Meet Junior Achievement of Western PA's inaugural class of 18 Under Eighteen
The kids are more than alright — just take a look at Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania’s inaugural class for 18 Under Eighteen, which showcases the talents and achievements of 18 of the region’s most incredible young people.
“These amazing kids are entrepreneurs, social activists, scientists, entertainers and so much more,” said Patrice Matamoros, president of Junior Achievement of Western PA. “They are the innovators, progressors and providers of hope that are, and will continue to, move our region forward.”
The talent search was cast across Junior Achievement’s footprint in western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia. A diverse committee of community members reviewed each nomination and interviewed finalists to become the select 18.
The class of 2022 features honorees ranging from 10 years old up to 18 years old. They represent a diverse cross-section of the region, including areas outside the Pittsburgh area such as Erie, Mercer and Cambria counties.
“JA is honored and excited to recognize these young people who make me optimistic for a bright future,” Matamoros said.
In addition to being recognized as an event at the National Aviary on the North Side on Feb. 22, JA is working to provide the 18 students with additional educational and leadership opportunities to further their skills and qualifications.
Tickets to the event are on sale now, with a limited number of in-person tickets available. JA will announce a virtual ticket option via its website, jawesternpa.org.
Meet the stunning class of 2022:
North Allegheny School District
This 10-year-old student believes strongly in giving back to her community and making sure that everyone she encounters feels included and welcomed.
Every year, Makayla helps the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank by filming cooking segments and commercials that help support the organization’s telethons and fundraisers in partnership with KDKA-TV.
She goes out of her way to make sure that new students at her school adjust smoothly and have a friend. She is also a powerful ally. Makayla is a leader in her school’s No Place for Hate committee, where she helps create diversity and inclusion initiatives and engages and educates students in all grades and backgrounds.
As an avid learner of sign language, Makayla used this passion to inspire and amplify the voices of those who are deaf or with disabilities during the social unrest of 2020. It was this passion that inspired the creation of the Emmy-award-winning “Unspeakable” video, which was featured nationally on “Good Morning America.” Makayla believes that all people have the ability to achieve great things and challenges everyone to discover their “and.”
South Fayette School District
Zachary Betz is a 19-year-old (18 at the time of his nomination) who is the co-chair of his local SHOUT chapter, a student diversity leadership committee that started in South Fayette school district and is now a regional organization. He works daily to ensure that he is promoting an inclusive culture and has assisted other schools in setting up their own SHOUT chapters. He co-authored a book called “Raise Your Voice: The Stories of SHOUT.”
Additionally, Zachary works to educate others about Autism and brings his positive perspective and distinctive experiences to the table when discussing the disorder, or in his words, mentally unique traits. He believes that each person, regardless of their background, has unique abilities to offer. Zach works to share that those on the autism spectrum are not limited or somehow any lesser than others and has given a TEDx Talk called “The Benefits of Autism.”
Sto-Rox School District
Isiah Davis, 18, embodies a leader in his local community both on and off the field. He is an exceptionally talented football player who helped lead his team to success during his high school career.
He is also a self-made entrepreneur, spreading positivity to his community through 1WayOut, a clothing brand started by him and his brother. Through sales to his community and peers,
Zay, as he is known, works to spread the message that people do not have to stay where they are; they can work hard and find a way out to somewhere else that they want to be.
He works to set an example for the younger students and is constantly mindful that they look up to him to see what he does and how he behaves. He strives to be an example and a leader to all.
Shady Side Academy
Jasmine DeBruce is a 17-year-old student who is an active advocate of social justice and has worked continuously to impact her community and provide support. She currently serves as the president of her school’s Black Student Union. Before entering high school and taking this leadership position, Jasmine introduced the first Black Student Union to Shady Side Academy Middle School.
She created the Black Scholar Society, an organization dedicated to creating a network for future Black leaders in Pennsylvania and uplifting Black youths throughout the region by providing them with opportunities to grow their resumes, knowledge and experience. She hopes to turn this organization into a non-profit one day.
Jasmine plans to pursue a law degree and hopes to find internships on Capitol Hill. With these goals in mind, she hopes to continue to focus on social justice issues.
South Fayette School District
He’s 18 years old, but Griffin Hurt has been passionate about improving the technology user experience from a young age. An exceptionally talented programmer, Griffin was selected for the UPMC Hillman Academy and worked to improve their research in image analysis by using machine learning.
Griffin developed a mobile application to detect vehicle crashes, and his team won $15,000 for the school in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest. Griffin cares about giving back to others and volunteers with Pepperdine University in California on a government-sponsored program. As part of the project, he creates instructional videos to teach computer science to students from Kenya, Namibia and Mexico.
To assist with his efforts, Griffin is currently developing his own educational software to make global virtual learning easier.
