THE NEXT GENERATION
If the children are our future, then we’re in good hands
By Sara Hall | Contributor
MAR-APR 2021 ISSUE
Covering the next few pages are just a few examples of why this is true. They are local teens who inspire, amaze, and excel in one way or another. The generation that’s coming of age right now includes students who are passionate about education, invested in their communities and have overcome hardships and personal challenges. They want to help others, push harder for change and improvement, and then pass that on to those who come after.
All six of the young adults featured are unique in their own way. As individuals, they impress. As a group – as a generation – they provide hope.
RAY DIAZ, LEADING THE WAY IN PUBLIC SERVICE
He may not be old enough to vote, but Ray Diaz, 17, of Santa Ana, knows what it takes to hit the campaign trail and be a meaningful public servant.
From sixth grade representative to working as an intern for a state assembly campaign while still in high school, Diaz has learned it through experience.
“(It’s about the) human interaction and really being genuine,” said Diaz, now a senior at Samueli Academy and ASB president, during a recent phone interview. “(Discussing the) issues that you truly believe will improve the community.”
Diaz’s political journey started when he was in sixth grade at El Sol Science and Arts Academy. He was a bit shy until he spoke for the first time in front of a crowd at science camp. It sparked something in him.
He wanted to do more, so a teacher encouraged him to run for sixth-grade student representative. Diaz dove in and ran a passionate campaign. He made posters and pencils with his name on them. He advocated for healthier student lunches and a different menu.
The day came and it was announced that he won.
“That’s how it all started,” he said.
At meetings, he was outspoken about issues. He championed school activities, brought up ideas from his classmates, and he followed through on his campaign promise, and implemented a variety of lunches.
“More importantly, it was about being a voice for the student body,” Diaz said. “When I first started running it was to represent that little guy.”
He continued running – and getting elected – every year for student government. Although his political experience has also gone off-campus.
Photos courtesy of Ray Diaz
For his junior year internship, a graduation requirement at Samueli Academy, Diaz looked into opportunities in politics and community engagement. He researched candidates and found Sylvia Rubio running for State Assembly. With guidance from Samueli staff, he applied for a political campaign intern position. He learned about the district’s history and the campaign issues for his interview and they hired him on the spot.
Between February and April 2020, he helped develop the overall strategy, analyzed data, and performed daily tasks, like door-to-door canvassing. He also tagged along with Rubio to see how she interacted with residents.
“I learned how to run a campaign,” he said. “It was really good to be exposed to that. I gained a lot of information.”
The key is talking to people and prioritize issues. He also learned that a candidate needs to have a great understanding of who they represent and be rooted in that community.
Diaz applied all of this when he worked on five local campaigns in Santa Ana later in 2020.
He spent months canvassing, discussing the issues, helping with phone banks, and delivering yard signs and pamphlets.
On election day, three of the candidates won, including the first new mayor for Santa Ana in 26 years and the youngest elected City Council member.
“I was really happy and proud of what we were able to accomplish,” Diaz said. “At the end, after all the hard work we put in… it’s a big accomplishment. To have just played a small role in that is something that is really rewarding.”
Johnathan Ryan Hernandez later appointed Diaz to the Youth Commission in Santa Ana for ward 5. In a momentous occasion in what is sure to be a notable career, Diaz took the oath of office for the first time on Feb. 8.
“Even though I’m 17, I know for a fact that it’s something I will take very seriously,” Diaz said. “I’m very excited about the position.”
He’s excited about his own future as well. He plans on majoring in political science and one day coming back to Santa Ana to serve the city he loves so much.
“Yes, I do have hopes of one day running in our community,” Diaz confirmed. “But the most important thing, before any of that, is making sure I am rooted in my neighborhood and in my community. The position is nice, but what I’m in it for is to be a part of something bigger.”
Ray Diaz being sworn in as a Youth Commissioner in Santa Ana on Feb. 8. Ray Diaz holding his oath of office for his position with the Youth Commission.
LUKE GIALANELLA, YOUNG EDUCATOR MAKES POLITICS, GOVERNMENT FUN
Most kids have very little to no knowledge of how government works, and even less interest in politics. But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to Luke Gialanella, 15, of Marina del Rey.
In 2017, he was upset that while he was interested in politics, none of his peers knew how government really works. So, he set out to teach more kids about the structure and process of the government, in an interesting and unbiased way. And GOVLEARN Education, Inc., was born.
