garlock, a Palmer High School teacher, affirmed that following his brother’s death, Kamara adopted a strong desire to succeed.
“His brother was an ideal student … and always worked hard for their mother,” Garlock said. “These experiences have taught him that while life may not be fair, he must earn everything he achieves.”
Although he has a 4.0 GPA and will attend Dartmouth College in the fall, Kamara’s desire to succeed extends beyond academics. For nearly 10 years, Kamara has played rugby and says it has kept him motivated through life’s challenges. He has played on the USA National Team, represented the country in Ireland and Toronto, and was named a 2021 Top 140 player.
“My goal is to play rugby at the Division 1 level while attending one of the most prestigious institutions in the country,” Kamara said. “After … I plan on attending medical school in hopes to become an anesthesiologist.”
Kamara’s career aspirations do not end with himself. He understands better than anyone the difficulty a language barrier creates.
“I never attended the best schools,” Kamara said. “In my family, I had no one to show me the way into college or people who were able to help with my assignment … I want to leave my nephew and nieces with more hope than I had coming up.”
Kamara has a strong commitment to the underprivileged and spent much of last summer participating in the Black Lives Matter protests. He led marches and spoke on stage in front of hundreds of people.
“He recognizes that others may need an advocate to fulfill their potential,” Garlock said. “and he takes it as his responsibility to be the same kind of mentor as his mother and brother.”
“Being a part of the Best and Brightest would repay the community and my mother,” Kamara said, “who gave me everything I have today … seeing me in The Gazette would be one of the best ways to repay my mother for investing in me.”
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: Using creativity and science to address mental healthUpdated
As the pandemic wore on, Rachel Suter worried about everyone’s mental health. She had endured the suicides of three neighbors years ago, and had taken note of the alarming statistics — how El Paso County led the state in suicides in 2019, and that youth suicides had increased 54% in 2020 to 17, from 11 the year before.
The Pine Creek High School senior president had noticed that her peers were discouraged by online learning from home, saying they were less motivated and felt isolated.
As student representative to District 20’s Health Advisory Committee, she suggested that they more aggressively address those mental health concerns. She and two others got permission to create a social media survey asking students about current mental health and well-being. They had decided to ask two questions: How would you describe your pandemic mental health, and how can the district help?
They were flooded with responses, Suter said. “I was brought to tears by the brutal honesty. Depression, anxiety, stress and hopelessness dominated nearly every message.”
One student wrote, “Please help us. No one seems to care. We need something to look forward to.”
They presented the results to not only the district, but community leaders and hospitals.
Her career counselor Stephanie Cornelio noted, "Essentially because of Rachel’s research, we now have a blueprint for moving forward in these uncharted times."
What had been missing was “the fun,” and Suter provided and executed many helpful ideas to fill the gap for students feeling isolated, Cornelio said.
She pointed out that due to the pandemic, the school couldn’t sponsor traditional senior events. Suter helped organized non-school events that students safely could be involved in.
She organized the annual senior sunrise morning as a non-school event, which was attended by 300 kids, many more than usual. She made sure that the Junior-Senior Powder Puff game and a senior night at a trampoline park took place with pandemic precautions.
Suter, who loves art, is often asked to make posters for special school events. This year for her Advanced Placement art portfolio, she has created unique work depicting the history of science.
“All my art tells a story,” she said. She hopes to someday have a public space to create a mural that raises awareness for mental health.
She sees science and art as similar in that creativity and an open mind are required. The same goes for dancing, which she enjoys — she was a mentor to young girls at a dance school.
She plans to go into medicine, possibly becoming a neurosurgeon. She envisions using her art to create appreciation cards for nurses and doctors, and share her love for art with patients.
“I hope to never stray away from my creative heart,” she said.
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: A passion for teaching and community serviceUpdated
When she was in the seventh grade, Lauren Shrack assisted a struggling algebra student only to discover she has a passion for teaching and community service.
Today, the teenager uses her passion to ensure other students get the assistance they need to succeed. “Through tutoring I’ve learned that I can use my skills to help others, and that leadership is about mentoring, not commanding,” said Shrack, who is one of Colorado Springs’ Best and Brightest students for 2020.
The daughter of Woodmen residents Greg and Susan Shrack, the Pine Creek High School senior, 16, said she is grateful for the honor despite the number of candidates considered for the recognition. “I'm incredibly appreciative, and I'm humbled to be among so many other fantastic individuals,” said Shrack, who holds a cumulative 4.9015 GPA.
Shrack captured second place honors in the October 2019 Swanson Mathematics Competition at Colorado State University-Pueblo, and in January 2020 was named a Colorado Rising Star in the National Center for Women in Technology.
