Valley Teens: 10 To Watch
The Valley’s most accomplished teens are shaking up their schools, kick-starting their careers and changing the world. Meet these amazing, inspiring young people on the following pages.
Written byRachel Heller Zaimont
Ticket To Ride
Gregory Goldstein, 14Studio City
Fellow riders often assume Greg Goldstein is older than his 14 years. They also assume he began training as a bicycle racer much earlier than last year, based on his stunning record of accomplishments so far.
He started simply, by riding his mountain bike to his local coffee shop in Studio City. “I wasn’t athletic at the time,” he recalls.
But one day Greg and his father biked 40 miles from Marina del Rey to Palos Verdes. Something clicked. “I built up to 60 miles, then 100 miles,” says the Wesley School eighth-grader.
Last summer he heard about an upcoming mountaintop tour through the Italian Alps. The Giro d’Italia would run 700 miles in 10 days, with a 40,000-foot elevation gain.
“I only had three months to train for that,” he says. “So I went from sedentary to an athletic pretty quickly.”
His effort paid off last September. He won one of the stages of the race while competing alongside professional riders and was honored as Best Young Rider. Greg became one of only two riders his age ever to finish the tour.
It was pretty impressive for a rider who had yet to begin his first official racing season. Now Greg has a coach and a training plan and was recently invited to race for the LaGrange Juniors Flight School Race Team, an under-21 team that takes part in races sanctioned by USA Cycling. He trains on the road nearly every day, logging about 225 miles per week.
“It’s pretty painful,” says the lean cyclist, who often sports scraped shins from tumbling off his bike. “But it’s addicting. Winning is what drives me.”
That drive just might carry him to the 2020 Summer Olympics and the Tour de France.
Sees the Silver Lining
Mecca Nassiri, 17Winnetka
Mecca Nassiri isn’t only a champion football player; he’s also a champion adapter. Faced with the daunting prospect of switching schools in the middle of high school, Mecca weathered his transition to Viewpoint School with ease. After just one year, he had fully immersed himself in a new social milieu and was elected captain of the varsity football team by a peer vote.
“That meant a lot to me because it wasn’t just the coach’s decision. I had the trust and faith of the guys on the team,” says Mecca, now a senior.
He also won over the school’s faculty in short order, which at the end of his first year granted him one of the school’s most prestigious awards based on work ethic, academic strength and team-player attitude. His infectious smile is a common sight on campus; it’s hard to conduct an interview with so many friends calling out to greet him.
The talkative senior honed his adaptation skills early. His parents divorced when he was in middle school, and his mother later took in two foster children. But Mecca wasn’t fazed.
“I didn’t really see it as turmoil. Even though it was a change, it’s only really a problem if you make it a problem,” he says.
Mecca could have gone to college for football but decided to focus instead on his career path: biomedical engineering. He had always liked science but thought little about engineering until he attended a summer program at Columbia University last year at his college counselor’s suggestion.
“I kind of fell in love with it,” he shares. He’ll be enrolling this fall and is especially interested in stem cell research—“putting biology principles into action, making useful medicines and inventions,” he explains. “I really want to get out there and help people.”
In the meantime, Mecca volunteers and writes a blog for the Saving Lives Drug and Alcohol Coalition, where he examines harmful media messages and the pressures of staying sober at parties. “I just want to focus on more important stuff—it’s not really constructive toward my goals,” he says of his life choices.
“I want to achieve a lot,” he continues. “And I know that if I stumble even a little bit, it’s going to be way harder to get where I want to be.”
Riley Gantt, 13Sherman Oaks
Three years ago on a class trip to visit the students of Haddon Avenue Elementary School in Pacoima, Riley Gantt was shocked to hear kindergarteners say they couldn’t do their homework sometimes because they couldn’t afford crayons or other basic supplies
“That opened up my eyes to a problem that I didn’t know existed,” she recalls. “I went home to my mom, and I was really upset. I was like, ‘How could these kids not have crayons?’”
Riley, then just 10, knew she wanted to do something to help. So she set what she thought was an ambitious goal: to donate backpacks filled with homework supplies to the entire kindergarten class at Haddon.
It worked. With the help of friends and family, she gathered enough donations not just to give backpacks to the school’s kindergarten classes but to the first-grade classes as well.
The following year Riley and her team donated enough backpacks for Haddon’s entire student population, from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. And last year they delivered brand-new backpacks and supplies to two schools.
Now a bubbly eighth-grader at Sierra Canyon School, Riley is excited about the progress of her budding nonprofit, appropriately titled Rainbow Pack, and its potential to help underprivileged students. So far Rainbow Pack has delivered more than 3,600 backpacks filled with crayons, pencils, glue sticks, folders and rulers.
“It makes me feel really good,” she says. “We’ve had parents come up to us almost in tears, thanking us for the backpacks. Kids open them up and are so excited. It’s a reaction the kid would have opening a Christmas present.”
Riley credits her parents with introducing her to volunteer work. When she’s not immersed in art and photography projects, she volunteers with local nonprofits including Operation Gratitude, Heal the Bay and the Pasadena Humane Society.