Derry Area School District
At 16, Elizabeth Kott advocates for her peers and programs within her school and actively promotes mental health awareness. Since middle school, she has spoken out about the stigma surrounding mental health and has facilitated a positive shift in the school environment. Elizabeth has opened conversations to develop changes in school policy through her presentations to her school board and administrators.
She is a member of Derry Area’s Chick-fil-A Leader Academy, through which she has contributed to several nationally recognized community give-back initiatives. Elizabeth is also a member of several volunteer mentor programs. As a part of the program Outdoor Odyssey, she works with children to develop their leadership skills, and as a mentor, she keeps in regular contact with them.
She also volunteers her time at Derry’s middle school to build relationships and provide support to girls through a program similar to Big Brothers Big Sisters, Club Ophelia.
Freeport Area School District
Anne Lindsay, 16, is a driven, passionate entrepreneur and the owner of her own self-made business, Annemade Bread, a business she began during the quarantine period of the covid-19 pandemic. She started by making a few loaves of sourdough bread per week and selling them to her network of local supporters. Through her dedication to her business and the help of others, she has been able to secure herself a commercial oven and mixer. She now participates in farmer’s markets after receiving her licensing through the state. Her menu has expanded to include pretzels, cookies and other baked goods. She also values giving back to her community.
As a part of her efforts to give back, she started and led a summer reading program at the Freeport community library for local students, she also donates 20% of her proceeds to various charities, including Rise Against Hunger, The Global Fund for Women, Keep PA Beautiful and the American Humane Society.
Oakland Catholic High School
Morgan McCray, 15, is an outspoken advocate for change and has positively used her voice to make a difference. In eighth grade, she noticed policies at her school were racially biased. To ensure that these policies were addressed and adjusted, she offered a vision for change in the school’s curriculum, group offerings and teacher training.
As a part of her efforts, Morgan created a PowerPoint that she presented to her principal and Michelle Peduto, the head of schools within the catholic diocese.
Additionally, she was able to conduct subject interviews to turn her presentation into a podcast in which she continued to explore the topic of racial bias in education.
Quaker Valley School District
Seventeen-year-old Isabella Murano is committed to her vision of a greener and more sustainable future. Through partnerships with organizations like Sustainable Sewickley, she works with her peers and Quaker Valley faculty to create change in her community by reducing waste and hosting sustainable awareness events.
A driven entrepreneur, Isabella recently began her own startup, Eco-Assemble, which provides students with kits designed for younger generations and are intended to inspire kids to learn and create. Though the students focus on innovation, they also develop their science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) skill sets while connecting their creation to the environment. Isabella believes in the limitless potential of STEAM education for all.
She is committed to paving the way for future females in the world of education and continually challenges outdated social norms and stigmas surrounding women in STEAM.
Moon Area School District
Rocco Otto is a soon-to-be 16-year-old student who, after witnessing the effects of juvenile diabetes and childhood cancer on his friends and family, founded his own non-profit organization, The No Child Fights Alone Foundation.
The organization’s mission is to lead the fight against childhood cancer and diabetes through research funding, medical assistance for families and support for multicultural communities.
Rocco believes that he has a strong calling to help others. Through his work, he wants to support families throughout the area in whatever ways he can – from providing medical equipment to children, financially supporting families, investing in research, or anything in between.
Fairview School District
At 17, Susannah Poese is an active advocate for social change to alleviate suffering in the world around her. As a part of her fight for change, Susannah is a leader in the Fairview Association for Student Activism. She has led FASA’s successful effort to integrate consent education into the Fairview School curriculum. In support of their gender-nonconforming classmates, FASA is petitioning the school’s English department to recognize they/them as a singular pronoun.
As a proud part of the LGBTQIA+ community, Susannah believes it is important to be a voice for those who might be marginalized in today’s society and speak up for those who may not be willing or able to speak up for themselves.
Susannah is also an active entrepreneur. Beginning at a young age, Susannah started making and selling lip balm. Now called PolitiSticks, she has grown her business into a successful operation that promotes several social causes and pride of place through the power of a clever phrase.
Franklin Regional School District
James Swift is a natural leader and a tenacious competitor at 17 years of age. As a community leader, James has taken an active role in raising money for non-profits such as the American Cancer Society, Alzheimer’s Association, and Food Allergy Research & Education.
James implemented the Teal Pumpkin project at multiple schools. The Teal Pumpkin Project aims to be more inclusive to students with allergies who cannot participate in school parties and other activities due to the risk of allergic reactions. The Teal Pumpkins provide students with allergy-free options and create a more welcoming environment.
This past spring, James was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune condition that required him to undergo surgery in October. Prior to his surgery, James was committed to still participating in the USA Powerlifting Competition where he set four Pennsylvania state records and won two first-place medals.
