By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 4, 2017
ATLANTA—Kindness, leadership, strength in the face of adversity—these are but some of the terms used to describe this year’s “Super Seniors” from the Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. The seven students, nominated by their high schools to be featured in The Georgia Bulletin, are examples of remarkable young people who are working with dedicated faith on their own paths to success.
Georgia Bulletin staff writer Andrew Nelson and photographer Michael Alexander spent time with each of these high school seniors to learn more about the spirit and drive that guides these young people.
These students, as always, are a source of hope and reminders of God’s faithful love and care.
Blessed Trinity High School
ROSWELL—Hannah Jones wants to look at the night sky with the knowledge of a scientist and the faithfulness of a Catholic.
Her ambition is to work toward a doctorate in physics or another science, with a dream of a career exploring space.
“The sciences are very interesting to me and I love how my faith plays a very integral part of that understanding. It is so wonderful and interesting to me to look deeper into God’s great creation,” she said.
Jones, 18, attends Blessed Trinity High School, in Roswell. She’s made a reputation on the golf team. Her first year, she helped the team win the state championship trophy. During her time there, the team also was the regional champion twice and then came in second at the state competition. (You can see one of her golf videos at http://bit.ly/gb-superseniorsJones.)
“I was able to learn from golf how to be level-headed in tense situations and to be humble in my failures and in my success. I learned that sometimes the risk is absolutely worth the reward and to constantly reach toward new goals,” Jones said.
She received the St. Sebastian Award, given to a well-rounded sports team leader. Sought after by the college, she plans to play golf at Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia.
Jones is the daughter of Heather and Pat Jones and has two younger siblings. The family worships at the Cathedral of Christ the King, in Atlanta, where she has been a teen mentor.
Golf is far from all she does. She raised money for the Atlanta Community Food Bank Hunger Walk, hosted a talent show for homeless youth, and has been a voice against abortion at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., in addition to other outreach. Jones considers being a Eucharistic minister a peak experience of high school.
“Every time I serve as a Eucharistic minister, I cannot help but smile the whole time. I enjoy every moment of it.”
Talking about her high school, Jones showed her sense of humor. She said she learned “any color could go with green plaid if you want it to.”
But in truth, she said she learned it’s a good thing to ask questions, teachers can be some of your best friends, and “prayer can be present in every moment of the day.”
Holy Spirit Preparatory School
ATLANTA—Jaidi Velasquez leads the Spanish Club at Holy Spirit Prep, in Atlanta, where a focus is supporting fellow young people in Honduras living with HIV.
The support by the 18-year-old for these young people is part of the lessons she picked up in school, outside of the facts and equations learned in textbooks. During high school, Velasquez said she learned the importance of being kind.
“Not everyone in the world will like you, but I can choose to love those around me,” said Velasquez.
Born to Lidia Miguel and Virgilio Velasquez, she attends Holy Spirit Church. Next fall, Velasquez intends to enroll at Augusta University, Augusta, to prepare for a hoped-for future as a pediatric surgeon.
Velasquez will be the first member of her family to graduate from high school. School staff members commend her for being a bright spirit, a class leader and a driven member of the graduating class. She is a member of the National Spanish Honor Society and St. Joseph’s Cohort, a club dedicated to affordable housing. She has been a part of Holy Spirit Prep since second grade.
At school, she has been a team manager for football and basketball, a varsity soccer player, and a Eucharistic minister. She described the school as “family, Catholic, and strong.” Each of her activities has stretched her, from raising awareness and money with the Spanish Club to athletics, which pushed her to improve skills for the sake of the team.
Being independent is a trait she’s grown into, not by choice. Her father was deported when she was 12, the last time she saw him. The primary English speaker at home, she helped to make sure bills were paid and raised her younger brother, among other duties. Her mother works many jobs to support the family. “She’s my mother and my father,” Jaidi said.
“I have learned God is watching over me and caring for my safety and I should never fear to walk alone.”
ATLANTA—Jack Sullivan’s goal is being a voice for people who struggle.