Does It All
Molly Cinnamon, 17Sherman Oaks
One glance at Molly Cinnamon’s student resume is enough to make your head spin: computer programmer, award-winning filmmaker, fencer, scientist, activist and blogger.
“I’m an interdisciplinary student,” says Molly, a senior at Harvard-Westlake School. “What inspires me most is trying to find the art in science and the science in art.”
Computer science is her main interest, and she is already bent on shaking up the landscape. “Being a woman in computer science is fairly rare—which it shouldn’t be,” she says.
And women in the field encounter stifling stereotypes, she adds. “The stereotypes are ridiculous—women in computer science are quiet, are boring, don’t have friends. I wanted to break that mold.”
How did she go about blowing the lid off those gender portrayals? With art, of course.
Molly made a short film, This is Laura, depicting fiction vs. reality in the life of a female scientist. She entered the film in a competition held by the National Center for Women & Information Technology. They passed the film on to the Entertainment Industries Council, which now broadcasts it nationally as a PSA online and on TV.
She was even invited to present the film at a conference sponsored by the White House office of science and technology policy. “I’m so thrilled,” she gushes.
Molly is varsity captain of the women’s saber team, co-director of the Harvard-Westlake film festival, and she also founded and runs Harvard-Westlake’s blogging site H-W Voices.
Over the past few summers she has worked at UCLA in computer science (she helped create an Android app that locates free items left on the side of the road) and neuroimaging. This past summer she worked at a neuroimaging lab at Harvard University, where she will enroll as a student this fall.
“My dream job is probably currently not in existence,” says the articulate teen, who looks up to innovators like Steve Jobs. “I think my interests set me in a new and burgeoning field, at the intersection between the humanities and science.”
Anything she can’t do? “Trust me, you don’t want to hear me sing!”
Lydia Dresel, 18Northridge
Lydia Dresel has been dancing at Los Angeles Ballet Academy in Encino since she was 3 years old. Her mother originally enrolled her in dance classes to improve her posture.
“In elementary school, I was always like, ‘Mom, I don’t want to go to class. I’m not going to be a dancer,’” she recalls. “But then when I got to middle school, it started becoming my real passion, and I realized I never wanted to stop.”
You could say she finally found her footing. Ballet had been her focus up until that point, but on a whim she began taking jazz and hip-hop classes and experimenting with contemporary styles of dance. “All of a sudden, something switched,” she says. “I love the freedom it gives you.”
Lydia is now a member of Theatrics Dance Company, LA Ballet Academy’s competitive jazz team that performs at Disneyland each winter. Last year her first competitive solo performance won a gold rating at the prestigious Spotlight Dance Cup.
The Louisville High School senior also serves as apprentice choreographer for her school’s dance program. This year she’s choreographing and performing routines for Louisville’s dance concert.
Dance has done a lot for her over the years. “It made me more disciplined with schoolwork,” says the self-taught watercolorist, who sports a bleach-blonde pixie haircut. “I couldn’t picture my life without it.”
College, she hopes, will keep her on her toes. She has applied to dance programs around the country and ultimately dreams of performing with Cirque du Soleil. “Every time I go, I’m blown away and completely in love with everything about it.”
Hannah Heidegger, 16Chatsworth
Horses have always been Hannah Heidegger’s passion. By the age of 8, she set her sights on becoming a serious equestrian. She began competing in short stirrup and worked her way up to show jumping.
“Basically it’s where you jump really high and go really fast,” she explains with a laugh. “My dad was a downhill and slalom skier, so he loves the ‘fast’ aspect of it.”
For the past two years the teen has competed in the Junior Olympics of horseback riding, as a member of the sport’s elite USA West Coast team. Last year she won a silver medal for team jumping and placed fifth overall from a pool of 40 riders ages 21 and under. “It was so much fun and so intensive,” she says.
This year she was named Top Junior Rider under the age of 18 for the entire West Coast. She hopes to earn a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. “It would be a dream come true,” says Hannah, who trains with 2008 Olympic gold medalist Will Simpson.
That dream isn’t without sacrifices. Hannah, a junior at Campbell Hall, juggles a demanding training schedule against a challenging course load that includes three AP and two honors classes.
She attends school three days per week and spends the remaining four days riding from sunup to sundown. And she travels to competitions all over the continent.
Her schedule also takes its toll socially. “All my friends have been super-supportive. But I haven’t been to any of my school dances—they all fall on days when I have big competitions.”
Still she insists, “It’s all worth it. The reason why I do this is I really love the horses. And I am a super-competitive person in everything I do. I’ll work as hard as I need to, to win.”
Alexander O’Neill, 18Encino
Alex O’Neill loves to tackle a challenge, both in math and in life. The lanky numbers whiz is student council vice president at Village Glen School, where he’s a senior. He’s also on track to be class valedictorian—no easy feat for someone who grew up struggling with Asperger’s syndrome.
“It was difficult” as a child, he says. “I didn’t have the appropriate social skills, and I didn’t really think rationally.”
But when he turned 13, Alex made a commitment to train himself to overcome his limitations. “I realized that I would just be held back if I continued to think irrationally. So I worked at it, and everything pretty much got better.”
