Meet 10 Extraordinary Teenagers Who Are Excelling Wildly in the Valley
They’re the faces of the future.
Written byChelsee Lowe and Linda Grasso
Photographed byMichael Becker
Meet 10 Valley students who exemplify what kids can do when they put their minds to something. From art to sports to academics, these teenagers are diving into all their schools and life have to offer, pushing boundaries and achieving wildly, often in multiple disciplines. Not even a pandemic could slow them down. The teenagers you will meet here are indeed the faces of our future.
Morgen Kaufman, 18
CHAMPS Charter High School of the Arts
What amazed us: On the campus of CHAMPS, Morgen Kaufman is a well-known champion for social justice, social equity, and gender and sexual identity equity. Morgen, who came out as queer in middle school, is president of CHAMPS’ Gender and Sexuality Club. “My goal is to create a welcome and safe community for younger people because it is really hard dealing with all of it as a kid. I want to create a forum where we can learn about queer culture and provide support.” The straight-A student believes the answer lies in education, “especially among older generations. We need to educate them about queer people and culture.”
Morgen is also an active member of CHAMPS’ theater community. Last year Morgan won first place at the Drama Teachers Association for Southern California competition for original work in the costume/makeup category, having created a costume and makeup design for a 1960s-’70s version of The Wizard of Oz.
Where their drive comes from: “I was born like that. I always put all of myself into what I’m doing. It is not that someone in particular pushes me; I push myself. That is why I have an unweighted 4.0 and have never gotten a B in any high school class.”
On living as a transgender in LA: “It is nice that I can unapologetically be myself here, but in many places in the country there is still a lot of work to be done. A lot of students don’t have support from their communities or from their families. There is still a lot of struggling among queer youth.”
Hopes for the future: “This fall I plan on attending Reed College, where I’d like to major in history. I see a couple different career pathways. I’d love to be a fashion historian, getting to see real clothing from the past. I also think it would be interesting to be a museum curator or a teacher.”
Alden Stone, 17
What amazed us: Alden Stone can pinpoint exactly when he discovered his passion. Just as the pandemic was beginning, the teen, who has been playing baseball ever since Encino Little League, became fascinated with social media. He created the San Diego Padres-focused Instagram account @padresbatflip. Cut to two years later and the account has 7,000 followers with strong engagement.
The Viewpoint varsity first baseman puts that same energy and determination into everything he does, from academics to his professional-level endeavors. Alden has worked with Plush Media as a content creator, and this past summer he held an internship with Chris Rose, host of the Major League Baseball podcast The Chris Rose Rotation. Chris says, “Right away, Alden found out what kind of edit system we used for the show. He started cutting promotional clips for the program, and he never stopped asking for more work. I’ve worked in the media business for nearly 30 years. There are full-time employees who can’t accomplish what Alden does as an intern.”
All those accomplishments come amid health challenges. When he was 12, Alden was diagnosed with a case of hyperthyroidism so serious that he was at risk of organ failure. Although he is now stable, Alden has battled numerous health ups and downs through the years.
His biggest scoop: “Announcing that Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. had signed a 14-year contract extension. One of my followers gave me the tip-off, and I got the news out days before it made national news.”
On not letting health challenges slow him down: “Everyone has his or her own stuff to deal with and work through. I’m no different. For me, the answer is not complicated. I just keep going. Tough times do not last forever, especially when you have caring and supportive family and friends.”
On pushing himself: “With everything I do, I really try and go for it. My philosophy is to make the ask. I believe the worst thing a person can say is no.”
Grey Westmore, 14
Berkeley Hall School
What amazed us: His razor focus on and commitment to excellence in the sport he has been doing since the age of 3. Grey is considered one of the best elite-level gymnasts in the country. Along with his teammates from Gymnastics Olympica USA, he has twice won the national championship. He is also a member of the U.S. Men’s Junior National Team, earning one of 14 spots last year. The results of that competition made him one the top five gymnasts in the country.
