By Vanessa Salvia

The past year has been a challenging one for adults and kids alike, but not all have succumbed to the difficulties. We asked local school districts and youth-centered organizations to submit nominations for young people who are doing great things in the community, and we were not disappointed with the results. The challenges of doing things at a distance didn’t dampen the spirits of this group of kids. In fact, these they found a way to engage and connect despite the social distancing, whether that be through Zoom dance classes or student council meetings, speaking out against hate, or keeping score at high school sports games. These kids are doing good deeds and helping others, showing us how they can make a difference in our community in numerous ways—they’re the citizens and neighbors we can all be proud of and we have no doubt they will go on to bright futures. Here, we celebrate a few of Lane County’s Wunderkinds!

Photo by Jeremy Bronson

Linde Spear

18-year-old Linde Spear, is a senior at South Eugene High School and active with Ophelia’s Place (OP) in Eugene. She’s also a member of South Eugene’s International High School (HIS) and the French Immersion program. She is South’s Vice President for the International High School student government and the president of Eugene IHS’s Model United Nations. She’s been dancing with the Oregon Ballet Academy since she was 4 years old and is the founder and executive director of Square Studio Dance, an international nonprofit that provides free, online dance classes for kids who, for physical or financial reasons, are unable to make it to the studio. Even more, she is the co-vice president and member of an organization called JusticeKids that works with individuals seeking asylum in the United States. Spear was nominated by Ophelia’s Place (OP) staff member Rachael Young, who says, “Linde Spear is living proof of how amazing young people are.”

Spear first learned about OP through a guest in middle school health class. Last year during COVID, Spear initiated a dance class with them to invite local kids in the community to participate in Square Studio Dance, which she was still developing at the time. A cousin of hers had cancer a couple of years ago, and in early 2020, Spear’s mother was hospitalized following a car accident. “I was thinking about all of the children and their families in the hospital and that really sparked this desire to do something to help anyone who might be interested in dance,” she says. “We’ve been able to work with a lot of Ronald McDonald Houses and other hospitals across the country and the world where I’m teaching different styles of dance.”

Spear says dance is a constant passion in her life, and during COVID, she got used to doing ballet classes in her basement over Zoom. She also speaks French and wants to see more of the world and gain an international perspective before becoming an attorney.

“Social justice is the thing that makes me super excited and super determined to incite change in the world,” she says. “Who knows where things will take me, but I’d like to study abroad during college, go to as many places as possible, and then practice law in the US or maybe internationally.”

Photo by Jeremy Bronson

Orion Ricks

At 18 and recently graduated as valedictorian from Mapleton High School, Orion Ricks is working at Safeway as a bookkeeper, doing an internship through Connected Lane County with Florence’s fiber optic internet provider Hyak, and making plans for a two-year international mission through his LDS church this fall. For the past three years, he has been an active member of the school’s Leadership Class, which included giving monthly updates to the school board, eventually becoming the School Board Student Representative. He was nominated by Jodi O’Mara, Mapleton School District’s superintendent and elementary principal.

“Orion embodies the definition of community service,” O’Mara says. “He has attended all (and yes, I mean all) afterschool activities helping with live streaming, setting up for sporting events, keeping score book, or running the score clock at volleyball and basketball games, helping at track events where needed, and attending both home and away football and basketball games. Without Orion’s help and support, many tasks that needed to be completed would have fallen to already busy and stressed out staff in our small district.”

Orion nonchalantly says all of these activities gave him something to do. “It was a way for me to spend time with my classmates, since a lot of them were doing sports even though I wasn’t,” he says. “It was a way for me to help support them and be around them and have fun doing it.”

He doesn’t know where he’ll end up for his church mission, but after that, he says he’ll have more clarity on what he might want to go to school for or if he’ll head right into a job. “I haven’t decided on a career or anything,” he says. “Lots of things interest me. I need a little more time to think about it.”

Orion says he just likes to help out where needed, and he also doesn’t normally like recognition for the things he does. “Doing this interview was kind of weird!” he says.

Photo by Jeremy Bronson

Jun Orion

Jun Orion is 15 and is entering the 9th grade at Churchill High School after attending Village School last year. She was nominated by Rebecca Fay, Village School’s Communication and Volunteer Coordinator. “Jun has been a wonderful voice for young people who experience microaggressions and racism based on Asian hate,” Fay says. “She has spoken at events to educate people about the prevalence of this issue in the area. In addition, she is a wonderful person and member of her school community, always speaking with kindness and empathy and making the world a better place to live in.”

Last March, Jun and her mother were scheduled to go out of town when they heard about a rally in Eugene protesting violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in response to the shooting in Atlanta a few days before. They changed their plans and attended. Following a moment of silence for the victims, members of the community spoke about their experiences with white privilege and racism.

“They had an open platform where people could come up and talk,” Jun says. “I said, ‘if I don’t do this, I’m going to regret it later.’ I think I was just fed up with sitting with all these thoughts by myself and I wanted other people to know that they are not alone.” She has since spoken at other events, encouraging people to educate themselves about the issues that people of color are responding to.

