Top Teens: 10 to Watch
Meet the extreme teens of the Valley. They’re wildly successful, incredibly competitive super-achievers who go at everything they do—not just with blood, sweat and tears—but with heart and soul.
Written byLinda Grasso
Fast and Furious
As he strolls the campus of Notre Dame High School, Khalfani Muhammad exhibits the happy-go-lucky gait of a typical teenager. But get him on a running track or football field, and you’ll see why a dozen colleges offered him full scholarships.
The senior is a high-octane runner—considered by some sports insiders to be the fastest kid in California and possibly even the U.S. He is also a nationally recognized wide receiver. Among his many honors: 2012 California State Athlete of the Year, All American and All-CIF football player.
“I want to be the best at everything I do, so I go 110%,” Khalfani says. That’s the kind of effort that enabled him to become the state champ in track-and-field, winning the 100, 200, 4×100 and team title as a junior—an accomplishment he says he finds the most most rewarding.
He comes by it naturally. His father was a track-and-field star too, winning state titles in Maryland some 30 years ago. Khalfani says he’s grateful that his dad—who’s been a great inspiration—recognized his talent and pushed Khalfani from an early age to excel.
When he competes in track-and-field this spring, Khalfani will attempt to repeat his victories of 2012. But so far this year, he has already cleared one major hurdle: The 17-year-old got into University of California Berkeley, where he’ll play football in the fall.
Within moments of talking with her, you understand that Alexa Feuerman is no typical teen. Take, for example, what she wants to be when she’s older. “I’m young, so my future is sketched in broad strokes rather than fine lines.”
Or where she gets her drive. “Though there are people, like my family, who I look to for guidance and support, I view inspiration as intrinsic.”
The Viewpoint senior is deep, insightful and smart as a whip. She got a perfect score of 2,400 on the SAT, is in the running to be a National Merit Scholar Finalist and class valedictorian, is an AP Scholar, and has been chosen by the U.S. Department of Education as a candidate for the Presidential Scholars Program.
So she probably doesn’t do much besides study—right? Wrong. The Tarzana native also is an avid and accomplished soccer player.
She won league MVP her freshman, sophomore and junior years, as well as All-CIF first team her sophomore and junior years. In the off-season, she plays club soccer for the Real So Cal GU18 ECNL team, currently ranked #1 in Southern California.
“I am always in a competition with myself to be the best that I can be,” the 18-year-old shares. That competitive spirit will be put to the test at Harvard University in the fall, where Alexa will also play soccer.
Over the past few years, 17-year-old Robert Rosenfeld has channeled a boyhood love of “tinkering with computers” into an intense passion for technology—one that has put him in the national spotlight. “As I got older, I was able to grasp and harness the power of computers and the internet to begin to make a name for myself and get involved in new and exciting ventures,” he says.
One of those ventures is the “technology network” he runs called ROBISTECH, where he offers practical information from simple tech support to helping someone choose between smartphones. Right now, it’s a one-man band, but the 17-year-old has big plans. “Think of it like the CNN for tech, run by teen tech enthusiasts like myself,” he quips.
Robert has received the Student of the Year award five times at the Heritage Christian School. He’s also received six first-place awards at the ACSI Speech Meet, the Scholar of the Year award, and numerous class awards for science, history and English.
But he’s most proud of starting an online morning news show. Heritage Christian had been using an antiquated PA system, and Robert “took them to the 21st century.” He built a fully working studio, including a virtual news desk, using consumer video production equipment and spare computers that he set up in a small storage room.
His game-changer came at the age of 12, when he won a trip to tech writer and internet personality Chris Pirillo’s yearly Gnomedex tech conference in Seattle. At the time, Robert was the youngest credentialed person there. “Chris took a chance on allowing me to come, and because of that experience, I’m the person I am today.”
In college he’d like to major in internet broadcasting, but if that’s not an available major, he’ll consider computer science or video production. Or, thinking like the entrepreneur he is, he’ll see about the possibility of creating a new major for the school.
Front Page News
he staff at John O’Groats Grille and Pub paint an inspiring portrait of 17-year-old hostess Elitza “Ellie” Batchiyska. On the nomination form they submitted, they describe how she has been editor-in-chief of The Pearl, the award-winning newspaper at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School for the past three years, and they detail many of her academic honors. But Ellie really got on our radar when they told us, “She holds down a part-time job, is well-liked by all her peers and has an impeccable work ethic.”
Indeed, on paper and in person, Ellie Batchiyska shows true character, grit and tenacity. Her parents came to America from Bulgaria nearly 15 years ago, hoping for a better life for their family.
