Kind at Heart

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Four local high school students are quick to offer a helping hand.

By Kirsti Correa

Left to right: Samantha Schroff, Brandon Huang, Sarah Woodworth and Natalie Cernius

Society has painted a rather one-dimensional portrait of teenagers. Today’s postmillennial generation is saddled with a reputation for apathy and narcissism, fueled by a dependency on technology and riddled with gratuitous “selfies” on social media.

But that’s not the case for many of Newport’s teens, who are the opposite of self-involved and boast a huge philanthropic spirit.

“Our students are legally, politically, environmentally, globally and socially connected like never before,” says Sean Boulton, Newport Harbor High School principal. “[They] have to think about sustainability and part of that is giving back to people who can’t help themselves for one reason or another.”

Despite juggling study sessions, advanced placement classes, college applications and extracurriculars, these local high school students found the time to pursue their passion for helping others.

Samantha Schroff, 17

Youth for Hope

Newport Harbor High School

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Even at a young age, Samantha Schroff took to heart the timeless adage that sharing is caring. She recalls her earliest philanthropic effort back in 2002 at age 5: preparing a Thanksgiving meal at Isaiah House in Santa Ana and collecting enough food items to fill an office at the Orange County Rescue Mission.

“We live, in my opinion, in one of the most beautiful spots in the world,” Samantha says. “However, underneath all of the media hype about how beautiful Orange County is, there are a lot of people who need a helping hand.”

Now as a junior in high school, she launched Youth for Hope at Newport Harbor High School, an auxiliary club of Costa Mesa-based Project Hope Alliance (PHA), to raise awareness and end youth homelessness in Orange County. Samantha was moved by the nonprofit’s work when she took a tour of its office last September. “I almost cried when [PHA Executive Director Jennifer Friend] talked about how … 28,091 homeless and motel children are enrolled in OC schools and some attend Newport Harbor High School,” she says.

Immediately after the tour, Samantha mobilized a team of 20 high school students—with a small bribe of pizza and community service hours—to help make a difference in these kids’ lives.

Youth for Hope students collected donations that would go toward purchasing groceries for a food pantry.

To kick off the club’s efforts, Samantha obtained a $25,000 donation from an anonymous business owner—but the group didn’t stop there. The students organized a Stuff-A-Truck event at the high school over Mother’s Day weekend, flagging down cars and pedestrians to stop and support their cause. For $10, passersby could purchase pre-assembled grocery bags of food items that would be donated to PHA’s food pantry. The club members sold hundreds of bags—enough to fill a U-Haul truck—in addition to raising $1,036 for the organization. With donation and event proceeds combined, Youth for Hope was able to end homelessness for 17 kids, according to Susi Eckelmann, PHA programs and outreach coordinator.

“I have witnessed firsthand the power … when the community joins their hearts and minds together,” Samantha says. “We can actually solve problems in our community.

Natalie Cernius, 18

Friday Night Club

Newport Harbor High School

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Natalie Cernius is the definition of well-rounded. The Harvard-bound recent graduate is a decorated tennis player, pianist and scholar. Perhaps the most treasured part of her life, though, is her family. Natalie is the youngest of four siblings: Ariana, Jason and Andrew, who is severely autistic. After her two older siblings left for college, Natalie wondered who would be there to play with Andrew when it was her turn to leave for school. “He didn’t understand college,” Natalie explains. “He only knew that it took his sister and brother away.”

To ensure Andrew would have friends his age around after his siblings were all in school, Natalie invited a group of her friends as well as a few other kids with autism to her house for an evening of games and snacks in April 2011. “Everyone who came … wanted to come back again and bring their friends,” she says.

The real growth spurt occurred when United Cerebral Palsy of Orange County adopted the gathering as one of its programs and spread the news to the families it serves. On Friday nights, college and high school student volunteers spend quality time with special needs young adults between the ages of 13 and 30. “It’s a place of acceptance for everyone who attends, and it also serves to educate students about the challenges faced by our peers with special needs … and how special needs teenagers want all the same things we want,” Natalie explains.

Natalie Cernius with her brother, Andrew.

The club now hosts monthly gatherings at the Cernius’ home in Newport Beach, as well as Mariners Church and United Cerebral Palsy of Orange County in Irvine—all complete with stations to karaoke, do crafts and play basketball, table tennis and video games.

