With more than 80 nominations this year, narrowing down our 12th annual slate of 20 Under 20 honorees was more difficult than ever. But we think you’ll agree that this year’s honorees – along with 15 runners up – are doing extraordinary things to make Intown and the world a better place to live.
As in previous years, we asked public and private schools along with service organizations and the general public to nominate students who have been active volunteers in their communities. These 20 students have accumulated thousands of hours of volunteer time, traveled to other countries, created nonprofits and worked with the underprivileged as part of their service.
This year, we noticed a trend among many of the honorees – their interest and passion for the environment and social justice causes. Many of the students are actively working at school and in the community to combat climate change and homelessness as well as mentoring refugees and underserved minority communities around the city. There has been an incredible uptick of students creating nonprofits to help raise funds not only from the community, but from corporations as well.
We hope these uplifting stories will inspire you to find ways to give back to the community. And, as always, thanks to the businesses and schools whose advertising support makes this section possible every year.
Mary He and Sophia Yang, 17
The Paideia School
Mary and Sophia’s passion for debate and helping others has seen them return to their alma mater to coach and travel the Sequoia Middle School debate team for the entire season. The seniors also co-lead imPACT, the school’s volunteer club, which they have led since they were sophomores. They have taken the club from simply organizing a few small projects a year to a service leadership team that organizes both projects and events campus wide, including blood drives, a Thanksgiving canned food drive and food rescue program, a toy drive, a hygiene kit making project, a Hunger Walk Team and a community partner thank you project. As members of Paideia’s AltBreak program, Mary traveled to New Orleans to participate in a variety of service projects and Sophia recently returned from a four-day trip to Clarkston that focused on the new American experience of refugees. Mary will lead a trip in February that focuses on service and water access on the Chattahoochee River. Both young women attended Title 1 schools as youths and said debate helped empower them. “The education system for low-income students does not provide students with the stable foundations they need to overcome the walls that society has built around them,” Mary said. “To combat this disparity, I want to help my students develop the confidence necessary for self-advocacy.” Sofia agreed: “Going to tournaments and seeing students earn their medals after hours of practice made me realize just how important it is to continue programs for students who don’t have access to opportunity,” she said.
Gabriel Uribe, 18
Greater Atlanta Christian School
The senior has served over 176 hours volunteering at school, with his Spanish international church, and international missionary organizations. In Ohio, Atlanta, Tijuana and Guatemala he has worked with homeless organizations. In Guatemala, Gabriel has served with a ministry called Casas Por Cristo building houses for the people of San Raymundo. More volunteer hours have been spent at Samaritan’s Purse, Salvation Army, and the American Red Cross. Recently, Gabriel was recognized for his acting talent in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” being named All-Star Cast and Best Leading Actor at the Georgia Theatre Conference and Regional One Act Competitions. “I have grown seeing lives driven by service and how those lives were rewarded with meaningful and eternal blessings,” Gabriel said. “For me, serving and volunteering helps me reflect Christ more and makes my heart whole and fills me with life, joy, light, and happiness. And, that’s what I strive to give to others when volunteering.”
Selah Thompson, 8
Parkside Elementary School
At age 7, Selah launched her own nonprofit, Empowered Readers Literacy Project, which promotes literacy in kids by promoting reading at home and helping kids build their own home library. Selah has co-written “Penelope The Pirate Princess: The Search for the Magical Moon Pearl,” the first in a series of books for children that will benefit the nonprofit. Through Empowered Readers, she’s volunteered with Leap for Literacy, Boys and Girls Club, YMCA of Metro Atlanta and Atlanta Leadership Club. She was also recently recognized for her efforts by the Atlanta City Council. “It feels awesome to help other people!” Selah said. “I love making other people happy, and it’s been fun to do it with my parents, my sissy and friends.”