“I watched my parents struggle to make it in a completely foreign country and to provide for my brother and me. We went through steep financial downfalls that just barely kept food on the table. But we all worked and struggled to find jobs when we had to,” recalls Ellie, who lives in Van Nuys.
The slender, doe-eyed brunette powered through, balancing school and work and ultimately finding a great magnet school. Once enrolled at Daniel Pearl, a teacher suggested she take a journalism class. “I just loved it. Whenever I found a memorable subject or a captivating story, the words would just flow onto the page,” she shares.
Ellie will continue writing at Syracuse University, which offered her a full scholarship. She says her motivations for excelling there are simple. “I want to create a better future for my family. I want to prove that the American Dream truly can exist.”
Jon Epstein seems to have been born with a keen sense of empathy. Sure, his parents—Jane Epstein and Matt Epstein, a realtor and also VP of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association—exposed him to community service, but Jon took it to another level.
When he was in elementary school, he’d serve meals at a Valley homeless shelter. When the tsunami hit Indonesia, Jon took to the streets to collect money. He did it again when Hurricane Katrina hit. He donated money from his bar mitzvah gifts to weSpark Cancer Support Center.
“I live each day with the idea of what can I contribute to my community. I don’t want to be remembered as an average person but rather an extraordinary person—someone who made the world a better place,” Jon explains.
He’s been writing a column for the Studio City/Sherman Oaks/Encino News since fifth grade. “iTeen” examines everything from the Sandy Hook massacre to the importance of religion.
Recently Jon had a personal thrill when he interviewed former Los Angeles Dodger James Loney at Dodgers Stadium, and it made the front page.
Though just 17, Jon’s on a quest for truth and justice. When he learned of the death of Notre Dame High School student Conor Lynch, who was hit by a car while running on the streets of Sherman Oaks with his cross country team, Jon was deeply affected.
The driver who hit Conor was not paying attention. Jon contacted Conor’s mother to help create a campaign called People Against Distracted Drivers, which aims to generate awareness about the importance of paying attention while behind the wheel.
Jon admits he’s given a lot, but he acknowledges he’s also been on the receiving end. He credits his success to his parents, who have “helped me through life’s passages.” He also cites his “grandpa” Jules Feir, “who has shown me the importance of compassion for others” and his ”amazing teachers at Oakwood School for inspiring me.”
Lulu Cerone’s life forever changed at the age of 10, when she saw images of the earthquake in Haiti. “Suddenly the world opened up. I’d never thought of the world beyond Ventura Boulevard.”
Lulu put on a simple boys vs. girls lemonade stand competition/fundraiser. She was struck by how good it felt to help others (not to mention the $4,000 raised), so she founded LemonAID Warriors, aimed at harnessing the creative energy of kids to create change.
Since then, the 13-year-old has raised more than $45,000. She’s hosted everything from lemonade stands to backyard rock concerts and created “PhilanthroParties,” a party planning service that encourages kids to forgo birthday presents in lieu of charitable donations.
Nowadays, Lulu’s foremost passion is helping provide sustainable solutions to the water crisis in Africa. She’s teamed up with local businesses for her annual Water: Walk (April 26 this year). Her “warriors” walk along the Boulevard carrying jugs of water to generate awareness.
Shops and restaurants sell lemon-themed items and donate proceeds. So far, she’s funded four wells that provide water for 1,600 people and helped complete funding for a dam in Kenya that will serve approximately 3,000 villagers.
The Encino resident is also focused on helping other teens start their own organizations. She co-hosts a radio show at Global Voices Broadcasting here in the Valley, to give young philanthropists a platform.
“A kid’s passion is a powerful force,” Lulu emphasizes. “There is no reason to wait to grow up. We are educated. We have amazing technology. We have passion. We already have what it takes to make an important impact on the world.”
When the Archer School for Girls eighth-grader is not pounding the pavement, she’s banging on a set of drums as the only girl in an all-boy band. She dreams one day of being a music producer.
Study in Motion
When all her gal pals were signing up for soccer, Natasha Shevchenko decided she wanted to be a ballroom dancer. Following her own path and spending nearly all her non-school hours at Nadia’s Rhythm Room in Sherman Oaks has paid off.
The 15-year-old has been a U.S. national finalist six times in a row and represented the U.S. in a prestigious international competition in England three times. She was crowned United States national champion at the age of 9.
Natasha, who attends Connections Academy, says she loves expressing emotion through movement. “For example, when I am happy, I can jump, kick and swing around while I practice my jive, which makes it all more fun. Or on the other hand, when I’m angry, I can channel my emotion into the character of the paso doble and create a far more expressive gypsy/flamenco dancer.”