Ryleigh Mackenzie Tardy
St. Edmund’s Academy
At just 13, Ryleigh Mackenzie Tardy is a driven entrepreneur with a special mission to spread. At a young age, she noticed that when buying her school supplies, the people that she saw featured on her notebooks didn’t look like her. With this realization in mind, Ryleigh started her business, Kenz N’ Co.
Kenz N’ Co. is a line of school supplies that depicts positive images and affirmational phrases of successful people in the Black community and beautiful Black youths on their covers to provide another way for her peers to see themselves in a positive light.
Ryleigh is also a dedicated member of several clubs in her school. Most notably, she is a founding member of Girls with Goals, a mentoring club in her school that helps younger girls navigate their school experience. As a part of the club, she reads books to younger peers that are written or illustrated by Black Americans.
Cambria Heights School District
Braden Thomas, 17, is a compassionate community member, friend – and an exceedingly motivated innovator. His deep care for others shows in his work throughout the community, including a recent competition he began within his school after learning about the need for “Jared Boxes” at his town’s local hospital.
The mission of the Jared Box Project is to entertain and put a smile on the faces of children in the hospital.
Braden ultimately wants to become a medical doctor, which not only fuels his desire to help others but drives his curiosity in using technology to do so.
During the pandemic, he studied covid-19 to complete an independent research project about the vaccine and ways to help reduce the spread of the virus. He presented his research and findings at the regional and state Technology Student Association competition.
Hermitage School District
Seventeen-year-old Cynthia Torrence is a a highly accomplished entrepreneur and CEO of her own tropical beverage company, NIU by TALLS, LLC.
NIU is a low-sugar tropical juice blend currently mass-manufactured in New Jersey and retailed in locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Maryland and West Virginia.
The idea of NIU started when Cynthia was just 7 years old when she and her mother made pina colada flavored lemonade for family and community gatherings. By the age of 12, Cynthia enrolled at a local business incubator in Hermitage, the eCenter@Linden Pointe.
Cynthia now successfully manages NIU, including its public relations, marketing, inventory management, budgeting and planning. NIU currently has three flavors – Tropical Eden, Tropical FlaMingo and Tropical Berry.
Cynthia also finds time in her busy schedule to give back to her community as an AmeriCorps Service Volunteer mentoring underserved preschool students. She is an advocate of the “Leave No Girl Behind” movement in South Africa and the Global Sisterhood Next Generation in Pittsburgh.
Upper St. Clair School District
Yoshna Venkataraman is a 16-year-old student currently attending Upper St. Clair High School. Yoshna works to embody positivity daily and is an outspoken advocate for mental health awareness at her school.
During the covid-19 pandemic, Yoshna noticed the mental health issues plaguing her student body and the negative stigma surrounding speaking up about these issues. As a part of her efforts to educate others, Yoshna founded and now serves as the president of the student-run organization, Mending Mindsets. The organization aims to spread mental health awareness to the students at Upper Saint Clair High School.
Yoshna believes that by educating her peers, she can create a better quality of life for those struggling with mental illness. In addition, Yoshna serves as a Junior Mentor, working to create a culture within her school where students feel supported, appreciated and heard.
Allegheny Valley School District
Isabella Walsh is a magnetic force at 17, demonstrating leadership and resiliency in all that she does. Isabella has an active role in each of her extracurricular activities, including The Future is Mine, student council, Future Business Leaders of America and Springdale’s varsity soccer team.
She maintains a successful balance regarding her responsibilities and her drive for volunteerism. During the heart of the pandemic, Isabella started a drive where she collected more than 100 stockings filled with food items and other necessities. This year, Isabella set and exceeded her new goal by collecting and delivering more than 200 holiday stockings.
Isabella also organized a multi-community food drive called the “Souper Bowl” that collected 4,000 items and more than $1,000 worth of gift cards to restock local food bank pantries.
Her dedication to helping others recently earned Isabella the honor to represent her school district in the 2021 FBI Teen Academy, where she interacted with FBI Agents and gained valuable hands-on insight into the field.
Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts
Naomi Zenmon, 17, is a natural leader and a mentor. Through her dance class, she teaches young girls to embrace their natural features. This is especially important to her with young Black girls, with whom she seeks to spread the message to love their Blackness and to be proud of their culture.
She performed a tap dance to a song from the movie “Harriet” and inspired the entire dance studio to learn more about the Underground Railroad and slavery. Naomi also is inducted into the National Honors Society for Dance Arts. Her self-choreographed piece that spoke to the recent heightened racial and social injustices gave her national recognition, as she was awarded an honorable mention for the National Dance Education Organization’s Artistic Merit, Leadership and Academic Award – the highest student dance award in the nation.
As Naomi nears her high school graduation, she plans on attending a historically Black college or university so she can one day give back as an alumnus and make a lasting impact.