Gialanella, now a sophomore at Windward School in Los Angeles, has always been interested, at some level, in the government, history, and politics. In fourth grade history was his favorite subject.
“I really liked history… I was maybe obsessed with history,” he joked during a recent phone interview. “My family and I took a trip to DC and I was hooked.”
He got “really, really into it,” he said, reading books and watching the news. Learning as much as he could about the history of the government, how it has evolved, and the impact it has on people.
“Government… has the power to impact the people in huge ways,” Gialanella said. “And people have the power to select the government.”
By seventh grade, a project idea began to form of how he could share his love for the topic.
GOVLEARN started as a small YouTube channel. It evolved into a website and he started teaching classes, offering online curriculum, and creating slideshows. He reached out to schools, homeschooling groups, sought advice from experts, and the project grew from there.
Now, GOVLEARN has reached about 500 kids from Pasadena to Philadelphia, Gialanella said. Earlier this year, it became an official 501(c)3 nonprofit.
The aim is to educate more young people about politics.
“In a few years my age group is going to be a gigantic voting bloc,” Gialanella said.
For many people, learning about politics is a chore, he said.
“I don’t find it boring but other people do,” he joked.
But if it’s made to be fun, with simulations and games, all coming from someone close to their age, kids are more likely to listen and absorb the information. They should be excited to learn, Gialanella added, learning can be both educational and enjoyable.
“It’s necessary that people know how it works,” Gialanella said. This is a subject “you’ll use it every time you vote or every day when you pay taxes… It’s crucial that everyone knows about it.”
Topics include general lessons on the senate or the house, to more specific lessons on American third parties or perennial candidates. He’s currently working on a presentation about state governments.
He’s gotten a lot of positive feedback, including an email from the parent of an 8-year-old who, after participating in a GOVLEARN class, wanted to watch the 2020 presidential election.
“Kids are getting interested in politics… It’s warmed my heart,” Gialanella said. “That’s the whole point of what I’m doing.”
It’s no surprise that Gialanella wants to pursue something in politics
“This is what I want to do,” he said. “I’m really excited about politics (and government) and I want other people to be interested in it too.”
For more information, visit GOVLEARN.ORG.
Photos courtesy of Luke Gialanella
ISABEL GOMEZ, TEEN INSPIRES YOUNG GIRLS WITH SCIENCE
Isabel Gomez, 17, of Newport Coast, is determined to share her passion for science and sports.
Gomez, an accomplished athlete and junior at Sage Hill School, co-founded Science Scoop, which aims to inspire young girls to pursue STEM careers. She started the program with longtime friend, Lexie Howell, 17, a junior at Corona del Mar High School.
In seventh grade at Harbor Day School, they were surprised to find out about the lack of women in STEM-related careers. They realized they wanted to do something about it. Kids don’t see that many women in the laboratory, Gomez said in a recent phone interview, or in other STEM professions traditionally dominated by men.
“We wanted to create something to promote the idea and normalize the idea of women entering STEM,” Gomez said.
From that, Science Scoop was born.
“Kids don’t know what they are interested in until they are exposed to it,” she said. “Our whole point is to expose younger girls (to STEM careers) so they put themselves in the shoes of those (professions).”
It’s the old adage: If you can dream it, you can be it.
During a Science Scoop workshop, kids take a quiz to find out what area of science they might be interested in and then learn about the science through a fun, hands-on demonstration. The hope is to “get them really psyched about science,” Gomez said.
Photos courtesy of Isabel Gomez
The 12-question quiz to asks a mixture of fun, imaginative questions. The responder’s answer (from the four choices) provides insight into which of the five categories (that Science Scoop focuses on) they might enjoy: Animals, chemistry, medicine, nature, and technology.
Presentation topics or demonstrations include extracting DNA from a strawberry, creating scrubs with essential oils, and explaining how arctic animals stay warm with blubber (using a hands-on demonstration involving bags of Crisco).
The duo has hosted between 15-20 workshops for local organizations, Boys & Girls Clubs, and the Girl Scouts. They will also present to groups of friends or informal groups.
“We’re open to talking to anyone about science,” Gomez said.
They’ve reached about 350 kids through their programs. The best reward, Gomez said, is when a young girl is inspired to pursue a STEM career after a Science Scoop workshop.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “It’s awesome to get a letter from a girl who wants to be a dermatologist after attending our program.”
Although science isn’t her only love. She’s a sports fan and athlete.
When she was 11, Gomez won a contest to be a Sports Illustrated Kid Reporter. She interviewed some of the biggest names in sports at the time, including Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry, and Jamaal Charles.