“I want to give people starting points to realize what is going on, where they can find their own information, and not rely on people of color to educate them,” she says. “And I want them to know that they can make a change in this world.”

Photo by Jeremy Bronson

Naomi Saenger

Beth Casper, marketing and communications manager for the Eugene Family YMCA, nominated Naomi Saenger, a 16-year-old sophomore at South Eugene, where she is a model student and swim team member. “Naomi is innovative, compassionate, and driven to change the world,” Casper says. “COVID was a difficult time for teenagers and yet Naomi made the best of it by volunteering.”

In April 2020, Naomi began volunteering at Burrito Brigade, and understood that COVID would increase food insecurity in the area. “When the pool and everything else shut down, I needed to do something with my time,” she says. “I kept going back to Burrito Brigade every Sunday. Jen Denson, the executive director, has helped me a lot on this project, which I am thankful for.”

Naomi also helped with Burrito Brigade’s other program, a food rescue program called Waste to Taste. Naomi approached the Y last summer about building and installing a Little Free Pantry at the facility, with the intention that the Y would maintain it. Just days later, they had to close their doors due to COVID, and instead Naomi stocked and cleaned the pantry every week. “I noticed they were running out very quickly because of the pandemic,” she says.

Naomi started a school club called the Youth Pantry Project, which helps build the pantries. This summer, Naomi also built pantries for Klamath Falls and Baker City YMCAs, made pantries for the community gardens in Eugene, and worked at Huerto de la Familia (the Family Garden), which is teaching families to grow their own food. “I realized that there are a lot of issues in the community surrounding food insecurity,” she says. “Little Free Pantries are great for the everyday fight against food insecurity. But, I want to also help fight the large systemic issues that Huerto is specifically targeting.”

Photo by Jeremy Bronson

Holt Elementary School Student Council

Ryan Prehm, Kelton Letcher, Joie Rodriquez, Sophia Denley, and Kaitlyn Gaskill, all 10, along with about 30 other kids from Holt Elementary School’s student council, met every other Wednesday throughout the school year. “We would talk about things like what we’re doing online and things that, and then we were talking about things that we should change about it,” Kelton says.

This amazing group of kids was nominated by Allan Chinn, Holt’s principal. “Students volunteered their time to meet on Zoom twice a month all year to build school community, spread kindness, and have tried to make everyone in the Holt community feel connected during a time when connections are at their hardest to make,” he says.

No one held particular positions, instead it was a group effort. “You just have to figure out an idea that you want to talk about,” Ryan says.

Kaitlyn says, “We all thought it was a cool idea because then we actually get to make decisions.”

“Like, we got to spend our recess making little videos,” Joie says.

One “homework” assignment was to write chalk messages on driveways to encourage kindness. Another fun idea the student council suggested was a Spirit Day in which they dressed up as animals. “We ended up doing it,” Sophia says. Another idea was a virtual game day, which everyone liked, and Kelton says was so popular that everyone wanted to do it again.

Joi says doing everything on Zoom was “definitely not easy.” “Unless you had a printer at home, you’d have to do everything on the screen,” she says. “And it was just really hard to write things with just your finger typing stuff.”

The kids all said they would continue helping with student council, although Kaitlyn is changing schools next year—but if they have a student council, she’ll join in. While they might be excited about more student council, they’re not excited about more Zoom. “No, please no!” Ryan says with a laugh. “No Zoom!”

Jacob Goodnight

Cadet Jacob Goodnight is 18 and recently graduated from Willamette Leadership Academy (WLA), a military-style charter school in Springfield where the students are cadets in a “company.” Roberta Howard, WLA’s executive director, nominated Goodnight. “Cadet Goodnight has been a leader throughout his participation at Willamette Leadership Academy,” Howard says. “I am proud of the growth Cadet Goodnight made in his years at Willamette Leadership Academy.”

Jacob could have attended public school, but wanted something different. His first year at WLA was 8th grade, and he wasn’t sure he liked it, but he continued to go back and started excelling. “I realized that it’s really the place for me,” Jacob says. “I was getting better grades than I was in public schools and then I got the opportunity to really jump into a leadership opportunity.”

At WLA, leadership means finding out what other cadets are good at and how they can contribute, and helping them make good decisions. “Everybody has different roles and when you’re in leadership, you’re in charge of anybody that’s underneath you,” Jacob says. “There’s a lot of things that go into making sure that you’re making the right decision of who’s in charge and who should be in charge. So you find the strengths and weaknesses of people over time.”

Now that he’s graduated, he’s working at a furniture store until he can achieve his goal of joining the United States Marshals. “You’ve got to be physically fit and to be able to communicate with people of all different backgrounds,” he says. “Willamette Leadership has pretty much built me up to where I want to be. I’m pretty grateful for WLA leadership and especially Roberta, Joseph Lengele, Joshua Beard, and Major Klontz, who helped me the most.”