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East County Thursday, May 20, 2021 12 months ago

Ready for Launch

These graduates made their mark as extraordinary community leaders at their high schools. But what they have planned next is just as exciting.
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

High school graduation is a time of hope, of promise, of fun and of one chapter ending while another begins.

It’s easy to wax poetic or be sentimental about this rite of passage, but it also means something else to our community: the transition of many young people who contributed to our area moving on to hopefully do even bigger and better things in the future.

To celebrate the occasion, we’re highlighting six seniors graduating from area high schools who have left their mark locally and who we think you’ll want to keep an eye on to see what they do next. We never know what the future will hold, but with these youngsters in it, we know it will be a better place through their efforts.


Reece Whatmore

Reece Whatmore

When Reece Whatmore was a junior at The Out-of-Door Academy, she saw the impact red tide had on the local community and knew she wanted to do something about it.

Whatmore and her classmate Supawadee Surattanont decided to build oyster reefs as one solution to red tide.

Whatmore says she’s always loved nature as well as math and engineering, so why not put all her passions to use in a project to solve real-life issues?

“Growing up in Florida, you can see the direct impact of climate change and the plastic crisis in the ocean,” Whatmore says. “It’s there. You can’t ignore it once you see it.”

Besides building oyster reefs to tackle red tide, for the past three years Whatmore has been involved in STEMania, an organization that exposes children to science, technology, engineering and math education. She started as an assistant and later became a teacher and has helped develop lessons for middle school students.

When she sees a girl in any of her STEMania classes, Whatmore tells her to not be discouraged. If it weren’t for a girl in one of her freshman engineering classes who did the same for her, Whatmore says she isn’t sure she would have stayed with it.

“It’s important to understand that even if you don’t see someone out there who might look like you, you can still do it,” she says. “You can be the first, and that’s OK.”

After graduation, Whatmore will continue working with EarthEcho International, a nonprofit that strives to inspire youth to take steps toward a sustainable future. She’ll help the nonprofit research and redesign water monitoring kits to be more effective.

She has been serving as a Water Challenge ambassador her senior year, educating children about sustainability and conducting water testing.

Whatmore will be attending Carnegie Mellon University in the fall and wants to major in material science and engineering to learn about what materials are made of and how they function while finding ways to redesign them to make them better.

Still not impressed? She also plans to swim on the varsity team at Carnegie Mellon.

Although she hasn’t decided what kind of job she would like to have after graduation, Whatmore says she’s interested in becoming a chief sustainability officer for a company with the goal of helping it do business in environmentally friendly ways.

“The way our society is structured, these large corporations have such a massive impact on the environment and affect every one of us,” she says. “If we can make changes at that level, then the trickle-down effect is huge.”

No matter where her future takes her, Whatmore says her goal will remain the same: to help society become more sustainable.


Arthur Wang

Arthur Wang

At least once per month, Arthur Wang, a senior at The Out-of-Door Academy, drives to St. Armands Circle or downtown Sarasota, plops his things on the sidewalk and plays his violin — all just to put a smile on people’s faces.

“I want to use my music to inspire people not to give up and to be the best they can be,” Wang says. “I love to spread my positive energy to the society around me.”

Wang has been playing violin since he was 5 years old. He says his grandmother, Yanmei Zhao, took him to lessons each week and inspired him to continue playing as he grew up.

“My mom and grandmother always told me that nothing is impossible if you put your heart into it,” Wang says.

His dedication to the instrument has led him to be a member of the Advanced Chamber Orchestra at school and a member of the Sarasota Youth Orchestra. He’s also a Gold Award winner from the Forte International Competition at Carnegie Hall in 2019 and has placed second in the Vivo International Music Competition in 2019 and the National Music Competition of China in 2014.

In addition to spending time playing, he has used his talents to teach middle schoolers how to play violin.

“I feel like when you’re teaching the middle school students, you’re teaching yourself because you build this experience, and you are getting better and better at teaching,” Wang says.

