Giving back: Sequoia Awards recognizes the best of our student volunteers

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One high school student began working in Africa with refugees and victims of exploitation. Another became a fixture of friendliness and support at the Veteran’s Hospital in Palo Alto. Still another started a middle school tennis program. Another began a program to teach students how to cook, and another started her own tutoring and mental health counseling program.

These are just a handful of the moving and inspiring stories from this year’s group of Sequoia Awards winners and scholarship recipients.

For nearly 30 years, Sequoia Awards has been honoring high school seniors from Redwood City for their voluntary contributions to our community. Founded in 1990 by a group of community leaders led by Pete and Paula Uccelli, Sequoia Awards has grown from a single $500 scholarship to this year’s 24 winners, who will receive a combined $176,500 toward their college dreams and ambitions. The award is based entirely on the students’ volunteer activities – neither academics nor athletics are taken into account. Since 1990, more than $2 million in scholarship funds has been distributed by Sequoia Awards.

The highlight of the Sequoia Awards program is an annual dinner at which the students are recognized individually for their achievements and dedication to serving our community. The signature moment of the event is when each student is called up to the stage and stands in the spotlight for a few moments in front of family, friends, mentors and fellow students while their achievements are described. Sequoia Awards also recognizes an outstanding member of the Redwood City community whose volunteer efforts embody the vision of the organization and demonstrate to the students that voluntarism can and should continue into adulthood.

This story was originally published in the April edition of Climate Magazine. To view the magazine online, click on this link.

As has been the case with so many community events, Sequoia Awards was forced to cancel its annual dinner, scheduled for mid-March at the Marriott San Mateo Hotel.

“This is a decision none of us wanted to make and we kept holding out hope we could hold our event,” said Sequoia Awards Board Chair Jim Lianides. “These students and our outstanding individual work so hard to help their community and this is the night we get to honor them, their mentors and their families. It is a highlight for everyone involved, a deeply moving night, and it is a disappointment that health concerns forced us to cancel.”

The cancellation does nothing to diminish the achievements of these young men and women or to dim the bright light of charity, kindness and generosity that characterizes their work and the spirit and mission of Sequoia Awards. And it is possible to celebrate this year’s winners with the generous help of the publisher and editors of Climate Magazine, who have donated the space for this story and to put on display the name and photo of each winner.

This year’s top award, Outstanding Student, goes to Maria Casique, who will be graduating from Sequoia High School through the Cañada Middle College program. She will receive the top scholarship of $25,000.

In the seventh grade, Maria began struggling with depression and anorexia nervosa. By the eighth grade, “I had mentally checked out. … I couldn’t retain information, became distracted and felt hopeless and stopped eating and lost weight,” she said. In treatment for five months, Maria became determined not to fall behind in school. She succeeded, largely through her own initiative, and that left her determined to “combat the lack of academic resources available to younger students.”

She began by volunteering at Project Read, but that wasn’t enough. She started an after-school tutoring center at her former middle school so she “could have a bigger effect by serving more students.” The program became the Connect Tutoring Center and by her junior year, Maria had recruited classmates as additional tutors. They provide one-on-one tutoring and mentoring “and we serve as role models who are succeeding in advanced STEM classes.” She found a location for the program, and then she raised funds for a mental health pop-up devoted to the issues facing teens.

“Not many with similar background as mine – mental health struggles, first-generation, low-income, Latina – make it as far as I have, and volunteering motivated me to continue to fight my eating disorder and to voice my battle to the community to change perspectives on mental health, education and identity,” Maria said.

Maria will go to college to study neuroscience and, eventually, head to medical school with the goal of becoming a neurosurgeon.

The winner of the Outstanding Individual is Annette Soby, whose three decades of volunteerism have touched the Redwood City community broadly and deeply.

She has been a volunteer at Kainos Home and Training Center for more than 25 years, starting as a mentor to Kainos clients, an activity she continues. Some years ago, she expanded into speech therapy, using her training as a speech pathologist to teach improved enunciation and expanded vocabulary to build the confidence of countless clients seeking a mainstream life.

At Peninsula Covenant Church, Soby has provided speech therapy and counseling, has been a mentor to new parents, served as a Sunday School teacher and a leader of the church’s Christmas choir. Through PCC she has traveled to China to teach English to children. Numerous times, she has hosted travelers from China, The Congo and Japan, providing them space in her home.

She teaches Sunday school at Kainos, serves refreshments to members of the Hearing Loss Association of Redwood City, participates in a women’s Bible Study Fellowship, tutors students in the local school districts and advises parents of children with special needs. Every fall, she leads a drive to collect blankets, coats, hats and socks to donate to the homeless through Streetlife Ministries. And she tutors hard-of-hearing students at Project Read. In addition to an award, Soby will be given a stipend to donate to a charity of her choice.

This story was originally published in the April edition of Climate Magazine. To view the magazine online, click here.