SAN ANTONIO — A special group of 10 young people chosen as Champions For Change are determined to make life better for others in the San Antonio area.
They are team players. They stand up for what is right and advocate for causes, and now they are the champions!
It all started with the Rowan Windham Memorial Cereal Drive. Until his death at the age of 10, Rowan Windham worked to make sure kids did not go hungry in San Antonio.
In his honor, KENS Cares and Methodist Children’s Hospital asked the public to nominate young people who exemplify the passion to serve the community.
KENS 5 is proud to recognize the 2021 Champions For Change for their compassion, leadership and inspiring work to help others.
These are their stories...
AJ Wylie, junior, Central Catholic High School
AJ Wylie is a driven teenager who has found a way to use social media to educate and inspire. AJ is passionate about shining light on diversity, inclusion, and awareness. He introduced and initiated discussions for a Diversify Our Narrative program at his high school. Through this program, he created a student led initiative to include all voices in dialogue and education. This initiative allowed for the introduction and integration of curriculum focused on the contributions of POC and BIPOC individuals in history, literature, science, and technology providing he and his peers the opportunity to have difficult conversations (politically, religiously, etc.).
As a member of the UT Teen Health Youth Leadership Council (YLC), AJ has dedicated countless hours educating the youth of San Antonio on teen pregnancy prevention and mental health awareness. AJ has led and participated in peer panels throughout the city as a safe, judgement free zone for teens to ask and obtain information on these subject matters.
AJ is also focused on creating opportunities for the underserved populations within San Antonio, in particular our Hispanic youth and west side communities. AJ is a member of the National Hispanic Institute (NHI), a program with a mission to create experiences that engage high school youth in community leadership roles that advance quality of life. He also spends weekends diligently campaigning for local officials within his local district.
Weston Wright, sophomore, La Vernia High School
Weston Wright was born completely blind, yet he has embarked on a journey to create change in the thoughts of how blindness is perceived in our visual community. He started the “Weston Wright Lighting the Way” 5k/10k race/walk 13 years ago, which funds the blind children’s program at the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind. He is also the Ambassador for an annual event called “The Color of Blind” which is an art event allowing you to touch every art piece donated by San Antonio’s well known artist.
He is also a Philanthropist whose life story is written in a book called “My Heart is not Blind” written by San Antonio author, Michael Nye. This book is part of a worldwide traveling expo, which started at the Witte Museum.
Weston says, “I want to change our world’s perception of the blind community. I also want to help create the change needed for the blind.” For example, accommodations for travel i.e. the need for more sidewalks, talking crosswalk signs just to name a couple. He also wants the blind community to know that he hopes to be the courage needed to create change.
Brooke Zinsmeyer and Hailey Valchar, 5th grade, LaCoste Elementary School
Brooke Zinsmeyer and Hailey Valchar are an incredible duo. The two are the brains behind “buddy benches” at LaCoste Elementary School. Brooke and Hailey noticed some students have a difficult time making friends. Together they planned the idea of having buddy benches on the playgrounds to help students not feel alone and assist anyone to make connections with others. The due presented the idea to the campus principal, researched cost, and contacted the high school wood shop to construct the benches, which should be installed very soon.
Both young women are true leaders amongst their peers, mentoring younger students, volunteering in their community, and maintaining A’s on Honor Roll. Brooke and Hailey strive to make an impact in their community simply by being kind at all times and helping anyone they can.
Mason Gamboa, 9 years old, Kay Franklin Elementary
Mason Gamboa has a big heart. Since he was seven years old, he has always tried to do something for others on his birthday rather than celebrating himself. It began with Mason leaving coins on vending machines or on toy crane games so that others could enjoy it, and by collecting and donating toys to kids who needed them more. Most recently, for his ninth birthday, Mason asked to collect cans of food for the San Antonio Food Bank instead of gifts. Mason and his family organized a car parade and asked those who participated to bring canned food or nonperishable items. Mason was able to donate two large boxes of food and raise $485 for the food bank. Mason’s good deeds were highlighted by local media, and even reached producers at the Kelly Clarkson Show.
Mason plans to continue his charitable birthday mission for many birthdays to come. He is always thinking of others and he says he hopes to make the world a better place.
Lauren Gonzalez, Communications Arts High School
Lauren Gonzalez embodies the term Champion for Change because she has taken on the project of speaking out on teen sexual violence. Lauren has served as an intern for SA Works via Girls Inc. She is a representative for Girls Inc. of San Antonio, and serves as a spokesperson for their advocacy toolkit project, which focused on sexual violence. Lauren’s role was to present information to area school leaders to inspire policy changes at the local school district level. In addition, she presented to the Texas Education Agency board members. Recently, Lauren was the first teenager selected to present to the community on sexual assault awareness on behalf of the San Antonio Rape Crisis Center.