Along with her success, there has been sacrifice. Nearly all her free time over the past nine years has been spent taking lessons or practicing with her partner.
“Nobody’s life is perfect, and everyone overcomes different obstacles. I have had a rough path in some ways, but I am grateful for every experience, because they all have taught me various things,” she says.
Natasha’s biggest inspiration has been her dance coach, Nadia Eftedal (a groundbreaking champion dancer in her day, as well). “I truly hope one day I can make her proud.”
William Barnett began composing music at the age of 10. He’d been taking piano lessons when he figured out how to break down compositions. A few years later, he wanted music to accompany the video montage at his bar mitzvah.
“Compose music? I said, ‘Sure, go ahead,’” shares his mom, Paula. “To be honest, I was shocked when he came up with a 10-minute string trio composition.”
His school, Bridges Academy submitted the composition to the organization Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities. William, who was born premature and has had to cope with physical and developmental disabilities, became the youngest person ever—at age 14—to be honored with the organization’s Junior Achievement Award.
He was flown to the awards ceremony in 2010, where he gave an acceptance speech and his music was played. It was a game changer for William. With his confidence buoyed, he fully immersed himself in his passion and began taking composition classes.
“I love music, because I am creative and find myself fully absorbed in the act of creating new pieces. It feels like an escape into a place where no one can criticize me,” William confides.
The lanky 17-year-old, who is also a talented filmmaker (he just completed a two-year project—he wrote, directed, edited and composed the music—that’s been submitted to a film festival called KIDS FIRST!), says he has “a fire inside that is hard to explain. I want to leave a mark on the world.”
William points to his parents as the source of his inspiration and drive. “They have helped pushed me to be the best person I can be.”
He also credits his school. He describes Bridges Academy as “a place where strengths and talents are the focus—yet weaknesses are supported and out-of-the-box thinking is prized.”
Sophie Rose Abrams has been singing almost as long as she’s been talking. Growing up in the horse country of Hidden Hills, she’s always had a particular affinity for country music. Then at the age of 8, Sophie Rose heard a Taylor Swift tune.
“I was inspired when I heard she wrote her own songs. I immediately started writing my own,” the seventh-grader explains.
Sophie Rose recorded her first CD in 2011 at Sound Stage Studio in Nashville, writing or co-writing most of the songs on the album.
Now 13, she’s currently spending time at a Sherman Oaks recording songs for her second CD; she wrote all the tunes on this one. Multi-platinum record producer, Ron Harris, who has worked with Christina Aguilera, is producing.
She calls songwriting “a coping mechanism. It’s a way to express my feelings in a creative and beautiful way.”
While she readily admits to wanting to be a superstar, Sophie Rose, who also plays guitar, is using her talents to help others. She gives benefit performances for ACT Today! Autism Care and Treatment, and, she dedicated the music video of her song “Somewhere in the World” to Operation Gratitude. For each download of the song, she donates 100% of the profits to the organization that sends care packages to members of the U.S. military.
She’s particularly excited over her recent philanthropic endeavor: She recorded related “Big Day,” an inspirational song written by songwriter Andrew Dorff and produced by country songwriter/composer Steve Dorff. Her goal is to connect the song with a leading children’s charity to help raise funds for children in need.
Desribing herself as a “county girl at heart,” the home schooled student says she’d like to attend the University of Texas one day.
Conner Calabro picked up a tennis racket when she was 8 years old and never put it down. It’s paid off. Among her honors, the nationally ranked USTA player won All League Doubles this year, and her Campbell Hall High School varsity team has won the CIF Division 1 Championship three out of her four years.
This athlete, who is described as disciplined, humble and big-hearted, says tennis has taught her life lessons. “I’ve learned the meaning of true dedication and commitment. I now understand how much easier it is said than done.”
But its not just tennis that makes Conner stand out. She has been on the honor roll every semester since freshman year and received the Argyll Academy Scholarship three consecutive years in a row (based on academic criteria and an essay). She’s mentored younger students, giving “straight and cool” talks, where she says you don’t have to make bad choices to be popular.
While life may look picture-perfect for this member of Campbell Hall’s homecoming court, she says she’s had her share of struggles—
like her parents’ divorce. But Conner sees a silver lining; she got much closer to her two younger brothers.
She adds, “Divorce isn’t just about a legal document and having two different houses. It’s a dramatic shift in lifestyle and responsibility, which taught me independence, leadership, sympathy and eventually forgiveness.”
Being accepted by early decision to Tufts University was “a dream come true,” she says. She’s worked on the Campbell Hall yearbook since 10th grade and would like to explore journalism or writing “of some sort.”