Grey also has demonstrated grit. Last summer he broke both feet while doing a vault drill at the National Team Training Camp in Indianapolis. He spent eight weeks in protective boots before returning to the gym. “I just trusted myself and kept at it. It wasn’t easy. But honestly you’d never know now that I broke both my feet.” Grey kicked off this season with a first-place finish on parallel bars and rings and took second place in the all-around category. Even as he trains six days a week at a facility in Santa Clarita, Grey maintains a 3.8 GPA.
On competing in all six men’s events: “My favorite event is the high bar. It is the closest thing to being Spider-Man that I can think of. I literally fly through the air. And I like flying. The most challenging event for me is the rings. Every time I do it, it hurts. But I know it’s coming and I just work through the pain.”
Proudest accomplishment: “When I trained hard last year and made the national team. I felt like I saw the results of putting so much work into something.”
On his future: “I’d love to continue with gymnastics in college at a good program like Stanford. Gymnastics is cool because it is different. Lots of kids play soccer, football and baseball, but how many gymnasts do you know?”
Lila McNamee, 17
Lila McNamee stood out as an exceptional student as far back as middle school. In eigth grade she entered a New York Times student writing contest. Out of more than 10,000 submissions (from ages 13 to 19), her editorial was one of 27 selected, and an excerpt was published in the newspaper. “I was just 14, and it was huge for me,” Lila recalls. Adopted from a Chinese orphanage, Lila wrote about China’s one-child policy. The policy not only prevented millions of births but, as Lila writes, “Given the cultural preference for male children, it forced the abandonment of thousands of girls.”
Lila demonstrates all-around excellence. With a 4.6 weighted GPA, she is viewed as a leader on campus. She loads her schedule with the most challenging classes Campbell Hall offers, is co-president of the Asian Affinity Alliance and is an ardent philanthropist. She is currently a candidate for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Students of the Year program. The seven-week competition across 22 teams of LA high school students is aimed at fundraising. As the leader of her team, Lila has helped raise $45,000 thus far. “We hope to reach over $100,000 in the next four and a half weeks,” she shares.
Why she takes five honors classes: “I want to challenge myself, and AP calculus is challenging. I feel like I should take advantage of all that’s available to me. That’s why I am taking a double science this year and why I took a double language last year.
What motivates her: “I’m naturally smart, but I work hard. Academics has always been important to me. If it is achievable, why not work for the A+ or the A?”
On being proactive: “I have always been the first one to talk and speak up in class. I take the initiative and I get things done. I was adopted by a single mom. I wanted to get in touch with my Chinese culture, so I asked to take classes outside of school. Then I started taking Chinese classes at Campbell Hall. I would say I’m probably at an intermediate level.”
Vale Rasmussen, 17
The Buckley School
What amazed us: His keen interest in airplanes led to a self-driven journey to better understand how they might be improved. Vale has already passed his FAA written exam and is on track to earn his pilot’s license this summer. When he’s not training at Van Nuys Airport, he’s working on award-winning research projects. Last year Vale studied a vortex generator and a stall fence, devices that could aid firefighting aircraft by improving performance while flying at low levels and water-dropping accuracy. His project won Most Outstanding Exhibit in Computer Science, Engineering, Physics, or Chemistry by the Yale Science and Engineering Association; first place from the Southern California Paleontological Society; and a third-place award at the LA County Science Fair. Vale was also selected as one of 300 top scholars in the prestigious Regeneron Science Talent Search.
Vale’s altruism extends into the community, too. During the pandemic, a family friend in a nursing home shared how much she missed live music. Since Vale plays violin and is part of Buckley’s orchestra, he recruited his friends and teachers to record themselves playing a song on their instrument. He compiled the videos online, making them accessible to seniors and nursing home support staff.
On family: “My grandfather was always supportive of my passion. He sadly passed away about four years ago, but I like to think that can see how far I’ve gotten.”
For fun: “I like to bake. I’m actually a bit famous at school for making these coconut macaroons and bringing them to club meetings. Even the teachers and admin have found out about them.”
