Recorder: "Peacemaker Awards: Local students strive to change the world"

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Peacemaker Awards: Local students strive to change the world

By ANITA FRITZ

Staff Writer

GREENFIELD — Yvonna Stewart was inspired when she took a trip with her class to Washington, D.C. and learned about the atrocities happening in Syria.

That prompted the 14-year-old eighth-grader at Frontier Regional School in South Deerfield to start the Frontier Syrian Awareness Project, a group committed to educating students, and the community, about the Syrian genocide and ways to support Syrian refugees living in this area.

Stewart and 11 other area students were honored Thursday night at Greenfield Community College with Peacemaker Awards by the Interfaith Council of Franklin County and Traprock Center for Peace and Justice for the “extraordinary” work they are doing for social justice, equality and the eight “isms” and so much more.

“I can’t top you,” state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, said. “You are amazing.”

Blais told students they’ve made an impact in everyone’s lives around them.

“You are our leaders,” Blais said. “You are leading our nation right now. You will bring us world peace one day.”

Stewart said she had to speak up. She said she has become an activist for equality, social justice and other pressing issues. She said she’d like to be president one day.

Elina Gordon-Halpern, a 17-year-old senior at Ralph C. Mahar Regional High School, said she really cares about her school community and the community she lives in.

Gordon-Halpern said she is a peer mediator and works with the school program Training Active Bystanders to make the school safe. She is also a member of the Regional Association of Student Councils.

“My parents taught me well,” Gordon-Halpern said. “I can’t see myself doing anything else — being part of my community and promoting social justice.”

The Peacemaker Awards were created in 1999, following the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and a couple of incidents involving youth violence in Turners Falls and Greenfield.

Father Stanley Aksamit, of Our Lady of Peace Church in Turners Falls, suggested that the Interfaith Council and Traprock needed to find ways to recognize young people for their contributions to well-being, non-violence and justice in local communities.

This year, the groups celebrated their 19th annual Peacemaker Awards. As each student came to the podium to receive their award, the person who nominated them spoke briefly about their accomplishments.

Academy at Charlemont sophomore Eli Catanzaro, 16, the only male to receive the award this year, said he has been working with other students on the school’s honor code.

“It’s a really good way for students to become more involved members of the school community,” he said. “It also helps with leadership skills. It’s a jumping-off point for bigger things.”

Other honorees were Octavia Crawford, Meckenzie Sarage, Nece Rawlings, Mae Rice-Lesure and Taylor Loomis, all at Mohawk Trail Regional High School; Mae Emerson and Fernanda Ponce, seniors at Deerfield Academy; Madeleine “Magsy” Lombard, a senior at Four Rivers Charter Public School; and Ella McDaniel, a sophomore at Greenfield High School; and Fernanda Ponce.

Connor Bulseco, who is home-schooled, played the guitar and sang during a break between awards.

Emerson, who volunteers by helping to coach Special Olympics athletes in floor hockey, said it was a “nice surprise” to be nominated, while Ponce said she was “shocked and honored.”

Ponce said she does what she does because she’s passionate about gun violence, race issues, immigrations, cultural traditions and institutional racism, not for recognition, although it’s nice.

McDaniel said she always tries to be kind, polite and friendly.

“I get all of that from my parents,” she said.

Sixteen-year-old Sarage, who, like Stewart, wants to be president one day, said she hopes receiving the award will encourage other students to strive to do more for their communities.

“Everyone can make a difference,” Sarage said.

You can reach Anita Fritz at: afritz@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.