PHOENIX — As another school year, albeit unusual, comes to a close, hope is rising on the horizon. And just as spring offers the emergence of new beginnings, accomplishments still achieved by students during a year of lockdowns and diverse learning, are starting to bloom into recognition and even event planning. Scholarships, parades, proms and graduation activities might just get their due.

Although they could not hold the traditional dinner and awards ceremonies with dignitaries to cheer them on, the Phoenix Community and Youth Council, John C. Birdlebough High School and supporters of student contributions to community, continued to encourage students throughout the school year. After all, the needs of a community didn’t disappear. It was still possible and necessary to engage in planning, new ideas for fundraising and new concepts for connection.

While the range of clubs, student government, performances, sports teams and competitions was limited, advisors and mentors still helped students through the process of organizing their four years of activities and community service. There were still those who applied for both gold and silver awards and the prestigious Youth of the Year award. Students who stood out as possible Phoenix Youth of the Year were then chosen by the Community and Youth Council to carry the honor high for 2021. In April, Phoenix School District Superintendent Chris Byrne, high school principal Thomas Bailer and members of the Community and Youth Council gathered these few students together under social distancing guidelines to present their awards.

Community Sservice activities and hours accumulate as students move through high school, with what is usually many opportunities provided to step up, with time and responsibility, and lead. Students who accumulate 300 or more hours of service in high school qualify for the Silver Presidential Service award and those who attain 500 hours of service qualify for the Gold level awards. Mathew Bernard, Johnathan Dion, Jeffrey Horner Jr., Kelsey Redhead, Brielle DeRoberts and Jock Li all qualified for Presidential Service Awards.

Chosen as Youth of the Year for this 2021 school year were Brielle DeRoberts and Jock Li. Both are students who achieved high levels of service and persevered through challenges presented in 2020 and 2021. Perhaps reflecting how different the year has been, each of them comes with a unique story and set of commitments they hold dear in service.

Brielle DeRoberts

Like many students picking and choosing as they entered middle school and with an emerging interest in Phoenix sports, DeRoberts picked up a tennis racket pretty early on. She took academic achievement awards in seventh and eighth grade, as well as Sectional and State Qualifier advancement at the eighth grade level in tennis. When she became a freshmen, DeRoberts added basketball to her activities and continued her Sectional advancement and academic achievements in both sports. In the early years of high school, she developed a true love for tennis and went on to achieve in various ways. DeRoberts became team captain, MVP and a high academic achiever in her freshmen year ... roles and traits she exemplified in the following years of high school.

While she got started in middle school with church and family service functions, hitting middle school and high school put a multitude of connections front and center for DeRoberts and community service. From ringing the Salvation Army bell to Crop Walk or face painting at Family Fun Night, DeRoberts went all in.

In addition to her sports interest, DeRoberts quickly got involved with other clubs and activities. She had received notice and was inducted into the National Junior Honor Society in middle school, an organization she went on to help lead forward as vice president — encouraging others to engage in service and community support. High school brought opportunities to get connected to the school newspaper and a role as treasurer, Yearbook as editor and treasurer, and Spirit Club which further supported everything DeRoberts enjoyed. She moved into Student Council, eventually becoming Student Council President and National Honor Society President.

Charity works began close to home with her family, engaged in an annual golf tournament to benefit heart disease research, “as tribute to a family member we lost,” says DeRoberts. There was a lot to it, but DeRoberts says, “It was also fun and I loved doing it.”

She took it upon herself to tackle creation of her class Homecoming banner as a freshmen — a project that took close to 30 hours — and enjoyed it so much that it became an annual project for her. Additionally there was often a holiday banner needed which DeRoberts would complete with her Spirit Club connections.

It wasn’t unusual to find this young woman at the concession stands during track meets and basketball games, or working with elders and younger students in celebratory or coaching and tutoring sessions. “There’s always something to do,” she says. In total, DeRoberts completed over 500 hours of service to community.