In May 2020, Shrack was named Future Business Leaders of America State Champion for Mobile Application Development, and walked away with second place honors for the Girls Go CyberStart team in Colorado. Three months later, she was named a National AP Scholar, and in March 2021, a National Merit Scholar.
Throughout high school Shrack met challenges head on and discovered hard work truly pays dividends. Over the summer she spent weeks trying new software and writing her own apps, no longer limited by competition restrictions. She spent hours brainstorming, sketching and planning workflows and is presently refining her first app for publication on Android and iOS.
“This process, starting out clueless and ending up with an addictive new hobby, not only fueled my passion for computer science and its focus on problem-solving, but also gave me the confidence to see challenges as opportunities to make new discoveries,” Shrack said.
Learning about environmental destruction contributed to Shrack’s interest in environmental engineering, she said. “My passion for environmentalism has driven me to seek solutions to the issues that threaten our hometown. I’m excited to apply my strength in computer science for my passion for environmental engineering,” Shrack said.
Following graduation, Shrack will attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study computer science. “I'm hoping to pursue a career in environmental technology, applying computer science and engineering to solve environmental issues,” she said.
“I hope I’ll continue to have opportunities to exchange knowledge with others, to teach and be taught and to help others as my mentors have always helped me.”
In a letter of recommendation, PCHS College and Career Counselor Stephanie Cornelio described Shrack's leadership style as one that brings people together.
“It’s easy to think that much is not right with the world and that science is being diminished in today’s global affairs. But, when you get to know and meet a person like Shrack, you can’t help but believe that our future is bright. She is a difference-maker and will be a consequential scientist for this world,” Cornelio said.
Shrack thanked her family for believing in and supporting her academic and personal pursuits. “I'd like to thank my parents, who have supported me immeasurably over the past 16 years. I'd also like to thank my teachers and mentors, who have taught and guided me in innumerable ways,” Shrack said.
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: A combination of knowledge, talent and generosityUpdated
Atharva Vispute’s teachers call him one of the most “impressive and amazing” students they have ever taught, but Greg Andersen, Vispute’s Calculus teacher said Vispute’s dominant characteristic is perhaps an even more important trait - his generosity.
“He is unselfish with his time, skills, knowledge and talents,” Andersen said. “I have observed Vispute sharing his hard-earned knowledge with his peers in a sensitive, articulate and patient manner.”
Vispute has amassed “one of the most remarkable academic resumes I have ever encountered in my 34 years of teaching high school students,” Andersen adds.
In addition to a 4.49 GPA, a National Merit Scholarship, Boettcher Foundation Scholarship, 1st place at State for Future Business Leaders of America, 2-time state Chess Champion, Vispute has contributed to the Colorado Springs community in a stunning variety of ways. In the past year he spent 460 hours conducting allergy response research at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, obtained his CNA license and volunteered at a local retirement center.
In December 2019, Vispute traveled to India to work at a hospital which caters to the underprivileged, giving treatments and medicines for free. Though Vispute’s parents are from India, his family speaks Marathi and not Hindi, the language spoken by most of the patients at the hospital, which left him with the challenging situation of being unable to communicate – something he set out to overcome.
“For the next three weeks I slept little, opting to learn Hindi from YouTube, listen to podcasts and practice speaking with Google translate,” Vispute said. He created his own dictionary of vocabulary and phrases, which were critical to his everyday conversations, and he spent multiple hours every night practicing. Incredibly it completely shifted the way Vispute saw language.
“The ability to speak to someone in their native tongue makes the person across from you more comfortable and more willing to share aspects of their life,” Vispute said. “I believe it shows that you are someone that respects the cultures of others and makes you seem and feel more connected to other people's backgrounds.”
“As a future physician,” Vispute said, “I aspire to empower patients in underserved communities to actively participate in their health while also impacting the community by establishing a series of free, open seminars.”
Vispute has committed to attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill under the Robertson Scholarship and will be majoring in Biochemistry.
Recently, Vispute started a grassroots initiative called Sea of Actions, an organization that hosts a virtual summer camp for students and runs a clothing drive through which he’s already distributed more than 1,500 articles of clothing.
“My experiences have shown me that the power of community service lies in the lasting impacts that can be made and how my passions can be the foundation for empowering and bringing others up alongside me in unique, unexpected and powerful ways,” Vispute said.
This dedication to the community has drawn the attention of fellow students and his teachers at Rampart High School.
“Vispute’s respected throughout the school because his peers and teachers see his tireless efforts to enhance the lift of the school,” Andersen said. “They value his determination to include them in achieving common goals.”
