South Park Magazine

October 16, 2012

Top of the class

Five local students lead the way in Charlotte’s schools.

Elizabeth Chen

When North Mecklenburg High School junior Elizabeth Chen noticed that local middle school sports teams don’t have the access to athletic trainers high school teams do, she launched a yearlong project to create first-aid kits for the younger teams. She handed the supplies out to teams at J. M. Alexander Middle School and plans to continue distributing them to other middle schools in need. This kind of creativity and giving is a recurring theme in the life of Chen who regularly volunteers with her family at spots like The Laurels Retirement Community where she leads a BINGO game with residents.

“She’s very ambitious,” says Elizabeth’s father Robert Chen, who points out that his daughter has always been focused. As tennis team captain at her school this year, Elizabeth noticed that the team’s practice wasn’t as effective as it had the potential to be. She met with her coach and helped restructure the schedule to best meet the needs of the team members. “Once she figures out what she wants, she’s very dedicated,” says Chen.

Last summer, Elizabeth’s family traveled to China and Taipei, Taiwan, visiting relatives and learning about her heritage. “My parents are both really devoted and dedicated, which is something that I aspire to be,” says Elizabeth, who was so inspired by the trip that upon returning home she teamed up with several other local students to travel to China. On that 30-day trip, which was organized through the Confucius Institute at Pfeiffer University, the students had the chance to visit Xi’an, Bodi International School and Beijing.

Elizabeth hopes that she can one day turn her love of sports, medicine, and helping others into a career in sports medicine — and of course continue to explore other world cultures. “I love being involved in so many things,” she says, “because you get to meet so many interesting people along the way.”

Kwadwo Danso

Kwadwo Danso is quick to give credit to his family and his faith when it comes to his successes. And considering that the Hopewell High School junior is a cadet first sergeant in the school’s JROTC program and a natural standout among his peers, there’s plenty of credit to give.

“I really take a lot of pride in my Ghanaian heritage,” says Kwadwo. “The Ghanaian way is very strict and very disciplined.” His structured background has come in handy at times like last summer when Kwadwo spent ten days in South Carolina’s Fort Jackson during a JROTC Cadet Leadership Camp. During the camp, Kwadwo participated in a number of leadership and team-building exercises. “It really pushes you to your maximum potential,” he says. “It brings out more discipline in you.”

Wherever he is though, Kwadwo, a devout Christian, feels it’s important to spread a message of love and tolerance. “Kwadwo is a very spiritual person,” says Adam Bitters, an English teacher at Hopewell. “Raised in a house of strong values, he is one of the most thoughtful people I have met.”

After high school, Kwadwo is planning to study computer science or automotive engineering in college, but he hopes to do ROTC in college with the intention of being a second lieutenant officer in the military upon graduation. “What I’ve learned is that you should always at least attempt to try your best at everything,” he says. “It’s always going to build you and benefit you and strengthen you in the future.”

Emma Grace Barnes

By the time Emma Grace Barnes was 10 years old, she had already faced possible death, undergone a craniotomy and received radiation. But rather than let these things take away her hope, the fifth grader at Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy is using her experience to support others in need of medical care.

Barnes, who has arteriovenous malformation (AVM), a disease in which certain clusters of veins and arteries don’t have capillaries, was rushed to the emergency room in the summer of 2011 when she had a sudden headache and vomiting. “It was a little scary because I was never sick like that,” says Emma Grace. “It freaked me out a little.”

Doctors discovered massive amount of blood in her spine and originally suspected meningitis. But a later test revealed two AVMS — one in the frontal lobe and one in the back. And a CT scan revealed that she had a ruptured AVM, a cerebral brain hemorrage from the frontal lobe AVM. Although doctors were able to remove a large part of an AVM cluster during surgery, part of it was too deep within her brain tissue to operate. But after radiation treatment, the family recently received news that the remaining AVM is no longer visible on the CT scan. “We will not have full confirmation that it is gone until another year or two when she has an arteriogram,” says Emme Barnes, Emma Grace’s mother. “But it is really wonderful news!” Emma Grace regularly works to rebuild cognitive, memory and sequencing skills. She is restricted from certain activities, like P.E. class. But one thing doctors have allowed to continue is dance class. “I was really happy about that because I’ve been dancing half of my life,” says Emma Grace. “Dance is pretty much everything to me.”

As a way to say thanks, Emma Grace recently visited the ICU floor where she once stayed. She handed out baked goods and cards on her re-birthday – the anniversary that AVM survivors celebrate for their second chance at life. She also held a blood drive in partnership with her dance studio, Miller Street Dance Academy. The drive collected 27 units of blood, and Emma Grace says she plans to continue the tradition every year on her re-birthday. “We’ve tried to always teach her about giving back to others and being thankful for what we have,’” says Barnes. “It’s about recognizing the blessings that you do have and I think she has an appreciation for that.”

Taylor Neal

Like a scene straight out of the hit television show “Glee,” Taylor Neal knew she had arrived the minute she stepped on the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway. Just six months earlier, the Cuthbertson High School junior had no way of knowing her talents would take her all the way to New York City to film a show for PBS.

Taylor started acting in the seventh grade when she took a role in “School House Rock” and was immediately hooked. “My favorite part of acting is the adrenaline that I feel right before I step out into the lights,” says the young actress who won best actress in Charlotte inaugural Blumey Awards for her role as Belle in last year’s performance of “Beauty and the Beast.” “I love getting pumped up and being in front of a crowd of people.”

The Blumey Award gave Taylor a straight ticket to the Jimmy Awards (the National High School Musical Theater Awards) in New York City. During the seven-day trip, nominees from all over the country participated in a theatrical boot camp as they rehearsed for the award show and prepared for a possible Jimmy win. PBS was there every step of the way to film the experience for their new three-part miniseries “Broadway or Bust,” which aired in September.

Taylor recalls the moment when the students first took a step on the Minskoff Theatre stage, where they would be performing during the Jimmy Awards later that week. “People were in tears,” she says. “All of us were looking around in awe because we were on a Broadway Stage to say that we got that opportunity is such an incredible feeling.”

She may not have won in New York, but Taylor plans to continue singing and dancing every chance she gets and hopes to one day share her talent as a choral professor. “We were so proud of her,” says her mother, Linda Neal. “When Taylor’s acting, she becomes the character, so it’s almost like she’s not acting at all.”

Carson Brannock

Audience members of Charlotte Christian School performances may not know who Carson Brannock is, but chances are they’ve enjoyed his work. As the student technical director, Carson runs the sound for all the shows across all grade levels.

“He truly wants to have the perfect show,” says Carson’s mother, Lisa Brannock. “And he wants to do everything in his power to make the performance look and sound as good as he can.” Carson, who started his theater career on the other side of the curtain as an actor in fourth grade, made his way backstage several years later when a director asked him to run lights for a show he wasn’t acting in.

“I really enjoyed it,” says Carson. “I really liked the technical director at the time and started doing that instead of acting.” These days, the 17-year-old operates an extensive sound system at Charlotte Christian: 18 wireless microphones (which include receivers and microphone packs), microphones and a soundboard.

“It’s taken me a while to master the soundboard and get good at it,” says Carson. But his skills shined through last year when he oversaw the sound for “West Side Story,” which was nominated for several Blumey Awards.

Carson plans to go to college – hopefully Belmont University in Nashville – for audio engineering and continue to work in this industry. “I would love the challenge of going on a tour and being on a different stage in a different city every night,” he says, “and just go all around the world.”

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