Nowadays he’s a star student with a voracious appetite for learning. Along with his high school classes, he has taken college courses in math, science and language at LAVC and Pierce College. Last summer he took part in COSMOS, a hands-on science and engineering program for gifted students.
Math and science have “always spoken to me,” the 18-year-old says. “These are the fields that made the most sense to me. I wanted to take as many classes as I could, as fast as I could.”
Alex is also a problem-solver at Village Glen. Some classrooms at the school lack SMART Boards, so he figured out how to make DIY interactive whiteboards for the remaining classrooms at a fraction of the cost, using a computer program and a few clever household items. He presented the idea to student council and is now leading the effort to implement his plan, which could save his school about $30,000.
Alex, who favors T-shirts emblazoned with witty math jokes, hopes to study theoretical physics or engineering in college.
Amit Dodani, 16West Hills
A speech impediment led Amit Dodani to discover his life calling. Growing up, the 16-year-old had trouble pronouncing “c” and “s” sounds, among other consonants. “That really prevented me from having a lot of self-confidence,” he says.
Amit tried speech therapy but didn’t like it, so he eked by on his own. But by then, he’d developed low self-esteem and a fear of public speaking.
He found solace in an unlikely school activity: mock trial and debate. “It was kind of crazy—the idea of a kid who has a speech impediment trying out for an activity based on speech,” he recalls. But the team’s two coaches worked with him, and before long his greatest weakness had become his greatest strength.
“I realized that was a story that I could tell,” he explains. So he started a website where contributors could talk about overcoming personal hurdles—bullying, body image and autism, for instance.
Yahoo promoted the forum, and word spread. He soon founded a club at Chaminade College Preparatory School, where he’s now a junior.
“As it grew, we realized that we were solving a bigger problem,” he says. “It wasn’t just about storytelling; it was a lack of empathy.”
These days that’s the focus of My Name My Story (MNMS), which has blossomed into a national, student-run organization that aims to kindle empathy between kids at school and beyond. MNMS cultivates a “culture of empathy” on school campuses through teamwork, leadership opportunities and community service. It’s all about breaking the ice and creating a caring youth community, says Amit, who now exudes easy confidence in front of a crowd.
There are currently 14 MNMS clubs in California and on the East Coast. Amit has given inspirational speeches to thousands of students at schools and conferences across the country. This summer, the organization will host a social entrepreneurship camp in West Hills for high school students.
“There is so much power in storytelling,” Amit believes. “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.”
Alexa Lee, 17Tarzana
When Alexa Lee first picked up a violin at age 5, it wasn’t love at first pluck. But the Buckley School senior stuck with it, and it’s a good thing she did. Over time she discovered a wealth of talent and joy.
The studious brunette plays in Buckley’s upper school orchestra and the school’s advanced strings ensemble, and she was also selected from kids across the state to play in the Junior Philharmonic of California. That gig won her the chance to perform at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Last year Alexa took part in a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity: She played at Carnegie Hall as part of the High School Honors Performance Series, an elite showcase for 145 highly talented students worldwide. Based on her audition tape, she was not only accepted but was seated third chair in the violin section.
“It was a really amazing experience,” she shares. “I mean, who gets to play at Carnegie Hall? Everyone you admire and idolize as a musician plays there.”
Alexa spends two to four hours practicing violin each day, so you might assume she has time for little else. But the avid reader, who has a black belt in karate, has also played varsity basketball all four years of high school. She tapes her fingers when she plays to keep them safe for her strings.
“My way of fun is playing violin,” she says. “When you get to learn new pieces and work on them for a long time, your violin becomes another part of you.”
In college, Alexa plans to major in music. But she’d also like to “dabble” in other areas like psychology. She’s particularly interested in how music affects the brain and hopes to study the effect of music therapy on patients with dementia and autism.
Milana Bochkur Dratver, 17Studio City
When Milana Bochkur Dratver joined the science research program at Milken Community Schools’ Mitchell Academy of Science and Technology, it was hard for her to settle on just one area of study. “I was really interested in genetics and stem cells and cancer research,” she says.
She found her fit working in a cancer stem cell research lab at the department of radiation oncology at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. For her work in brain cancer research, she was selected as one of 300 semifinalists—out of nearly 1,800 entrants from across the country—in the 2014 Intel Science Talent Search.
“That was incredible,” she shares. “It was a nice culmination of my science research experience.”
On top of that, the Milken senior is co-captain of her school’s FIRST Robotics Competition team, the MilkenKnights, and has worked on the team for the past four years. She helped push the MilkenKnights to the world championships last year in St. Louis, where they showed off a microwave-sized robot that throws Frisbees.
“Normally, I’m a very hardcore science student,” she says. “What I like about the robotics team is that it’s like a family.”
Milana also serves as captain of Milken’s LADWP Science Bowl team, and in her spare time she plays piano and paints. She loves visiting art museums and botanical gardens and enjoys volunteering at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center and the Skirball Cultural Center.
Milana has applied to top college science programs and hopes to pursue a career somewhere in the field of medicine—if she can narrow her interests. “I’ve always liked learning,” she says. “I was the kid who liked to go to school, liked to learn as much as possible about everything.”