Vispute’s parents, Pankaj and Rajshri, grew up in Dhule, a rural town in India, in the state of Maharastra, before immigrating to Phoenix to work for a software engineering company. Vispute credits them with teaching him that it’s not about who’s the smartest or most talented, but rather who is willing to will what they want into existence.
“Their words and encouragement keep me going regardless of what project I take on,” Vispute added.
“He is most joyous when celebrating the successes of others and works hard to bring others up alongside him,” clearly pleased Pankaj and Rajshri Vispute said of their son. “Despite his huge accomplishments, he stays very humble and genuine, something we are most proud of him.”
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: Continued effort to achieve provided strengthUpdated
With decent grades, Henry W. Taylor wrote off athletics as a youngster.
“After all, wasn’t it brains, not brawn, that afforded people their dreams?” he rationalized.
But Taylor’s opinion changed after he decided to try cross-country running.
“Athletics aren’t easy,” he discovered.
Taylor’s first attempt at summiting a mountain that tops 9,000 feet failed. His lack of aerobic ability, muscular strength and experience left him “hobbling around the mountain base like a wounded dog.”
Despite two and a half years of falling short and considering quitting the high school cross-country team, Taylor persevered.
The trait undoubtedly will serve him well when he enters the U.S. Air Force Academy as a doolie, or freshman cadet, this summer.
By improving his eating habits, practice routine, work ethic, flexibility and patience, Taylor rose to become the fastest runner on Lewis-Palmer High School’s varsity cross-country team.
The athletic challenges he encountered and overcame positively influenced other areas of his life, including his grades, which reflect a 4.3 grade point average and a class ranking of fifth out of 305 seniors.
Eighteen-year-old Taylor has adopted Albert Einstein’s sage wisdom that “dreams don’t work unless you do.”
Service also has been a cornerstone of his high school career, volunteering at the Marian House Kitchen, which daily feeds the homeless, as well as the Monument library’s summer reading program.
He’s also been involved with his school’s Key Club, a national service organization, serving as president this year.
Club members donate 400 community service hours a year, and during the pandemic, they created new events, including a Trick-or-Treat for Tri-Lakes Cares food drive last fall.
Taylor believes attending the Air Force Academy, just a few miles from where he’s grown up in Monument, will enable him to continue the heartfelt tugging he identifies as “a duty to serve.”
Upon graduating as a second lieutenant from the Academy, accepting an appointment, and serving as a commissioned officer, he plans to make the military a career for the next 20 years.
After that, he aspires to become an elected official.
With that goal in mind, Taylor has conducted several food drives in high school, tutored other kids and played the French horn and the piano at benefit concerts. In attaining the Boy Scout ranking of Eagle Scout, Taylor also works with younger Scouts on their projects.
Taylor not only pursues — but also maintains — excellence in all he does, according to his advanced math teacher, Kathleen Thirkell, who was named the 2015 Colorado teacher of the year.
Taylor earned the highest score of 5 on an Advance Placement math exam last spring, she noted, and will graduate with Advanced Placement courses in Statistics, Calculus BC, European History, English Language and Composition, Human Geography, United States History, Physics and Psychology.
For earning a score of at least 3 on more than five AP exams, Taylor was named an “AP Scholar with Distinction.”
He’s one of those well-rounded kids, Thirkell said, who has numerous academic, athletic and musical awards to his credit, a strong faith, a genuine desire to help others and the grit to not only achieve personal goals but also hurdle on to the next test of chutzpah.
“Henry has many talents and interests,” she wrote in a letter recommending Taylor for the Best & Brightest award. “There is no limit to what this young man can and will accomplish.”
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: Area's first female Eagle Scout excelsUpdated
Astronaut Neil Armstrong was an Eagle Scout. So was former President Gerald Ford and movie director Steven Spielberg.
In 110 years of history, only about 6% of those in Boy Scouts of America attained that highest rank. Until recently, none were young women.
In February, Sierra Dooley, a Manitou High School student, became the Pikes Peak Council’s first woman Eagle Scout. She joined 1,000 other women nationwide who were accorded that honor. It wasn’t until 2019 that girls could even become members of BSA and strive for Eagle Scout status.
Dooley was oh-so-ready, having yearned all her life to be part of the organization. She called herself a “shadow scout” because her brother was in scouts and her father was a scout master. “I more or less shadowed them from the time I was little, doing scout things with no recognition,” she explained.
In 2017 when she was 14, she was able to become part of the Venturing program through BSA. Her first adventure was at the iconic Philmont Scout Camp Ranch in New Mexico, where she carried a heavy pack on a 10-day, 82-mile hike.