“When I started the club, I was just trying to help my brother,” says Natalie, who was honored with the National Philanthropy Day Orange County Outstanding Youth award in 2013. “In trying to do so, I discovered that other families with special needs kids have this same need for friendship and a place of belonging, and it’s important to me to keep the club going to serve not only my brother, but others like him.”

Fortunately, Ariana, who also attends Harvard, already introduced Friday Night Club to the Ivy League campus, so Natalie will be able to continue her efforts well beyond Orange County in the fall.

Brandon Huang, 17

Well Club

Corona del Mar High School

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At 8 years old, Brandon Huang would empty his spare change into a bamboo can at his house. When the can was full—usually with $200—his parents would donate the money to Tzu Chi, a Taiwanese organization that responds to natural disasters and refugee situations across the globe.

“This global perspective allowed me to understand that the world is an interdependent community where members must do their best to help each other out,” Brandon says. “What was simply a way for us to amass donations instilled in me the mindset of working for the greater good.”

Brandon’s caring deeds grew from cash donations to establishing the Well Club at Corona del Mar High School in late 2012 to support the Orange County Child Abuse Prevention Center. “I first learned about [the center] from a friend who worked with them in the past,” he says. “Their concept of breaking the chain of child abuse by creating happy environments at home struck me as both profound yet logical.”

In addition to outreach efforts, such as adopting a family during the holidays to attending health fairs to pass out pamphlets, the 32-member club hosts three major fundraising events per year to benefit the center. “Our annual concert fundraiser [began] last year with ‘Corona del Mar’s Got Talent,’ where we brought in $1,500 while showcasing the diverse talent of our school,” Brandon says.

Wellfest, a charity concert that Brandon Huang organized, generated more than $3,000 in donations.

For this year’s event, Brandon used his musical background, which began at age 4 when he started playing the piano, to put together the Well Fest charity concert on May 31.

More than 240 people filled the lawn of the Newport Beach Civic Center and Park during the concert to enjoy the sounds of six local bands that Brandon discovered. All of the proceeds—$3,240—were donated to the Child Abuse Prevention Center.

The junior is currently planning big things for his final year with the club, including a new reading program for elementary school students. His overall plan is to make Well Club dynamic and ever-evolving to help out a greater number of people even after he graduates.

Sarah Woodworth, 17

Beads of Courage

Sage Hill School

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It’s a typical scene in a classroom: The teacher asks for a volunteer, and amid the students twiddling their thumbs and avoiding eye contact, one hand shoots up in the air. That one hand is usually Sarah Woodworth’s.

“My parents always said, ‘If you can do something to help someone else, then always do it,’ ” she explains. While watching CBS News one Sunday morning during her sophomore year, Sarah learned of Beads of Courage, a Tucson, Ariz.-based nonprofit that helps children cope with cancer and other chronic illnesses by offering them something tangible.

“Every child in the program starts with beads of his or her name on a string,” Sarah says. “Then, they get beads that represent something they’ve gone through specifically. For example, glow-in-the-dark beads signify radiation; white beads for chemotherapy; brown for hair loss; and a purple heart when they finish treatment.

“The average kid [collects] 500 hundred beads in two years,” she continues. “It’s a way for them to say, ‘I’ve literally made it through this much, and I can make it through so much more.’ ”

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Inspired to volunteer at a hospital with the program, Sarah soon discovered that its availability was scarce locally. “There are two big things [hospitals] don’t get in order to have this program: funding and volunteer resources,” she says. “I thought, ‘Well, I can do that.’ ”

With help from Jason Gregory, Sage Hill’s director of community life and public purpose, and her dad, who works at Kaiser Permanente in Downey, Sarah gained approval to bring Beads of Courage to the Downey Medical Center.

Meanwhile, her efforts sparked interest from classmates, and Sarah established a club on campus—the organization’s first high school chapter. The club coordinates various fundraisers in addition to soliciting donations. So far, Beads of Courage at Sage Hill has raised approximately $11,000 for the program.

Now a high school graduate, Sarah has groomed three rising seniors to take over the club when she leaves for Tufts University to study community and global health on her path to medical school.

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