The service component of it all, DeRoberts feels, came naturally, although she did have an idea of goals she wanted to achieve. Her inspiration came “from the people around me. Family and friends have often been a main support system in my life,” she says. DeRoberts admits that her dad pushed her to do her best, and helped her a lot. The success she’s found in academics and sports comes “with the right mindset ... doing the best you can with what you’ve got,” she adds.

“I am a person who understands there will always be others who are better than me. I am also a person who thrives in the face of challenge. It has become evidently clear that nothing in life comes easy; nevertheless, the greatest fulfillment stems from achieving what appears to be unattainable,” she writes in her application for Youth of the Year. That reality, she indicates, has helped make her headstrong, loyal and driven. But the total of life experience also inspires DeRoberts to share thoughts with fellow students, both generally and in the world of COVID.

She hopes people around her learn to “not take anything for granted.” It’s true there are years ahead and for those driven to act, being in constant motion can be appealing. “But don’t stress about what doesn’t happen at a given time. Enjoy yourself and keep imagining what can and will happen in the future.”

She also enjoys helping others achieve that confidence and success. “I enjoy being a person that other people can come to as well as providing a sense of eagerness and confidence that serves as encouragement,” DeRoberts says. That concept only grew in importance over the past year. Although students couldn’t spend physical time together, “we could get together online. We could organize online. We could take time to lift people’s spirits,” she adds, “There’s always a positive side”.

Those qualities have been strongly observed by the teachers and mentors who have spent the last four years around DeRoberts. Lisa Spereno is a Student Council advisor, closely connected, in addition to daily contact as an English teacher. Throughout the years and in particular this last year, Spereno has been impressed. Besides all the accolades and service hours racked up, her teacher looks and sees something deeper.

“We have all been living through this pandemic, but I believe it’s how we live that will define our future. Brielle is the definition of that how leading to character, and becoming the best you can be in the face of adversity. She has been the first to think of her peers, the first to come up with ideas to keep a semblance of unity (not only in her class but across the board for the greater good of the school) and the first to pitch in with both ideas and actions to make this world a little less isolating,” says Spereno, “She will continue to be a first across the board as she heads into her promising future. I cannot wait to see how much light her star will shine upon others.”

Jock Li

Jock Li was also chosen by the Community and Youth Council for an award as 2021 Youth of the Year. His path was both different and parallel to DeRoberts’ school journey but required an equal drive and commitment to what he felt important to achieve.

Making time for service was, in itself, an impressive feat. His parents, Baoyu and Yayungyang Li, immigrated to America from China with Jock and his older sisters Wendy and Tina in their early childhood and began the family business. It wasn’t unusual, when they were younger, to see he and his sisters doing homework after school hours at one of the restaurant tables, or even helping out with chores and order-taking at Li’s Garden in Three Rivers Plaza. Besides school hours, homework, and projects, Li went on to work scheduled hours at his family’s locally-owned restaurant throughout high school.

Like many students in Phoenix, Li got connected in middle school with a constant community catalyst toward service, Cathy Lee. With strong academics and an already evident work ethic, Lee introduced the young man to leadership opportunities in seventh grade. It wasn’t long before he joined the Bridge House Brats, adding a wide range of skills to his repertoire, and developing leadership skills to carry forward into his future. A bulk of Li’s service time was with the Bridge House Brats each summer, logging hundreds of hours engaging in village beautification, service to boaters at the Henley Park docks and guiding younger brats through learning and activities on site. Though he went on in high school to a broader range of community service, the Bridge House Brats, and opportunities for leadership there, cemented it as a favorite he will always appreciate.

“She’s the best!” Li says of mentor Cathy Lee, “I found all my friends because of her”, reflecting that it was through those service to community connections that bonds were forged leading right in to the Firebird spirit. He shares with other students that saying “yes” to unfamiliar service activities with new people, “is scary at first. But you do get to know people. You become friends and even family with these people,” he says. Li says that his experience, as a freshmen going into high school and with Student Council, was that “other people — other students — were very accepting”.

