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Thank you, Golden Herald winners, for giving us so much

Everyone in the Bradenton Auditorium was a winner Thursday night: the parents, the educators, the sponsors, the coordinators, the judges.

And we had 163 outstanding high school seniors to thank for that.

I had the honor of being part of the Golden Herald Awards again. For 32 years, the Bradenton Herald has sponsored the event, paying heed to our high schools’ top students for their outstanding community service and scholastics.

Each year, the superlatives that spill from the nominations fill me with pride and hope for our community’s future. These kids rock. And maybe I’ll say the same thing next year, but the Class of ’09 offered the most ambitious, diverse and inspirational array of winners yet from all our high schools.

Picking the top 15 winners was a daunting task, as all 163 nominations gave the judges page after page of accomplishments to consider. As each senior walked across the stage Thursday, I wished we had all the awards in the world to shower on every one of them. Their faces beamed with pride, filling the room with the adrenaline of success.

Jim Bruce’s Manatee High School Jazz Band members played their hearts out, too, building expectations for the night’s finale with their medleys. Along with their drum rolls as each category’s top honor was introduced, you could feel the “wows” ripple through the crowd.

n Brittney Clyburn, Palmetto High, captured the top honor in Art with her passion for learning and fervent commitment to creativity. In teaching others, she says, “I could potentially influence our future generations of engineers, inventors, architects and designers.”

n Severin Walstad, Southeast High, won in Athletics. His sports prowess alone is a coach’s dream come true, but this young man didn’t even mention all those achievements in picking the most important event in his life: He was chairman of the World Hunger Banquet, raising hundreds of dollars for Our Daily Bread’s soup kitchen.

n James Bardwell, Lakewood Ranch High, led the way in Business. His nomination noted how he excels in service, academics, athletics and every school-sponsored activity imaginable — and always, always finding time to give back.

n Andrew Mullins, Palmetto High, humbly took the Citizenship award. He is, the nominator said, “a true role model.” He already is battalion commander of his Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps. And his weighted GPA? 4.517. Somehow, he seemed stunned that he won, saying “Thank you so much!” over and over as he took his award. And then he bolted up the stage to give Brittney a bear hug.

n Maria Garcia, Bayshore High, was No. 1 in Computer & Technology. It probably was tough to decide in which category to enter this bright young woman. While excelling in her studies, she also volunteers at the Allegro Music Academy, tutors math students and serves countless hours at her local church.

n Whitney Jones, Braden River High, won the honors in English & Literature. Whitney’s teacher struggled to find enough laudatory words to describe this student’s diligence in all areas. One phrase that stands out: a selfless determination to help others. And she uses her knowledge of literature to tutor students, join community outreach projects and help widows. Where did she learn such values? “My mother.”

n Sulma Martinez, Bayshore High, took top honors in Foreign Language. Her accomplishments mean so much to her — she is the first one in her family to go to college. “All my dreams depend on me and my hard work,” she says in being a role model for her little sister and brother. “I like to help people in my community in any way that I can.”

n Melissa Caicedo, Braden River High, won the General Scholarship category — as well as our hearts. She is one of her teacher’s most gifted: “talented, motivated and tirelessly dedicated to excellence.” All of her accomplishments — including being No. 1 in her senior class — come with English as her second language. Melissa came to the U.S. from Colombia just five years ago. She is, her teacher says, “the epitome of the Golden Herald Awards.”

n Molly Roland, Palmetto High, danced to the stage to take top billing in Journalism. How could I not be a huge fan: Molly revived her school’s newspaper! An outstanding student, she is blessed with the gifts of good writing, work ethics and listening skills.

n Broderick Erb, Palmetto High, added all things up to win in Mathematics. One of his more impressive numbers: a whopping 4.714 GPA. His volunteer list is lengthy, and his years with the Junior ROTC helped him help others make decisions filled with honor and integrity.

n Jennifer Klama, Braden River High, was the judges’ pick in Music. Her compassion for others and love of music led her to create a phenomenal program for the mentally handicapped. She literally brought music into these students’ lives.

n Rachel Dawson, Southeast High, walked away with the highest honor in Science. Her passion in this area shows in her grades, her internship with Mote Marine and volunteer work with the Red Cross Youth Corps. “We love you, Rachel!” someone in the audience shouted. Fittingly, she sent the love right back out into the crowd.

n Genevieve Ozark, Manatee High, won in Social Science. She is all about “service, academics, faith, family, friendship and music.” And she has a great sense of humor and adventure. Her scheme to oust the principal from his office for a food drive led to 1,900 pounds of canned food for the needy.

n Dyrren Barber, Manatee High, accepted the top award in Speech and Drama – with fitting drama. In his words: “If you have talent, you should share it with the world.” He is a voracious seeker of knowledge, a deep thinker with amazing orator skills that can motivate anyone.

n Virginia Tillman, Palmetto High, garnered top billing in Vocational. She knows that “making a difference in the whole community is something amazing.” And by her long list of accomplishments, she is amazing.

But these kids also know how to be just that — excited kids. They couldn’t stand still as Art Spath, general manager of AutoWay Ford, prepared to draw the winner of a two-year car lease. And who better to walk away with the key to a Ford Mustang? Another first for Sulma Martinez.

Take a bow, students. You are our future — and that is a blessing.