His family has faced many hardships, an older sister dying at 17, a brother with cerebral palsy, and a father who has faced cancer treatment and other serious conditions.
“Life can be difficult, but you have to keep going,” said Sullivan.
He is the son of Donna and Jerry Sullivan and has two brothers. Erin, his sister, died several years ago. The family attends St. Brigid Church, Johns Creek.
The 18-year-old Marist School senior is enrolling at the University of Georgia, Athens, in the fall. His senior year included three advanced placement courses in economics, statistics and art history. His dream job a decade from now would be working as an advocate for women and men who face the world with handicaps.
He’s gotten a head start on that by doing all his community service with Miracle League baseball, an adaptive program to get youngsters and adults out on the baseball diamond, no matter their mental or physical abilities.
“I know there are those who have lived through more difficulties than Jack has, but there can’t be many,” said Patty Montague, a Marist counselor. “He is intelligent, compassionate and motivated, and truly empathetic to the plight of others.”
Ask to describe his school in three words, Sullivan said “more than school.”
He is a dedicated presence in the campus ministry program. He was chosen to serve in leadership positions at the campus spiritual retreats. He takes seriously the ministry of serving at the altar, which he has done every year at Marist.
Leading the campus retreats was a highlight, he said. “It was awesome to help others on their faith journey and because I loved seeing my school community come together … to devote time to God.”
Monsignor Donovan High School
ATHENS—Malia Christian graduates from Monsignor Donovan High School, in Athens, with an open mind regarding her future.
She was accepted at Brenau University, in Gainesville, and once there will explore what interests her.
Christian, 18, is the daughter of Marian Parham and Kirk Christian, and has two siblings. She worships at Cedar Grove Baptist Church.
School leaders saluted her for her hard work, conscientiousness, and giving 100 percent in all her classes during her four years at the school.
“Although quiet and shy, Malia is polite and cooperative and a student we are most proud of at Monsignor Donovan Catholic High School,” said Dr. Ed Rock, school counselor.
For Malia, school hasn’t been easy. At the age of 6, she suffered a serious head injury. The damage to her brain initially caused short-term memory challenges, in addition to post-traumatic stress.
She worked very hard to overcome her head injury and has flourished at Monsignor Donovan, said Rock.
Christian, in her sophomore and junior years, ran in cross-country and track. For a young person who never thought of herself as athletic, participating on the running teams was for Christian a proud accomplishment.
About the academics, Christian said her confidence grew through high school as she felt more prepared for college than expected. Her overall GPA is near 90.
“She has been so successful in overcoming obstacles, being accepted to her first choice college, and living a productive and happy life,” Rock said.
Our Lady of Mercy High School
FAYETTEVILLE—Pay attention to the name Jacob Burgess. Down the road, he hopes to challenge and shape our culture as a filmmaker with values learned at Our Lady of Mercy High School, in Fayetteville.
Burgess plans to attend Georgia State University in the fall to study film and video.
“My dream job is to be a film director. It is my dream to create movies that capture the imagination of younger people in the same way that movies influenced my life,” he said.
The 18-year-old is the son of Stephen and Kim Burgess, and has a brother and sister. The family worships at St. Mary Magdalene Church, Newnan.
For the past four years, Burgess has created short films with an eye to improving his storytelling. But he’s created film for much longer. He made his first movie at 8 and now has completed more than 42 short films.
His interest changed from action-adventure as a youngster and drama “with twist endings like the Alfred Hitchcock and Twilight Zone films” to documentaries for high school projects. He is a fan of director Steven Spielberg.
“When I got my first camera, I realized that by making movies I could communicate the things I was imagining in my head with others through film,” he said. His films can be seen at: http://bit.ly/gb-superseniorsBurgess.
School administrators believe Burgess matches the school’s ideal of a servant leader, with his humility, dedication to work and kindness.
“Jacob’s creativity is like a breath of fresh air. As a budding filmmaker, he enjoys getting other students involved in his creations and often reaches out to those students who might otherwise be marginalized,” said school administrator Cynthia Launay-Fallasse.