Kennedy Elise Walls, 17
Kennedy is founder and CEO of Aid the Journey, Inc., a nonprofit she started with money from her tutoring work to provide medical supplies, hygiene kits and educational materials to refugees. She has personally supplied more than 30,000 bandages to refugees in Clarkston. The organization now has two corporate sponsors: Grove Collaborative and Kali by Proctor & Gamble. She averages 100 hours per month supporting Aid the Journey, LaAmistad, Friends of Refugees, and the Center for Pan Asian Community Services. Last summer, Kennedy participated in the Harvard Medical Science program, Hispanic Scholarship Fund Youth Leadership Institute, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Disease Detective Camp. She’s currently a semifinalist for a U.S. State Department program to learn Arabic and culture in Morocco. “Although I feel perpetually tired, every time I hand deliver one of my medical kits to a refugee I am energized,” Kennedy said. “Maya Angelou’s quote was right: ‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Neha Devineni, 17
Riverwood International Charter School
Neha is the founder of nonprofit ASA (Aspire, Serve, Achieve), an organization that helps support and raise funds for underprivileged children. Her inspiration for the organization came after a trip to India and discovered there were also exorbitant levels of child poverty in Georgia. The organization has grown to 100 ambassadors and chapters in Georgia, Texas, Michigan, and India. Currently, Neha is working to help a group of children in Michigan who are impacted by the Flint Water crisis as well as a school in India for blind children in need of Braille books. Local initiatives that ASA is currently organizing include a donation of food to the Community Assistance Center and support for the Sandy Springs Mission. At school, she developed the Riverwood United alliance to bridge the gap between students of distinct cultures. “My volunteer work has made me aware of the little things in life that make the biggest difference, the vitality of uniting a community to pursue a cause that makes a difference in peoples’ lives, and the significance of receiving emotions that can be cherished for a lifetime.”
Marely Rivera, 16
Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School
A junior at Cristo Rey, Marely serves the homeless population in Downtown Atlanta every Thursday by providing a meal and fellowship through the Labre Ministry. When Marely first volunteered with Labre as a freshman, she encountered a man named Michael who shared his life story with her. “I was shocked by how vulnerable Michael and the others I met that day were,” she said. “I realized the dangers the city can possess for someone in such conditions and how powerful human connections can be.” Now as president of Labre, Marely leads weekly teams of students who go into the streets of Downtown to bring companionship and a meal to those in need. She also volunteers on Saturdays with Feed the Hungry, a group from St. Thomas the Apostle, which provides meals and forges relationships with the homeless. “The most valuable lesson I have learned from being in Labre is to never take things for granted. Michael gave us advice about staying in school as well as staying away from people and things that were toxic. After I reflected on this, I understood the impact that going out to help these people would do for them but also the impact it has done for me. That is why I am grateful that I met my friend Michael.”
George Corbin, 17
The Westminster Schools
The junior has created a project called Technology Opens Doors that addresses the technology needs of men transitioning out of homelessness with the guidance of GivingPoint’s Social Innovators Academy. After a visit to GeorgiaWorks! and observing men seeking employment, but without adequate technology, tools and training, George knew he could help. He surveyed the men at GeorgiaWorks!, met with the director and men to listen to their needs, but also to understand their capacity and skills they already possessed. Using this information, George started involving his peers, his school community and others to work with him to fulfill his project goals. George plans to apply for nonprofit status for Technology Opens Doors so that he can obtain funding and continue to provide assistance to those in need. He’s also found time to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, Salvation Army Bellwood Boys and Girls Club, and more. “Age is not a barrier when it comes to helping improve peoples’ lives,” George said. “I learned to always keep looking for different ways to find a solution. If your first idea does not work, approach it from a different angle but never give up.”
Cyncere White, 14
DeKalb Academy of Technology & Environment
Every Friday, the eighth grader teaches children between the ages of 3-5 the concepts of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM). She also visits assisted living care facilities every month to spend time, read, and sing to the residents. Cyncere is part of the International Thespian Society; Ray of Hope Christian Church as a hospitality volunteer; School Safety Patrol; and an active member of Free Spirit Mentor Group. She also volunteers her time during the summer to work with struggling students who need tutoring. “The most valuable lesson that I have learned is to not be selfish, to give my time to benefit others as well as helping others with their needs.”
Maura O’Sullivan, 16
Grady High School
The junior is co-developing a nonprofit, The Branch Out Initiative, focused on providing environmental education and outdoor recreation to kids with developmental disabilities and their families. Her passion and interest began when she was 12 and volunteered with FOCUS + Fragile Kids and the Ellis Center. She served as a one-on-one aide for campers at Ellis’ Camp ImpAACt, which serves kids and teens with multiple disabilities and complex communication needs. In freshman year, Maura began a service project focused on creating sensory-friendly events for kids with sensory processing disorder and related conditions and their families. The project, which was called SenseAbility, began through No Barriers’ Global Impact Challenge, which her team won. The team received a $5,000 grant and presented their project at the national No Barriers’ 2018 Summit. Through SenseAbility, Marua coordinated Maker Faires for special needs kids and their families at local schools and trained theater groups to make productions more sensory friendly. This experience inspired Maura to develop the nonprofit organization to address an unmet need in this community. “In my time working with nonverbal students, I’ve learned that language transcends words, and everyone has something to say,” she said.
