South Bay Teens: 10 to Watch
Meet our latest class of exceptional young men and women poised to take the future by storm.
- Written byDarren Elms
Benjamin Simoens, 17San Pedro
“A person I didn’t know once recognized me in the mall,” says Benjamin, a lead dancer with South Bay Ballet. “I feel like the South Bay is particularly supportive of the arts, so it is a fantastic place to be as a teenager.”
Balancing a rigorous academic load with California Virtual Academies and several necessary hours of dance and piano requires a special kind of discipline, which young Benjamin has come to master. “I have to make sure I get the grades that will allow me to secure my future while still maintaining peak physical condition,” he says.
Dancing has proved both joyous and challenging for Benjamin, who has recovered successfully from four knee surgeries. “At a time when some would have told me to give up on my goal, my family helped me see that I needn’t ever let an injury get the better of me.”
But his greatest accomplishment was a piece he choreographed last year to commemorate his grandmother, who died when he was 7. “It was a well-received piece, but that wasn’t what was most important to me. The piece was my chance to do something for the kindest, strongest and bravest woman I have ever known.”
Henry Morse, 13,Redondo Beach
“My grandfather as well as my father are both extremely experienced and skilled racers,” notes Henry, a seventh-grader at Chadwick School. “My grandfather was a world champion on two wheels in 1965, and my father raced both cars and motorcycles, winning countless races and championships.”
From ages 5 to 9, young Henry raced motorcycles himself, until his father realized the levels were moving up very quickly in terms of speed but down in safety.
“It got to a point where the people that I used to race motorcycles with were going 160 mph on 600cc motorcycles,” he says. “They all walked around with permanent limps, and eventually one of them died. So I began racing karts competitively when I was 10.”
Whenever Henry has a break during homework, he says he just about always uses his race simulator.
“One month, I used the simulator a lot,” he admits. “Every minute of free time was spent on the simulator. At the end of that month, I got pole position, won the race and set the track record at K1 Speed Torrance.”
At the Challenge GP Adult League at K1 Irvine, Henry was the only first-timer and non-adult to compete with 21 other racers. After qualifying the second round in first, the driver who qualified second asked, “Which one of you qualified first?”
Henry responded, “I did.”
When that driver bragged how he was going to pass him “cleanly,” both Henry and his dad played along as they rolled the kart onto the track and waited for the green flag. Henry won.
“I named this memory ‘The Fairy Tale,’” he says.
Samantha Nishimura, 17Torrance
2,400. That’s the magic number that Samantha, a junior at Bishop Montgomery, accomplished on her SAT. A perfect score. According to ABC News, only 360 students of 1.6 million hit that mark the year prior—a feat both she and her family celebrate.
But the humble teen will tell you her Silver Award through Girl Scouts is also up there on her list of proudest moments. “I worked together with my troop to actively raise money and become involved in the community,” she says. “The Silver Award is the second highest accolade that a Girl Scout can receive, and I am currently working toward my Gold Award.”
Not only a whiz at academics, Samantha enjoys activities outside the classroom, including varsity tennis and a new side hobby of photography.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the way that photographers can present the world through a perspective that others may not ever be aware of,” she shares. “Photography catches the unexpected or the unnoticed and allows the rest of the world to view it in a startlingly new way.”
With such a busy schedule, Samantha says it’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed and frustrated, so she tries to make it a priority to slow down every once in a while and take everything into perspective. “I refuse to allow myself to be defeated by my own fears, and I remind myself that in a week, a month or a year, any seemingly insurmountable obstacle that I’m facing now will seem trivial and silly,” she says.
“The ‘mountains’ that we have to climb,” she continues, “be they upcoming tests or fights with friends, always seem taller when we’re standing at the base looking up than when we’re looking back a mile over our shoulder. I do my best not to blow things out of proportion, and I enjoy each day as it comes.”
Daron Wong and Trent Wong, 17Palos Verdes Estates
Twin tennis players Daron and Trent first took up the racquet as young kids and continued to take to the court through their four years at Palos Verdes High School. Despite close familial ties, this sister and brother duo understands the independent instincts required of tennis.
“During competition, there is nobody you can hold accountable except for yourself,” says Trent. “Once the practicing and the conditioning are taken care of, the rest of tennis is mental.”
Off the court, the two show incredible leadership on campus. They are both Presidential Gold Service Award winners, members of the California Scholarship Federation, and together they co-founded the school’s National History Club. Additionally, Daron raises money for diabetes awareness, and Trent volunteers in university labs that focus on cancer research.
The strength of their bond has been tested over the years, ever since Daron was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism. As the condition is rare in children and teens, Daron sees her fight as an opportunity to spread awareness of autoimmune diseases.
“Everything I have been through is really not about me.
It is about those around me who are also struggling, or who are struggling and don’t even realize that they are.”
Daron shares this mission with her brother and “best friend.” Trent says, “Wherever my life takes me, I hope that my career allows me to have the means in order to become an activist promoting the research and treatment of autoimmune conditions.”
Noah Viklund, 16Manhattan Beach
“Like any kid, my parents put me into many different things as a child such as soccer, basketball, baseball and volleyball.
But when I was about 8, I start-ed taking guitar lessons,” says Noah, a sophomore at Vistamar School. “I have continued to push myself by pursuing jazz guitar and studies. This has been a whole new level.”
The introduction of a jazz band class at his school has helped the young musician incorporate guitar into his daily routine, inspiring him to encourage other members to meet more than once a week. Noah also participates in three extracurricular bands on weekends and studies with a private teacher once a week. “It’s a juggling act but very well worth it.”
The enterprising musician also started a ukulele club at the school, allowing him to share his love for the instrument with his peers and even a few teachers. “The biggest challenge in my life right now would be staying true to myself while being an out-of-the-box thinker and balancing my craft with school,” he says.