Burgess earned the Boy Scouts’ highest rank as an Eagle Scout last year. He is a member of the National Honor Society, with academic awards in history, physics and theology, and the school’s FLAME Team, a campus outreach ministry. He founded and leads a film club at OLM and has acted, directed and been on fine arts technical crews there.
Said Burgess: “While attending Our Lady of Mercy, I have also learned the importance of hard work and the value of making friendships with people who come from different backgrounds and cultures.”
CUMMING—After his graduation from Pinecrest Academy in a few weeks, Dominic Piron is taking a year off from the classroom to serve with the Regnum Christi Mission Corps.
Piron surrounded himself with activities and clubs at Pinecrest that challenged him. From playing on the standout soccer team to teaching Christian values to middle school boys, Piron said he was proud to surround himself with friends who pushed each other to be better.
“Through all these activities a brotherhood was created,” he said.
Prion’s mother is Jennifer Hildebrand, and he has two sisters. He has also has been raised by grandparents Peter and Joyce Hildebrand. The family worships at St Brendan the Navigator Church, Cumming.
Leaders at the Cumming independent Catholic school said the 18-year-old has been a role model for students, serving in leadership positions of campus clubs. He has been the vice-president in the campus Pro-Life Club and a leader with Conquest, a middle school program.
“Every action you do impacts somebody, and you should always be working to be your best,” he said.
Piron said he’s grown on campus, especially in his faith with daily Mass, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and encouragement for prayer and a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Piron’s desire to serve isn’t limited to campus. He also traveled to Mexico and Nicaragua with mission trips to work with impoverished young people and families, said Amy Herbert, the school college counselor and 11th and 12th academic advisor.
As a member of the Regnum Christi Mission Corps, Piron will work in an assigned city for a year following an intensive summer training program. The missionaries work in Catholic schools and parishes, engaging as team leaders with young students to develop faith and grow into young women and men.
After his year of service, Piron’s goal is to attend Georgia Tech to study civil engineering.
“My dream job is to be an architect and/or engineer that builds homes and facilities for the poor. I like creating community,” he said.
St. Pius X High School
ATLANTA—Sofia Villegas dedicated time to sit and listen to youngsters and their families who had fled oppression. This first-generation American showed young people who grew up in refugee camps how to navigate Atlanta’s unfamiliar culture.
“They spoke little to no English and knew nothing about the American way of life. My job was to help these children adjust to America,” said Villegas, who will graduate from St. Pius X High School, in Atlanta, this month.
Her task was to help youngsters from Asia and Africa understand the English language, in addition to coins, hygiene and healthy lifestyles while volunteering at a Catholic Charities Atlanta summer camp for refugees.
Villegas is the daughter of Jose Villegas and Juliana Gomez. She has one brother. The family, with roots in Colombia, worships at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Atlanta. The 18-year-old expects to be on the campus of Georgia Tech this fall, studying for a degree in industrial engineering.
Around St. Pius, she was a veteran member of the school’s cross-country team. In addition, this native Spanish speaker can be found at the school’s writing center, where she guides her peers to improve research papers, essays, and more.
Asked to describe her high school in three words, she chose “Spirited—Family—Encouraging.”
Putting her language skills to another use, she interned with Catholic Charities Atlanta in its Immigration Services. She served as a bridge between clients who didn’t speak English and social workers. She also helped get birth certificates and personal statements translated and in order.
“I dabbled in some research and I learned a lot about immigration and refugees in this experience. I am proud of this activity because I was able to use my fluency in Spanish to help others,” she said.
That’s part of the lesson she’s taking when she leaves the archdiocesan high school.
“I learned mostly that I should be kind to everyone, no matter who they are. Like Jesus, we should love our neighbor as ourselves, and that includes refugees, immigrants, and people with whom we disagree,” she said.
She knows people will disagree, but it is how you act that is important. But don’t take respect to mean she doesn’t have an opinion. She isn’t shy about what she thinks.
“I feel like I am well prepared to stand by my opinions if someone ever asks me to explain my positions,” she said.