Caroline Sellers, 17
Atlanta Girls’ School
With Los Niños Primero (LNP), a kindergarten readiness program for Latinx preschoolers, the senior has logged over 300 hours of service. As a fluent Spanish speaker, she has been actively involved in the program for four years. She has been selected for three years as one of 10 Teen Ambassadors who reflect the values of LNP within the organization as well as in their community. As part of her Girl Scout Gold Award project, she created a campaign to address the issue of organ donation with teen drivers at Atlanta Girls’ School and beyond. “Through my volunteer work in and out of my local community I have developed empathy and respect for intellectual and cultural differences in regard to race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status,” she said. “Throughout my time with Los Niños Primero, the students constantly show me the power of forgiveness and inclusion. Watching them put these practices into action at such a young age reminds me to employ them in my own everyday life, and gives me hope for the future.”
Emma Krawczyk, 16
Academe of the Oaks
The junior is a dedicated member of Young Physicians Initiative (YPI) and has been volunteering at the Grace Village Clinic in Clarkston for two years. The clinic works to provide free healthcare for refugees and migrants in Clarkston. She is also a member of the school’s Amnesty International Chapter, where she organized the “Longer Table Dinner” for the migrant community in Clarkston. Emma joined Global Nomads Group during her 9th grade year and helped with a project to bring awareness to sex trafficking in Atlanta. She’s also vice president of the student council and a leading member of the Feminist Club. Most recently, Emma participated in a service trip to Ghana this month where she interviewed NGO workers who help trafficked girls escape poverty. “Knowing that everyone deserves preventative healthcare, no matter their background, is a lesson I want to take with me into my future career. I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to volunteer at Grace Village Clinic, and for the opportunity to use my time helping others.”
Robert Luke Joseph, 17
Atlanta International School
The senior designed a video game called “Race,” creating the concept, characters and animations to highlight marginalized groups and promote inclusion in the video game industry. He was recognized for his achievements last spring when he received the Rochester Institute of Technology Creativity and Innovation Award. Along with his involvement at school, including serving on the Student Council and co-leading the Student Culture Club, Robert Luke initiated a project and has volunteered his time over the last year at Campbell-Stone Assisted Living Facility creating a fundraising calendar for the residents. “It may seem counterintuitive, but once you really become a dedicated volunteer towards a specific program or project, it can often take real patience and perseverance to make the difference you are committed to. There are no shortcuts or quick fixes, and the nuances to contributing to social change involve hard work, dedication, and resilience, inside of the honor of seeing a job through.”
Julia Rhee, 16
The Westminster Schools
In 2017, Julia founded Double Play ATL, a nonprofit organization developed to help underprivileged youth obtain the necessary equipment to play organized sports, which has since collected nearly 5,000 pieces of equipment and put 90 percent back into the community. Since then, Double Play has grown to involve sustainability projects as well. She’s also made time to volunteer her time at Threads, Atlanta Food Bank, Agape, L’Amistad, Atlanta Children’s Shelter, My Sister’s House and many more. As co-president of ECO (Westminster’s sustainability club) and partnering with Madewell, Blue Jeans Go Green and Nike, Julia helped her school and community by recycling jeans, athletic shoes and gear. She’s also a researcher at Georgia Tech with an interest in brain health whether it be concussions, mental health or wellness. “At the end of the day, service is about forming genuine connections with others through your work. I think that this kind of interconnectedness is what makes service so special and memorable.”
Kendall Greene, 17
The Lovett School
The senior’s focus on activism, sustainability, and citizenship has seen her serve as Georgia’s representative for the Student Worldwide Sustainability Protest, which organized last year’s Youth Climate Strike. Kendall also curated a nonprofit art gallery at the Center for Civil and Human Rights to unite performers, painters, sculptors, and poets to discourage the idea that young people need to be isolated from one another. She worked on this project for months in partnership with the City of Atlanta. In terms of future projects and endeavors, she is integrating her love of community gardens and sustainable initiatives with yet another partnership with Atlanta native musician and artist, Raury, to create a community garden and art center in Stone Mountain. This long-term project will inform her Lovett senior capstone project in the spring as well. “Through volunteering, I’ve learned the importance of showing up consistently. I’ve found strength in compassionately serving others and following through on my commitments, regardless of how tired I may be from school. I have learned to prioritize volunteer work and creating opportunities for people to come together. The service work that I have had the ability to do has exposed me to not only the realities and injustices of the world, but the solutions.”