Lauren is a great team member. She works well with others because she genuinely listens to their ideas and approaches projects as a collaborative effort. Although Lauren has earned many accolades, she remains humble. Her sense of humility is endearing. She is not one to seek the spotlight and yet ends with it. She paces herself and comes out ahead of the pack.
Michelle Koehler, junior, Boerne Samuel V. Champion High School
As a competitive dancer for more than ten years and taking dance classes since the age of 3, Michelle has recognized that not all children have access to beautiful dance costumes and proper dance attire in order to follow their dreams. Her passion for dance and sharing the joy of it with others inspired her to create and lead Dance Fairies, a nonprofit organization that collects gently used dance costumes and donates them to aspiring dancers in need locally and internationally. In the last two years, the Dance Fairies organization was able to donate over $150,000 worth of dance costumes to more than 1,400 children in 19 different dance schools and organizations in hope of providing them with the opportunity to express themselves through their love of dance.
Donated costumes are always properly inspected and cleaned before they are gifted to children in need. Personal notes with encouragement to follow their dance dreams are included. The pictures of children that Michelle receives in return, in their new dance costumes and beautiful smiles on their faces, reaffirm that her mission is clearly a success. Additionally, this year she introduced the Dance Fairies Ambassador program, and currently she is leading a team of 20 teenage girls who are extending the work and mission of Dance Fairies even further.
Michelle has developed leadership qualities, time management skills, and she has learned how to work cohesively with others in a team. She is eager to continue to give back to the community, and is always looking forward to the challenge and opportunity of making a positive impact. For more information, please visit https://www.facebook.com/DanceFairies/and www.DanceFairies.org.
Riley Yount, freshman, O’Connor High School
No doubt Riley is a champion. He has won championships in Bodyboarding (National) and Golf (District and State), but his favorite moniker is “Coach Riley.” In the last few years Riley has amassed over 400 hundred hours volunteering as a junior golf coach for the First Tee of SA. He loves to help young children from diverse backgrounds not only learn the game of golf, but learn important and valuable life lessons that extend beyond the course.
Riley figured out early on that to have an impact and effect real change, he had to earn a seat at the table. Riley currently sits on two elite national youth boards. He is a member of the National Leadership Council for Youth on Course, an international golf organization that prioritizes improving access to golf for youth all over the country. He is also a member of the National First Tee Participant Council. He has taken action to become a powerful voice representing his peers at the national level for transformative change.
On a given day, he may be on a Zoom call with a member of the PGA committee on diversity, discussing ways to improve diversity and access in golf, or speaking with National First Tee Headquarters discussing experiences he has witnessed that have impacted his desire to see better representation of minorities in golf or any sport. Sometimes Riley may be simply on a golf course helping to make a child laugh and sharing his love of the sport. Riley is using his voice at the tender age of fourteen to represent others on big stages. He truly is a champion for change.
Francisco Garcia, senior, Central Catholic High School
Francisco Garcia demonstrates the qualities of a champion for change amongst his peers. He is caring, considerate, and responsible. Francisco is intelligent, earning the academic rank of Summa Cum Laude every semester during his entire tenure at Central Catholic High.
Francisco is determined not only to excel but to help all students to succeed as well. Francisco spends hours before and after school tutoring his peers. As a junior, he tutored senior students in Calculus. When these students graduated and went on to college, they continued to reach out to Francisco for help.
After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools switched to distance learning mode. This proved to be extremely difficult for many students. Francisco was one of the first to volunteer for a peer-teaching program. He has logged hours and hours of tutoring, both online and in person. Francisco is determined to leave no student behind and to help them successfully navigate their high school experience.
In addition, Francisco is presently the vice president of Central’s Guardian Angels, a service oriented club, aimed at improving the lives of the poor, less fortunate and marginalized. He willingly gives up his Saturdays to work on service projects at the Animal Defense League, San Antonio Food Bank and Haven for Hope. Francisco is presently the Brigade Commander for Central Catholic JROTC and the president of the Health Science Club.
Gia Cruz, senior, Harlan High School
Gia Cruz has certainly faced adversity in her short four years in high school, undergoing multiple unsuccessful surgeries to fix a congenital abnormality and traumatic injuries to her foot and ankle. Despite being told by doctors that she would never be able to run, jump, or play sports again, she persevered and is now training with the USA Paralympic sitting volleyball team.
Gia works out with local Wounded Warriors, and has helped to introduce younger amputees and disabled children the sport of sitting volleyball. She has also volunteered as an assistant volleyball coach and remained on the Harlan High School Volleyball team as the team manager.
Despite being not able to walk for over half of her high school career her philanthropy efforts grew. She volunteers with Meals on Wheels, Haven for Hope, and more. Gia coordinates quarterly blood drives at her high school as the president of her school’s HOSA – Future Health Professionals chapter. Perhaps the most touching of all is that when Gia heard of a young 3-year-old with leukemia, she coordinated efforts to have her HOSA group adopt the child and her family for Christmas and raised over $500, making her holidays extra special. Gia has proven that having a champion heart is truly the key to greatness.