Her love of sports and journalism has endured. She’s played soccer, volleyball, lacrosse, and basketball, and is the Sports Editor for the student newspaper, The Bolt.
Gomez also volunteers for ACEing Autism, a volunteer-driven, nonprofit organization that connects kids with autism to tennis and helps them grow, develop and benefit from social connections and fitness.
As she inspires others to enter STEM-related professions, Gomez herself is “definitely leaning” toward a science-related career, possibly in medicine. Already diving into the field, she’s twice participated in a research program at the UCI School of Medicine.
For more information, visit
HO THUC NGUYEN LE (WEN), A FULL CIRCLE JOURNEY OF INTEGRATION
By moving from Vietnam to Georgia to California in less than four years, Ho Thuc Nguyen Le (Wen), 17, of Garden Grove, has had a crash course in integration and the challenges that come with it. Now she’s determined to help others who face similar issues.
As a freshman at Johnson High School in Gainesville, Ga., Le started a Welcoming Club. Now a senior at Bolsa Grande High School, Le plans on majoring in political science to eventually become an immigration lawyer.
“I want to turn it around and help people who are struggling with the same challenges that I faced,” Le said during a recent phone interview. “I want to be there to help make everything easier in the process.”
She still remembers the day they went to the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam.
It was pouring rain and they had to wake up at 6 a.m. The gate wasn’t open at the embassy yet and people were already gathering. They ran to get in line. Her dad carried a backpack with the necessary paperwork, covering it so nothing would get wet.
The interview included questions about why they wanted to emigrate and any relatives they already had in the states. At the end of the process, they were approved.
“There were mixed emotions,” she said, “Happiness, relief, (uncertainty).”
Arriving in Gainesville was a culture shock. Her English was broken and she didn’t know the culture.
“First, for me, the biggest struggle was how do I fit in?” she said. “It was overwhelming.”
Feeling alone and ostracized, she started the Welcoming Club to help immigrant students. She made posters, spoke to various classes, and wrote a broadcast announcement.
At the club’s first meeting she prepared a slideshow for her fellow students, but, much to her disappointment, only one person attended.
“I was very upset and crying,” she said, it was a harsh blow to her self-esteem.
Persevering, she found the Knight Connection Club, which focuses on campus positivity. She joined and created a sub-group specifically about integration.
Through the club, she met other students who had a hard time fitting in or struggled to make friends. They shared stories and listened to each other. They bonded.
“Everyone has a story. Everyone wants to be heard,” Le said.
Le invited the single student who attended the Welcoming Club meeting to join them.
“She told me that she felt like someone really cared for her. When she was in the club, she felt more like herself,” Le said. “The Welcoming Club didn’t turn out how I wished it would have, but at least it had an impact on that one person.”
In 2019, her family moved to Southern California. She was excited and angry. Things had just started getting better, she was making friends and starting to settle into her new life.
“I thought it would keep getting better as I gradually put myself out there,” she said.
So, she made a pros and cons list and realized the many positives.
“I’m attracted to the beaches and the adventure,” Le said. “I wanted to… see the glitz and the glam of LA.”
But after about six months at her new school, they went virtual due to COVID-19. It was difficult and lonely.
A teacher suggested Girls Inc. of Orange County, a nonprofit that aims to inspire girls to be strong, smart, and bold.
“Girls Inc. happened to me in my weakest time during the pandemic,” Le said.
Although she was hesitant about participating in the College Bound: Grad Lab, over the course of the program she appreciated the encouragement, kindness, and support she received.
Le is now ready to soar at college. She wants to meet new people and have new experiences. As she embarks on her journey to become an immigration lawyer, she remembers that rainy day in Vietnam.
“I remember so vividly everything happening that day and the people and reading the oath,” she said, and pursuing this career path, it “comes around full circle.”
Photos courtesy of Wen Le
STUDENT CLUB FOCUSES ON DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION
For one local teen, there has been a silver lining of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order.
Since quarantine started in early 2020, Hannah Lieberman, 16, of Newport Beach, got interested in politics, started learning more about social justice issues, and followed body positivity activists online.
Through social media, the Waldorf School of Orange County sophomore said she became part of a bigger community. She listened to people from different backgrounds, races, and gender expressions. Her eyes opened to the experiences of others.
She realized that although she feels comfortable, accepted, and loved in her own community, not everyone would.