To pilot or not: “I love flying, I love aviation, but I also love traditional academics, especially engineering-related subjects. I think in my mind, ‘Do I want to be a commercial pilot or an aerospace engineer?’ Either one of those would be a dream.”
Ella Goldberg, 17
What amazed us: Her dedication to helping others, from fellow students to frontline workers. At the start of the pandemic, Ella launched The Meal Bridge LA (TMBLA) with a two-pronged vision: to support struggling restaurants by purchasing to-go meals with donated funds, and to support local hospital staff by treating them to those meals. After an anonymous donation just months into operation, Meal Bridge became an official nonprofit. Thus far Meal Bridge has raised more than $113,000 and delivered more than 4,000 meals. She is also a member of the LA Youth Advisory for the bullying-prevention organization PACER.
Her philanthropic endeavors started early. At the age of 4, Ella went with her mother to feed the homeless at a community center. She was so drawn to the work that she devoted 75% of her neighborhood lemonade stand proceeds to the center. Ella is currently vice president of Harvard-Westlake’s Bring Change to Mind club, which aims to end the negative stigma around mental illness. She’s a leader of her school’s Community Council, managing community outreach both on campus and in the Valley area.
Looking to the future: “For college, I’m considering ethics, economics and politics. I’m very outgoing; I enjoy making connections with others. I don’t know where all of this will lead me, but the goal will always be to make a positive impact on the world. That may sound a little cliché, but I mean it.”
Out and about: “I love going to flea markets and thrifting—I’m not a big fan of fast fashion. I talk to the vendors, and I like going with my friends. It’s fun to find items that fit each person’s unique style.”
Seeing the good: “I found a bunch of my grandfather’s old film cameras, and I’ve been experimenting with those lately. I find that there’s always a chance to take a pretty picture, to find the beauty in any image. I think you can connect that to my nonprofit and being able find positivity where it wasn’t before.”
Madeleine Case, 18
What amazed us: Her expansive, creative spirit. Madeleine is an accomplished filmmaker; she wrote and directed a short film called Laephlexa, which won the Outstanding Achievement in Film award at the 2021 Calabasas Film Festival. Last year, Madeleine was selected by the committee at YoungArts, the National Foundation for the Advancement of Artists, to participate in the filmmakers intensive for her recent screenplay Hardcore, which she wrote for her honors film class.
Madeleine is a talented artist, having won a Scholastic Arts and Writing Award for painting. She’s also an entrepreneur, as the founder of Crazy Daisy Jeans, an upcycled denim brand, sold on the resale site Poshmark. At school she has taken more than a dozen honors and AP classes and swims on the varsity team. Her interest in social justice inspired her to found Viewpoint’s Global Activism Club, a peer forum for dialogue.
Her most recent project: “My film Hardcore follows this punky girl who is conducting an adoption interview for her child. Throughout the story, there are flashbacks that sort of reveal who the father is and where he is. The whole year our class works on one project, and I was lucky enough to have my script chosen and to get to direct it. Everyone in the class has designated roles in the production. We shot the film two weeks ago.”
Hollywood-bound: “In general I’m not that assertive, so going into an industry where it’s already difficult for women is pretty daunting. But I’m working on my assertiveness. Because of directors like Greta Gerwig and Emerald Fennell, this is the best time to be a female director. They give me hope.”
Fun fact: “My dad is an antiquarian rare book dealer. I like to say that the foundation of my house is books. I’m truly surrounded by stories, and I love reading. He’s given me some great books. I have a copy of The Negro Protest signed by Martin Luther King. That’s definitely the coolest thing I own.”
Francisco “Cisco” Sebastiano, 17
Valley International Prep
What amazed us: An accomplished and driven “maker” since elementary school, Cisco takes self-initiated, project-based learning to a new level. The budding mechanical engineer delves deep into thermodynamics, electrical engineering, electrochemistry, automotive mechanics and beyond. He’s made a hydrogen-oxygen generator and is currently working on a combustion engine, made possible by an electric foundry he created to make metal castings. Part of the project: weeks of equation testing and graphing to better understand and represent the furnace.
