Building a better community and a better world takes dedication and desire to make a difference.
Three Okotoks youths were honoured last week for their work as volunteers and leaders making a difference in the community at the 21st annual Leadership Awards, which were handed out at d’Arcy Ranch on April 13.
Winners of the Leaders of Tomorrow Awards April 15 were Gabby Gibbs in the senior high school category; Emily Penzo in the junior high school category and Mya Jones in the elementary school category.
The awards recognize students attending Okotoks schools for their leadership, character, volunteer work and excellence in a variety of fields.
Work to collect donations for children in developing countries found an ardent young supporter at Big Rock School.
Grade 4 student Mya Jones single-handedly led a drive to collect more than 120 shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child last year.
“I like helping people around the world,” she said. “I like doing shoe boxes for Operation Christmas Child and I am really excited to go to the young authors conference.”
It was this determination to make a difference that saw the nine-year-old win the elementary category of the annual Leaders of Tomorrow Awards.
Jones said the honour is a positive encouragement to continue working to make a difference.
“It’s a great opportunity to be more confident about myself and I’m really happy about it,” she said.
Jones said it’s important to her to help others and she wants to continue to help people and work in a field where she can make a difference in other people’s lives.
“I like thinking about other people in the world that aren’t as fortunate as us,” she said.
Jones credits her parents and church community for encouraging her to give back to others.
“I really feel like it’s my parents supporting me and my church,” she said. “I learned all about being kind to others and being a leader.”
Jones’ teacher Katlin Strand said her young student thinks, acts and dreams big.
“It’s incredible that she’s only nine-years old and she’s got all of these skills already that someone her age almost shouldn’t have, it shows such great depth of character,” she said.
Strand said Mya is helpful, humble and a leader in the classroom, always ready to offer help without even being asked.
Jones has gained a reputation as kind, caring and compassionate and for helping others without having to think about it, said Strand.
“Mya is a student who’s mature beyond her age, she is exceptional within the classroom, within the school and even within her community,” she said.
Strand gave Jones full credit for leading a drive to collect shoeboxes filled with donations for Operation Christmas Child and personally collecting, inspecting and delivering the boxes.
“She raised it,” she said. “She completed a presentation to explain what it was and went around to all the classrooms. She collected all the boxes. Delivered them all.”
Emily Penzo has racked up a long list of accomplishments in her 13 years.
Volunteer, mentor, musician, swimmer, they’re just part of the list of endeavors her former principal listed off when Penzo was honoured in the Leaders of Tomorrow Awards junior high school category.
The Grade 8 student at Okotoks Junior High School said she enjoys volunteering and supporting her community.
“I definitely think helping others is one of the biggest, I love helping others and being around other people,” she said.
Penzo was a leader on her school’s patrol team and she is taking training as a swimming instructor. She also gives back to her former school as a mentor for Percy Pegler students through her work with Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Okotoks.
“I get to work with younger kids and I really like working with younger kids,” she said.
She is looking to take a leadership role in the future where she can continue to help others, possibly as a teacher.
“I think being a teacher would be really cool because you get to work with kids as well as teaching things that you’ve learned yourself in your previous years,” she said.
Percy Pegler School principal Dinah Shortt, said Emily was a leader at an early age in elementary school. She’s proud to see her continue to make a difference at Okotoks Junior High School.
“It’s who she is and it’s in her and she’s that kind of person who gives back,” she said, adding Penzo has initiative and courage to be a leader.
“That sense of knowing she can try anything and be successful at it,” she said.
She said elementary students have many of the qualities that make a person a good leader. For them, the world is full of opportunity and they’re willing to try things they may be less interested in doing when they get older.
“I’ve got kindergarten and Grade 1 kids who show leadership qualities already and I often say I can’t wait until you’re in Grade 4, 5, 6 when those opportunities become more formalized,” she said.
Being named a Leader of Tomorrow as a Grade 6 student five years ago showed Gabby Gibbs the value and importance of giving back to her community.
Winning the award a second time, now at the high school level, is further inspiration as she sets her sights on making a difference in the world.
“After winning the award the first time I wanted to do more volunteering and after doing so much in our community, although Okotoks is such a great place, there’s always that want for something more and once you get into volunteering you always want that little bit more,” she said.
She said volunteering has given her an opportunity to learn from the people she is helping and the award motivates her to keep going.
“Leadership, to me, is showing that unconditional love and support for everyone you come across,” she said. “Being a leader isn’t something you plan to do. Being a leader is something you need to put into your everyday life.”
Gibbs is involved in a number of initiatives and projects at school and in the community. She is president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and attended the 2016 forum for Young Canadians in Ottawa.
She joined Free the Children and Me to We to get international opportunities to volunteer and lead in Ecuador and India this summer.
She is looking at going to university to take either political science or international development, before going into law and working in humanitarian fields.
“I want volunteering to always be a part of my life, I don’t see this as the end or the peak whatsoever, I see this as building blocks getting to where I want to go next,” she said.
Holy Trinity Academy teacher Jason Olynyk said Gibbs deserved the award because she is selfless, dedicated and has a golden heart. He said she’s a great classmate, teammate, friend and leader in the school.
“When I look at Gabby I see a perfect role model for all students,” he said.
She said Gibbs takes on an incredible number of projects, on top of her honour roll school work and sports activities. And, he added, she’s taking a global perspective with her leadership on initiatives in Ecuador and this summer in India.
“That is tremendous,” he said.
In the end, he said Gibbs has had great role models in her parents and family.
“She’s seen a lot of great examples,” she said. “It’s her parents and her internal drive to help others.”
Through volunteering and supporting the community, a Grade 12 student at Holy Trinity Academy has learned the value of stepping back and learning from leaders in the community.
“It has helped be to advance and to look at them and learn from what they’re doing, it’s inspiring,” said Katelyn Knierim.
She was named an honourable mention in the high school level at the Leaders of Tomorrow Awards.
“Getting to see the other recipients really showed me what a good future we have with leaders and I was really honoured to be recognized with people who are that incredible,” she said.
She said it’s important for her to give back to the community and she hoped to continue doing so after university. She will attend Mount Royal University in the fall to take the criminal justice program at the school.