“There is so much more that we could be doing,” she said. As a community, “(we) can be open to change, (but) somebody has to step up and propose change in order for it to happen.”
Last fall, she founded a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Club on her campus.
Lieberman believes understanding and acceptance can be achieved through exposure.
“We need to be flooded with so many types of voices and points of view… so we become used to knowing and accepting that people are different and still seeing the humanity in them,” Lieberman said.
Photos courtesy of Hannah Lieberman
While representation is an issue on a larger scale, Lieberman said she can affect change in her own community at Waldorf.
“If you boil it down, it’s a problem of humanity and it makes me genuinely angry, but I think about the little bit that I can do,” and focus on that, she explained.
“Out of the few hundred students that the club can reach, if just one gets something out of it, it’s worth it,” Lieberman said.
Since the club has been virtual this year, they have only met online. The group is still small, with less than a dozen students. They don’t have a specific mission yet, Lieberman said, but the idea behind the club is to “educate ourselves and then bring that education out to our community.” In the post-COVID future, they plan to attend pride events and host open discussions.
In addition to the club, Lieberman is learning two languages, plays various sports and instruments, and has also volunteered for a number of organizations and community service groups over the years.
She also built a library in the high school on campus, with help from English teacher Beka Castro (also the club’s staff sponsor). They bought books and placed bookshelves along a wall in a classroom. The Library in Linden (named after the classroom, which is named after a tree) already has more than 1,000 books. They range from cookbooks to Shakespeare to classic novels to modern stories.
Anything is reading, Lieberman said, paraphrasing her teacher, “don’t stigmatize reading comic books over Socrates. Both are literature.”
As for her own future, Lieberman said she definitely wants to keep doing something in the realm of public service. Although she’s not sure how exactly.
“I’m just not comfortable with doing something that is not in service for others,” she said. “I want to do something that directly helps other people.”
Follow the club on Instagram at @WSOCDEICLUB
SENDING SUNSHINE, ONE LETTER AT A TIME
Photos courtesy of Natalie Salvatierra
The art of letter writing is not lost on Natalie Salvatierra, 16, of Orange County.
The Foothill High School junior recognizes the power of the written word and how letters of encouragement can help those struggling with mental health conditions. So she founded Solely Sunshine to help with exactly that.
She started Solely Sunshine last year, after learning that stress exacerbates the symptoms of OCD and other mental health conditions, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, people are experiencing worsening symptoms. She also knew other people might be struggling with loneliness or anxiety.
“I wanted to spread sunshine and encouragement to people,” Salvatierra said during a recent phone interview.
Receiving a letter and seeing the person’s handwriting is really special and meaningful, Salvatierra said.
“It feels really nice that somebody thought of you,” she said, and it’s also a “feel good” activity for the writer. “Knowing the words that you are writing will help someone else… it makes you feel good.”
She started the project by asking her friends on her personal Instagram to write letters that she could mail to mental health facilities.
“I got a really great response,” she said. “So, I expanded that to people around the world.”
Now, not quite a year later, Salvatierra has received more than 5,000 letters from nearly 50 countries. She has about 100 volunteers that help transcribe letters that are submitted online, which are then sent in batches of about 10 to each facility. She sends approximately 100 letters total per week.
The response from the facilities has been overwhelmingly positive, she said. Some patients
hang them in their rooms or create a “wall of sunshine” where all the letters are posted.
“They can see the letters and be reminded that someone is thinking of them,” Salvatierra said.
Receiving a letter from a stranger, possibly from a different country, can also bring people comfort.
“That factor makes you feel like the world isn’t so big, even if you feel isolated there are people that are there for you, people that you don’t even know,” Salvatierra said. “You definitely feel a connection.”
The majority of the patients in the facilities she sends the letters to are teens, she said, but she’ll gladly send to any facility.
Community service and helping others is something Salvatierra grew up doing. Whether it was donating cell phones to soldiers or organizing a religious tolerance event, caring about others has been a priority for her. Salvatierra also published a book, “Do Not Worry, Little Donkey,” about a young donkey who experiences anxieties, like being scared of the dark or storms.
“I definitely think that just by being kind, even if you don’t know someone, can make them feel happy and content,” she said.
For her career, she hopes to make people smile through a different method: Food. Salvatierra wants to become a food scientist, a flavorist, creating different food flavors for snacks and beverages. And community service will always be a part of her life.
“I always continue to help people,” she said. “I like to make people happy and food makes people smile.”
For more information, visit SOLELYSUNSHINE.COM