Spencyr Aronson and Maya Kaplan, 18
After participating in a Covenant House “Sleep Out” to raise funds to combat youth homelessness, the seniors were so moved by what they witnessed, they applied for and were accepted into the organization’s Scholars in Service program. For four months, Spencyr and Maya learned about philanthropy, fundraising, conducting service projects and developing their voices to speak about homelessness. They approached local businesses and large corporations alike to educate others about youth homeless and solicit donations. In the end, they raised more than $50,000 for Covenant House Georgia, won the $2,500 Scholars in Service scholarship award, and presented one of CHGA’s college-bound youth with a matching $2,500 scholarship. Three weeks later, the girls reached out to say that they decided to donate their scholarships back to Covenant House to launch the Post-secondary Education Fund fulfilling a long time dream of CHGA’s program staff to have funds dedicated to helping young people overcome their barriers to accessing college. “No matter how big or insurmountable any problem seems, there is always something that can be done to help find a solution,” Spencyr said about her work as a volunteer. Maya echoed that sentiment: “Through my work with the Covenant House, I have seen how even a little bit of help can make a huge difference in someone’s life, from giving someone a roof over their head to providing them with the opportunity to access an education.”
Ari Hawkins, 17
KIPP Collegiate High School
The senior credits her experience as an American Explorer, a leadership development program of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, as the engine that has propelled her philanthropic endeavors. In 2019, Ari received the Game Changer Youth Award for her philanthropic and community service activities and was the keynote speaker at the B’Fly Girl Scholarship Gala. In 2018, she was selected for the Atlanta Zoo Teen Volunteer program, where she served over 200 hours in teaching wildlife environment to visitors and worked with the Summer Safari Campers. Ari also uses her birthday as a fundraiser to feed the homeless. These events provide feminine hygiene products and personal care packages, and feed hundreds of homeless people in Woodruff Park. She’s also volunteered with Hosea Feed the Hungry, Trees Atlanta, Hands Across Atlanta, Impact Church and Urban Sprout. “I’ve learned three valuable lessons: to appreciate the small things, to love boldly and courageously, and to understand another person’s journey. We often get caught up in our lives, but giving back reminds me that the world is bigger than me.”
James Mathis, 16
Maynard Jackson High School
The sophomore began volunteering with the nonprofit W-Underdogs, whose mission is to lift up disadvantaged kids by helping rescue animals. James has been with W-Underdogs since he was 12 years old and has helped save hundreds of animals as well as mentoring other youth in the program. Every weekend when most teenagers are going out with their friends, James goes out to different neighborhoods to deliver food and doghouses to those who need help with their animals.
Sarah Alexa “Lexi” Bortnick, 18
A dedicated member of Woodward’s theater program since 9th grade and a longtime volunteer at the Jesse Draper Boys and Girls Club, Lexi began brainstorming ways to share her passion for theater with the kids she tutored. Last year, she created an after-school and summer theater program for kids ages 6 to 16, recruiting other Woodward students to help her teach improv and tech classes. Her program also promotes academic success, healthy lifestyles and leadership. The senior developed a framework for her program that will ensure it continues long after she graduates. Passionate about equal rights and criminal justice reform, Lexi landed an internship with Baltimore’s Department of Juvenile Services and wants to work for the Equal Justice Initiative after earning her degree. She honed her knowledge as a member of Woodward’s Service Leadership Board by investigating and offering solutions to the inequities and injustices present in the school community. “In order to be genuinely helpful to others, we must be ready and willing to provide service in response to the goals that the community has voiced, rather than believing that our way of problem-solving is the most effective.”
Emily Demps, 16
North Atlanta High School
Emily began helping others in the 7th grade when she organized a clothing, book and toy drive for students at Lomas del Rio school while serving on a mission trip to Costa Rica. Since then, the junior has logged over 500 volunteer service hours as a tutor and mentor at Buckhead Church, Los Ninos Primavera, Camp All American and Woodson Park Academy. Emily participated in GivingPoint’s Social Innovators Academy, where she started a group called Smart Brown Girls at Woodson Park Academy. Through the club, she mentored a group of 5th grade African-American girls focusing on issues of self-esteem, self-image, leadership and challenges associated with living and learning in underserved communities. She also raised money to purchase clothes, toiletries, school supplies and backpacks for students at the Academy. She also recently organized a volunteer project with her volleyball team to raise money for St .Jude’s Children Research Hospital. For her volunteer work, Emily was recently awarded the President’s Volunteer Service Award. “A person shouldn’t volunteer because they have to, but because they want to serve someone else in their community. The love to serve others makes the service more impactful and has a greater impact on the people or organization you are serving.”