In high school, Li was a member of the Principal’s Cabinet, worked with JCB News, the Newspaper Club and was into MathWorks. He played junior varsity basketball, became Class of 2021 treasurer as well as the Student Council treasurer, and naturally flew along with the Spirit Club at school.

There were always chances to offer service with other students — holiday activities for seniors, bell ringing, Canal Days, Camp Talooli, Crop Walk, Family Fun Day — on top of the class activities, that require more planning and preparation time than people imagine. Working on behalf of his fellow classmates, such as “working on fundraising, the senior prom, and class trip,” Li explained, “were pretty rewarding”. In total, Li accumulated over 700 hours of service.

Li says he became convinced that the only way to achieve all his goals, both in time and for the future, was “by working hard and staying focused”. His dream to pursue computer science developed in technology classes and exposure to robotics. “I fell in love with technology and what it could do to improve the world. It inspired me to follow this path” says Li.

He knew that to get there, he had to study hard, and get the grades. Li also notes, in his Youth of the Year application, “Grades and achievements in school are crucial but community service is just as important. I truly believe that volunteering not only betters our community but ourselves as well.” Coordinating school, work, activities and community service would be a challenge, but was a focus Li was completely committed to.

In addition to Cathy Lee, other advisors and teachers took note of how Li exemplified character and qualities with which to shine. His Spanish teacher, Charlene Chrysler has been teaching for 27 years, and marks Li as “one of the standouts”.

Pointing out that he has never shied away from advanced classes, taking advantage of as many as possible, she had the chance to observe through a college level Spanish course. Explaining that Li seemed to have a hunger that went beyond rout learning, she saw a young man who “was interested in the learning process, just as much as he was about staying on high honor roll. His activities with Student Council, National Honor Society, school and work, she feels, are just a few of the elements that, “have taught Jock how to successfully balance his academic and personal schedules, while creating new friendships along the way, traits that will serve him well in the future”.

If you ask Li, ‘how he does it all’, he has a disciplined answer, strategies learned over his years in school. “I really do plan out my day,” says Li, “I set and fit in little goals along the way.” Taking it down “to the hour in a structured way,” he explains, allows him the ability to balance big and small time commitments in a way that works for him.

It all sounds very serious for a young man Lisa Spereno calls “a lightning bolt of a human being!” She describes him as “charismatic and gentle, funny and giving, hard working and intelligent”.

Having regular interactions with Li as class treasurer, in Student Council, and then college level English 103/104, Spereno states she is “honored to know someone of his caliber, someone who is wise beyond his years and brimming with integrity and compassion”.

Pointing out that the class treasurer has to handle large sums of money, voucher vendors and reconcile the books, Spereno fully recognizes Li’s sense of responsibility and work ethic, along with the academic commitments and service time, which make him “really well rounded”.

But perhaps the most telling insights came with what was also a most uncertain year — through COVID-19 and its impacts. “This has not caused Jock to skip a beat,” says Spereno. In addition to meeting college prep timelines, academic goals, and any online or possible remote service time, Li remained connected with class and Student Council. Along with other officers, Spereno says Li has been “a constant source of morale, friendship and comfort to the senior class, keeping unity afloat along all the ambiguity that has crashed through what was supposed to be a traditional senior year ... Jock is a true asset to society”.

As though it’s the most natural thing in the world, Li faces it all with a touch of humble realism. “As they say, nothing great comes easy,” he says. The young man is grateful for the support and encouragement of his parents, all the inspiring teachers that have helped and encouraged his journey and knows “I am who I am today because of the wisdom bestowed on me by friends, family and staff members”.

With a goal in life “to leave my mark on the world,” Li knows all the achievements require commitment and care. “Work hard and the things you dream of will become reality,” he says.

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