Besides playing the violin, Wang taught himself to play piano and guitar and was on the school’s varsity golf team. He has also participated in numerous service events and organizations including the Sarasota Circus Arts Conservatory, Relay for Life and the school’s Magic Club.

His love for the arts also includes a passion for drawing and painting. His grandfather, Xiaoshen Wang, is a professional painter in China. Wang’s favorite style of painting is watercolor because his grandfather created watercolors on rice paper in China.

Wang’s top choice for college is Berklee College of Music in Boston, so he can continue with his passion for music.

Wang wants to use music and art to meet more people and share how the arts can make a difference in someone and in the community.

“I want to provide as much as I can to help make the community around me a better place, no matter where I go,” Wang says.


Garrett Andrews

Garrett Andrews

Sometimes it’s amazing what can happen over four years. When Garrett Andrews was a freshman at Lakewood Ranch High School, he was a shy student. Physically smaller than his peers, he was afraid to talk to anyone, instead preferring to sit in solitude.

After being a member of the school’s junior ROTC program for four years, he’s now a leader as a senior.

“I’m more outgoing and have a lot more friends,” Andrews says. “I feel like I’ve grown socially, mentally and physically.”

When he was a freshman and sophomore, Andrews looked up to the leaders of the program and is proud to see that he has become that person for younger cadets.

“I’ve seen kids come in freshman year that are classic troublemakers that goof off and try to get everybody’s attention,” Andrews says. “Then by the end of the year, they’re like: ‘This is something I can do. This is something I can put my mind to and get through high school and figure out what to do.’”

As a member of JROTC, Andrews helped develop a recycling program at the school when he was a sophomore.

Andrews and other cadets noticed items weren’t being properly recycled, so they would collect recyclables from classrooms every Friday and rolled them out to the recycling bins outside.

“We’ve created presentations to teach the rest of the JROTC kids about the importance of recycling,” Andrews says. “Looking at the numbers, we’ve created a spreadsheet of all the cubic yards we’ve recycled, and the amount just really makes an impact.”

After receiving a four-year ROTC National Merit scholarship, Andrews is heading to the University of Florida to major in civil engineering. He plans to then commission as a second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers for civil engineering.

“After college, I want to make sure I take care of the people around me the best I can,” Andrews says. “Civil engineering itself is important and helpful. It’s making bridges, making sure water runoff doesn’t get into our ponds, lakes, anything like that. I think I would probably lean more toward making sure water runoff is properly taken care of, so everyone can drink clean water.”


Jessica Thompson

Jessica Thompson

When it comes to racking up service hours, Jessica Thompson is an all-star. The Lakewood Ranch High senior has completed more than 350 service hours by participating in hundreds of service events and projects, but the project that she’ll always remember is Project Manatee.

With Project Manatee, Thompson went to Manatee Elementary School around the holidays to give students gifts, decorate cookies, play games and spend time with the children.

“Seeing the kids’ smiles makes it all worth it, especially planning the event,” she says. “It’s exciting just to have that moment.”

Thompson has been a member in three service organizations throughout high school: Lakewood Leaders, National Honor Society and Girl Up. She has coordinated food drives, passed out bottles of water at cancer walks, spent time with children, raised money for nonprofits and much more.

“I hope people my age realize you don’t have to wait until you grow up to try and put yourself out there and do things for other people,” she says.

With her friend Emma Tullio, Thompson started Girl Up, a club affiliated with the national Girl Up organization to ensure girls across the world have access to education. Thompson started the club after learning about the rights people lack in different countries and thought the club would be an opportunity to spread awareness at Lakewood Ranch High about global gender issues.

Thompson and Tullio organized fundraisers for the national organization, coordinated community walks to create awareness and created petitions to have the government release data on the progress different national acts were making.

Through her service, Thompson says she has become a better learner and listener.

“I’ve grown as a person getting to talk to different people and hear different people’s stories,” she says. “I’ve been able to be appreciative of everything I have and everything I have access to.”