This A student is also an enthusiastic musician in Valley International Prep’s Music Lab, where he plays bass guitar. He prefers playing the saxophone, though, which he says turned him into a serious jazz enthusiast.
How it all started: “I got pulled into the Makers YouTube space. I would see a tutorial and say, ‘That’s cool, I wanna do that.’ In fifth grade, I tried to make a paintball gun that used hair spray and a lighter inside. I have a strong memory of it not working and being so upset because I’d spent some much time on it, plus $20, which was all my money. I learned that you can’t do something unless you understand it. And if you understand a concept, you’re going to make a design that fits your means.”
Right brain or left brain: “If I had to put myself in one place, I think I’m more in the creative reading/writing side, in terms of natural skill. Both of my parents write. I can get pretty into writing. But I find science and math more challenging. I am driven by a sense of what’s optimally productive, and usually the optimally productive thing to try to develop yourself in is what you’re not good at.”
Looking to the future: “A perfect job for me is in research, someone who works for a company and takes part in testing some aspect of a product. The dream job would be Elon Musk’s, but I realize that sounds a bit out-there.”
Kian Salehi, 18
This past football season, junior Kian Salehi had the ride of his life. As a wide receiver and defensive back, he was instrumental in leading the Campbell Hall Vikings football team to a 10-0 season and helping them make the CIF playoffs for the first time in 11 years. “The whole season felt like a movie. One of the greatest experiences of my life,” he recalls. He was named first-team all-league.
Kian isn’t one those naturally gifted athletes for whom everything comes easily. He arrived at Campbell Hall freshman year, having been a first-string wide receiver at another school. That first year, Kian sat on the bench most of the season, playing in only two games. “A lot of people might have given up. I used it as a way of getting motivated. I worked really hard my sophomore year and started that year. And then again junior year.“
Kian is described by teachers and school administrators as a guy who has friends both on and off the field. He is well liked and admired on the Campbell Hall campus. Kian is a scholar-athlete, taking both honors and college-level classes and maintaining a 4.4 GPA.
On his stellar grades: “My parents always said follow your interests and dreams but keep education first. I feel like a good education and school experience is key to a happy life. The key has been to use my time productively. If you aren’t organized, things slip through the cracks.”
Where his motivation comes from: “It really comes from me looking out for myself and wanting to prove anybody who doubted me wrong—whether it’s a team that didn’t want me or a coach who didn’t believe in me.”
More than just a game: “Nothing is guaranteed in football, and that has helped me in life. It is a life lesson. You can’t slack off. Anything can be taken away at any moment. You always have to work hard and do your best.”
Anya Jones, 15
Sierra Canyon School
What amazed us: Her dedication to her chosen sports and her ability to balance extracurricular activities and academics with grace and wisdom. Anya has played soccer and trained in tae kwon do since the age of 3. She is a starter on the Sierra Canyon High School varsity soccer team, as well as on her youth soccer club team, where she plays a year up in age. As she works toward her third-degree black belt at KMA Black Belt Champions martial arts school, she also teaches classes there for students ages 3 to 12. And all the while, she earns straight A’s while taking multiple honors classes.
She joined the nonprofit organization Play It Forward at the age of 10. Now she’s co-president and integral to the mission of gathering donations and providing sports equipment to LA schools in need. Play It Forward will donate 200 duffel bags of sports equipment to kids in need via a partnership with El Nido Family Centers this summer.
On soccer: “I play defensive center midfield. Right now, I play five days a week. Most weekends during club season I’m traveling to play in Norco, Del Mar, sometimes Vegas. I’ve even been to North Carolina to play.”
Why she loves it: “I love the people. It’s also fun and a good stress relief. Going from school to practice feels good, and I can let loose with my teammates.”
Facing the future: “I want to play soccer in college, but I’m leaning away from Division I schools, because I want to focus on academics. As for what I’ll study, I like a lot of different things: history, political science and medicine sound intriguing to me. I also liked biology last year. And I like English! We will see where things take me.”
Tacos from the heart.