Tali Feen, 17
Atlanta Jewish Academy
A busy senior at AJA, Tali’s list of volunteer initiatives and efforts would never fit this space, but highlights include sitting on the board of the Leadership Development Program for nonprofit Creating Connected Communities (CCC), which serves underprivileged children around Atlanta. Tali oversees CCC events including spring and fall festivals and afterschool programs. She’s also a member of the Teen Leadership Council for the Atlanta Ronald McDonald House (ARMH), where she raised enough money through school and synagogue fundaisers to host a family at the ARMH for an entire week. Tali also volunteers at the Childrens Hospital and at the Jewish Food Bank. She was selected to participate in the MLK ADL Summit, which educates high schoolers on tolerance, acceptance and non-violence. With plans to become a pediatric cardio-thorasic surgeon, Tali’s advice for others who want to volunteer is simple: “Even the smallest acts of kindness make the biggest difference.”
Telissa Reynolds, 17
An aspiring physician, the Westminster senior created an outreach program, Gene Shorts, that exposes inner city students to the field of genetics. “When the students see me, a black girl who’s excited about biology, they realize that they too can become the future doctors, nurses, and scientists of the world.”
Sarah Street, 17
The Westminster junior has raised money and served more than 500 hours at organizations including LaAmistad, Operation Gratitude, Covenant House, Buckhead Christian Ministries, UNICEF, Changing Lives in Guatemala, PowerMyLearning, Hospice Atlanta, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and City of Refuge.
Dev Joshi and Emaad Daya, 16
The Westminster duo educate people on the environmental crisis through their social impact project called The Carbon-12 Project, which raises money for carbon capture technologies and a variety of climate projects that reduce carbon emissions.
Bria Brown, 17
As the founder of the Grady High School Pedestrian Safety Coalition, Bria led a group to mobilize and push the Atlanta City Council to improve the crosswalk and intersection of 10th and Monroe streets to make it safer for pedestrians.
Fatima Chaudhry, 18
Since her sophomore year at Grady High School, she has headed the Muslim Student Association (MSA), a student club that helps bring awareness and camaraderie to an often overlooked student population.
Sophie Lettes, 17
Passionate about conservation and recycling, the Pace Academy senior serves on the ICGL Council, a student group that works to improve the school’s environmental practices where she led an initiative to transform the cafeteria into a composting facility, an effort that has redirected thousands of pounds of food waste from landfills.
Michael Fu, 16
As one of the top-rated chess players in state, the Pace Academy junior co-founded Scholarly Chess, a non-profit organization to promote chess and host regular chess tournaments. He also co-created VEMS, an app designed to help track student volunteer hours that received the LexisNexis championship award.
Royce Mann, 18
The Grady High senior went viral on YouTube with his poem “White Boy Privilege,” and he’s since become a noted activist with Amnesty International and March for Our Lives, as well as speaking at events like the Obama Foundation Summit, Global Citizens and serving as a Grand Marshall for the 2019 Atlanta Pride Parade.
Terrance Wright and Jahad Johnson, 17
Wright, a senior at Booker T. Washington High, and Johnson, a junior at Frederick Douglass High, are both L.E.A.D. Ambassadors serving as mentors and baseball coaches to younger kids as well as fostering understanding and community between youth of different races.
Alyssa McCollum, 8
A straight A student at West Manor Elementary School, Alyssa is a Peer Helper and also led two class projects for picking up litter on the campus and creating a composting bin.
Robert Weir, 17
The St. Pius X Catholic High School senior has been a member of the school’s Young Men’s Service League, performing countless hours working with senior citizens, cancer patients, at-risk elementary school students and wheelchair bound teenagers.
Charlie Edward McAdoo III, 13
The Druid Hills Middle School 8th grader’s service includes student government president and superintendent’s advisory council as well as serving as an event coordinator in the Princeton Way Neighborhood Association and youth speaker/host at Impact Church.
Kaelyn Bannon, 15
The Holy Spirit Prep School freshman collected almost 1,000 books, which were later donated to the Cobb County Juvenile Court System waiting room, and also, with her dad’s help, built bookcases to hold them.
Russell Wyatt, 14
Holy Spirit Prep School 8th grader volunteers every weekday after school at Jacob’s Ladder Neurodevelopmental School and Therapy Center. His sister, Mae, has cerebral palsy, and he’s helped her and other students with communicating their needs and expressing themselves through art and yoga.