After graduation, Thompson plans to pursue a law degree, so she can continue to make a difference in the community. Human rights is one area of law that interests her.

“I want to help people be treated more equally and have the same opportunities, regardless of who you are, what you look like or where you were born,” Thompson says.


Trisha Pitchala

Trisha Pitchala

Trisha Pitchala, a senior at Braden River High School, remembers sitting in her seventh grade science class with a frog in front of her and a scalpel in hand.

While other students were grossed out as they sliced open the frog, Pitchala was fascinated because she saw the similarities between the frog’s system and humans. She was hooked and joined the Health Occupations Students of America club at school to learn more about health and medicine.

Her eventual goal? To become a doctor.

“I need to protect the ones I care about most, and I get to do that while I’m doing something I’m passionate about,” she says. “It’s a perfect equation.”

During the pandemic, she has written letters to doctors, nurses and other health care workers in the community to show her support for them.

“Me as a future doctor seeing them struggling to do their job, struggling to see that many patients in one day, it made my journey more worthwhile,” Pitchala says. “I think it’s cliche that every high school senior will be saying this, but I do want to make a difference. I think it’s this level of responsibility that I found in the doctors that I didn’t really see before.”

Pitchala’s service has made a difference not only at home but also internationally. She started Students for Rohingya Aid with classmate Gabriel McDerment her freshman year, and they raised more than $1,300 to give to UNICEF to help refugees in Myanmar.

This year, as the president of the National Honor Society, she and other NHS members have raised close to $1,000 for To Zim, With Love, a project through Bayside Community Church that feeds families in Zimbabwe.

“Superman always says, ‘With great power comes great responsibility,’” Pitchala says. “I think the leaders of our school, especially the class of 2021, definitely take that to heart and try to make a difference in our organizations and our school.”

Pitchala wants to continue making a difference by returning to her home country of India after she becomes a doctor to build a hospital, which has been a goal of hers since she was a child.

“I’ve grown up in India; it’s where I consider my home,” Pitchala says. “One of the most significant moments of my life would be going back home to India for vacation for a couple months and that moment when the plane lands, and you know you’re physically standing back where you started in this full-circle moment.”


Gabriel McDerment

Gabriel McDerment

As the pandemic continues, Braden River High School senior Gabriel McDerment will be working with PPE4ALL, a nonprofit that provides personal protective equipment to hospitals, schools and other organizations throughout the U.S., as the nonprofit’s national media director.

“It’s another opportunity to work directly in the lives of people,” McDerment says. “With these opportunities, it’s another chance to make people safer, to make people healthier and to use the passions that I have in music, video, art and service to impact one person.”

McDerment’s religious background has inspired him to get involved in the numerous events with the Key Club at Braden River as well as national organizations with goals to improve the environment or mental health.

“Jesus says go love your neighbor,” McDerment says. “That’s what I do. I started my first work within that kind of sector when I was in fifth grade, and from then on just one thing led to another. As I felt God tell me to do things, I just did them in successive order, and that led me to great success.”

As a senior, McDerment worked with Superbands, a nonprofit based out of Philadelphia dedicated to building hope through combining mental health and music. McDerment used his 12 years of experience playing piano and researched how music can help with mental health and encourage people to respond emotionally to music to help them get through difficult times.

“I figured out early on that the music that helps people is more than the lyrics,” he says. “Yes, lyrics are powerful, and lyrics can lead people to great places, but the melodies, the tunes in the harmonies can help move people.”

McDerment has also been involved with Harvard University’s Center for Climate, Health and Global Environment producing videos that shared the actionable steps people can take to make the world more environmentally friendly.

In the fall, McDerment will attend New York University to major in binaural psychophysics and sonic ethnography. He will be able to design his own major based on music, neuroscience and anthropology.

After graduating college, McDerment says he could see himself going into civil rights or constitutional law and using his background in science, anthropology and history to advance equality and environmentalism.

“Whatever it is, hopefully I’ll be right on the front lines making change for someone directly, making change for society as a whole and making change the new normal,” he says.

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