Luckily he has the support of his parents, who encourage him to practice and improve. Noah recently performed at a pre-Grammy party at The Village Studios and has already set his sights on attending a music conservancy college.
“Music has always been my ‘Northern Star,’” he says. “It is my compass on both cloudy and sunny days.”
Abril Bustamante, 16Redondo Beach
“I’ve always loved playing all kinds of sports,” says Abril, a junior at Redondo Union High School. “My older sister played volleyball, and since I was pretty tall and lanky at my age, people were telling me to try it out. One day I did, loved it and have played every since.”
In the competitive court of beach volleyball, to become the best—like Abril’s role model Kerri Walsh—requires complete dedication and plenty of sacrifice. “My family has always been very supportive by taking me to countless practices, driving me to local tournaments and even out-of-state and international tournaments,” she shares.
“Sometimes it is very hard for some of my friends that do not play competitive sports to understand why I am not available to hang out with them often either, because I have practice or a tournament. But my good friends have always supported me and even have come watch me play.”
A year shy of graduation, Abril has already committed to USC and the sand volleyball team, with aspirations of representing the U.S. after college. “I feel blessed to live here,” says the competitive teen. “I get opportunities that others don’t get, like training at the best beaches in the world for the sport that I love.”
Call of Nature
Rachel Dokko, 18Rolling Hills Estates
“Most of the passions that I have discovered have been through experimentation,” says Rachel, a senior at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School. “Going into my freshman year, I decided to try a new sport (lacrosse), add a science research class, join an environmental club and even try out for science competition teams. I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone by delving into activities that were new to me.”
One of those activities included volunteer work at the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy, where she helps restore the habitat for the Palos Verdes blue butterfly. In addition to planting 200 host plants for the butterflies, she learned that dedication and hard work require continual sacrifice.
“The butterflies have shaped me into a better leader,” she shares. “I am amazed how much I grew as a person and was able to achieve as a leader while fulfilling my duty as a member of the community.”
Once in college, Rachel hopes to start a habitat restoration project, either on campus or in the community surrounding it. “I love the thrill that I feel when I am able to accomplish something that requires all of my effort,” she adds. “From this I have learned that I get back as much, and sometimes even more, than I put in.”
Karin Olivo, 18Rancho Palos Verdes
“I’ve always loved helping people that were less fortunate,” says Karin, a senior at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School. “The fact that I have family in the Dominican Republic and that Haiti is right next door really drew me to help feed those people.”
After establishing her own charity platform Operation DREAM (allaboutthedream.org), Karin has so far shipped more than 50,000 pounds of lifesaving food to those two countries.
She has fostered a spirit of giving since she was very young, growing up with brother whose autism inspired her to befriend other kids with special needs.
“I love baking because it’s so much fun. So when I heard that some women from my home church bake cookies for the Marines at Camp Pendleton, I couldn’t resist putting my hobby to good use,” she shares. “Since my dad is a former Marine himself, I was really motivated to bake as many cookies as possible for our troops.”
In addition to spreading generosity, Karin earned her black belt in tae kwon do and manages the school swim team. She hopes her love for working with children will lead to a career in child psychology.
“My love for God and humanity motivates me to do what I love most: helping make the world a better place.”
Wheels in Motion
Sebastian “Seabass” Kuhr, 13Hermosa Beach
“I feel grateful to live here in such a great place,” says Seabass, a seventh-grader at Hermosa Valley School. “I am able to surf, play soccer, skate and even snowboard very easily. I’ve visited lots of other countries where kids don’t have homes, schools and are not nearly as fortunate. It’s just the best place ever to be a teenager, as the options are endless and there is always something fun to do.”
Seabass grew up watching Shaun White, Tony Hawk, Rob Dyrdek, PLG and David Beckham. He couldn’t help thinking how cool it would be to do what you love every day as your job. He also paid close attention to their philanthropic efforts, understanding that having advantages primes us to give back.
“Last year I went to an orphanage in Cambodia to help the kids with English and take them gifts,” he mentions of a recent family trip. “Those kids didn’t even have a toothbrush or pencils or books. It makes me feel good to work with kids who could use a little extra help, and I taught them how to do the surf shaka!”
Seabass was honored with the Hermosa Beach Emerging Leader Award in 2013 for raising more than $20,000 for his school in his annual Skate for the Schools fundraiser. “I love to do this each year to give back to my school, help out the community, and it just feels great to raise money doing something I enjoy.”
Grace Under Fire
Hannah Rees, 17Palos Verdes Estates
“I was determined to be treated like any other high school student,” says Palos Verdes High School senior Hannah, who overcame Hodgkin’s lymphoma during her freshman year. “This determination allowed me to challenge myself academically while still undergoing treatment for cancer.”
The young teen would keep up with schoolwork by having chemotherapy on Fridays, recovering over the weekend and returning to school the following week if her blood counts were high enough. “I would also work on the car rides to and from each radiation session,” she says.
Healthy and enjoying her final year of high school, Hannah plays tennis, enjoys her friends and volunteers for the cause closest to her heart. “One of my goals after completing treatment was to raise money to support pediatric cancer research,” she shares.
Her success is impressive. “With the support of my family and friends over the past three years, I have been able to raise $14,500 for pediatric cancer research and treatment at the Jonathan Jaques Children’s Cancer Center at Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach, where I was treated, and the Children’s Cancer Research Fund,”
But her passion does not stop at philanthropy. This past summer she assisted her pulmonologist in writing a scientific manuscript of a study that analyzed the correlation between cytokine production levels in cystic fibrosis patients and their long-term pulmonary function.
Hannah says, “After being exposed to the research paper writing process, I am eager to take part in the physical portion of projects.”
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