At 15, she became a full-fledged scout when the BSA doors were fully opened to women and allowed them a path towards Eagle Scout rank.
Dooley credits scouts as inspiring her in all areas of her life.
Manitou Principal Jesse Hull lauds her leadership, honesty and integrity, and said, “Sierra has excelled in high school because of her high level of commitment in her academic and extracurricular activities.”
She is fifth academically in the Manitou senior class, has been a cheerleader for four years and is president of the school’s National Honor Society. She was instrumental in starting a voter registration program for junior and seniors. She also created an annual prom dress drive to help those in need, and was on the golf team.
The road to becoming an Eagle Scout is arduous at best, but for the inaugural group of young women, it was especially intense. They had to earn 21 badges before they turned 18. Operating in a pandemic made requirements even more difficult.
Dooley wasn’t daunted; she was motivated to prove that women were just as capable.
For her Eagle Scout service project, she became a trailblazer in another sense. She restored a worrisome crumbling hillside path from Manitou High School down to the stadium. She led the reclamation project in which 30 volunteers created water breaks to prevent erosion, planted grass to obliterate the deteriorated trail, and added stairs and fencing.
Her long-term goal is to study biology and continue her German language studies. She chose German to learn more about her ancestors.
She wants to go into medicine and is intrigued by the role medical examiners play in criminal justice investigations and natural disasters. “It’s not pretty, but it’s necessary,” she said.
She added, “Everyone wants to be remembered when they leave this earth. All cultures and religions have a way of dealing with grief and the afterlife. As a medical examiner, I would be playing a key role in that.”
BEST AND BRIGHTEST: Impressive character, dedication and accomplishmentsUpdated
It isn’t Brooke Heinicke’s 4.40 GPA, 5.25 minute mile, nor her qualification for the State Speech and Debate Competition that her parents Kevin and Brenda are most proud of. They’re most pleased with her drive and work ethic, character traits they say extend far beyond the classroom, influencing every aspect of the young woman’s life.
“She takes on challenges with grit, determination and unrelenting energy,” her dad Kevin Heinicke said.
The Cheyenne Mountain High School senior is ranked first in her class, an accomplishment that college counselor Victoria Thompson says is no easy feat.
“In my five years at Cheyenne Mountain High School,” Thompson said, “this is only the second student who I have seen who will have completed 13 AP classes by the time she graduates in May. When you meet her you will also know and understand she is driven by her intellectual curiosity and that she puts in a lot of time and hard work to be as successful as she is in school.”
Though Heinicke acknowledged that her life has been relatively easy in comparison to the extreme challenges others face, the physical challenge of running has forced her personally to overcome her mental limitations.
In 2018 and 2019, Heinicke qualified for state in cross country and track and channeled her passion for the sport into volunteering for Fun Camp, a summer camp run by the school’s cross country team.
“Every summer, I become a counselor for two weeks,” Heinicke said, “planning a variety of activities to bring out the athletic or creative sides of hundreds of kids. Fun Camp has taught me responsibility, leadership skills and patience while I fight to hold the attention of twenty energetic kids at a time.”
But not content with just two weeks of volunteerism in the summer, Heinicke regularly volunteers at the Springs Rescue Mission, Planned Parenthood and with the National Charity League performing trail maintenance.
“I immediately became passionate about preserving the wonderful running and hiking trails we have in and around Colorado Springs and have continued working with open space advocacy groups,” Heinicke said.
Just weeks before the the COVID-19 pandemic was declared Heinicke had just completed six months of orientation training to become a volunteer at Children’s Hospital.
“Just a week after I received my official badge, the hospital stopped allowing volunteers due to the pandemic,” Heinicke said. “I am hopeful I will be able to start volunteering at the hospital this summer as things return to ‘normal’ and I am fully vaccinated.”
While Heinicke still hasn’t decided between attending Northwestern or Tulane University, she’s already preparing for a future as a State Department foreign services officer. She joined Gov. Jared Polis’s 2018 election campaign and worked 15 hours a week on the campaign canvassing neighborhoods, training volunteers and brainstorming ideas on how to help improve Polis’s outreach efforts in her community.
To further deepen her understanding of the electoral process she also worked as a student election judge.
“In that role, I was able to see the actual voting process and better understand all the hard work and community cooperation it required,” Heinicke said. “Whether it be the whole world or just a small group of people, I am dedicated to ensuring my actions make a lasting and positive impact.”
Beyond Heinicke’s impressive achievements and dedication to her community, it is her one-of-a-kind nature that makes her remarkable, Thompson said.
“Brooke leaves nothing on the table as she lives her life to the fullest. She is a leader with character with a never give up attitude who has a lot to give and she will thrive in college and beyond.”