San Diego teens honored for achievements, activism and overcoming adversity

Saw Paw Kay wears traditional Karen attire from Myanmar, gets award from attorney Amy Hoffman
Saw Paw Kay (right), dressed in traditional Karen attire from Myanmar, receives an awardy from Amy Hoffman, an attorney with the San Diego County Public Defenders Office, for being one of 25 “most remarkable teens” in the county. Because of COVID-19 the county delivered awards to teens at their homes. They are honored for contributions and efforts in several categories including arts and leadership and for showing courage to overcome adversity. Kay received the award for his community activism. He has help found a local food distribution network and works at the youth business enterprise, The Neighborhood Cafe.
(Nancee E. Lewis)

This year San Diego County Public Defender honored 25 remarkable teens with at-home celebrations because of pandemic restrictions


A big smile spreads across Saw Paw Kay’s face when he talks about his advocacy work with two local nonprofits that serve at-risk teens and low-income families.

Kay, 18, splits his time between working at the Neighborhood Cafe, a job training program of the Union for Pan Asian Communities in City Heights, and volunteering at a food distribution center with Jewish Family Services.

“I want to focus on giving back to my community,” Kay said.

Kay, a refugee from Myanmar, grew up in City Heights. He became involved with local nonprofits as a way to stay away from gangs and negative influences.

He is one of the 25 teens honored by the county Public Defender’s Office for making a difference in schools and communities, part of its second annual youth recognition program.

Known as the 25 Most Remarkable Teens, the program honors kids ages 13 through 19 who excel in the “non-traditional” categories of leadership, humanitarianism, entrepreneurship, arts and overcoming hardship.

This year’s in-person ceremony was canceled because of the pandemic. Instead, county staff hand-delivered glass trophies and personalized yard signs to each teen on Monday.

The Public Defender’s Office received 150 nominations this year. San Diego County Public Defender Randy Mize and the county Public Defender Youth Council selected the winners.

“Gen Z teens are involved, informed and globally connected,” Mize said in a statement. “These kids are ready to fight fiercely for change in a world that is desperate for change.”

Lluvia Ugarte, 18, with her awards and front-yard banner she received from the San Diego Youth Council.
Lluvia Ugarte, 18, with her awards and front-yard banner she received from the San Diego Youth Council that is part of their 25 Most Remarkable Teens in San Diego project. Lluvia received the “Courage to Overcome Family Situation” award and is currently attending SDSU to study biology.
(Kristian Carreon/San Diego Union-Tribune)

Lluvia Ugarte, 18, was selected under the category of courage to overcome a family situation. Ugarte was 4 years old she was separated from her biological mother, after the death of her twin sister, and placed in foster care.

She is studying biology at San Diego State University with plans to become a doctor.

“I am aware that it’s going to be difficult ... but I have the support of my family,” Ugarte said, referring to her adoptive family.

Natasha Threat, 15, from Carlsbad received an award for community service. Threat founded Beegether, an organization that beautifies community spaces.

Elena Medina, 16, from Chula Vista was honored for volunteering with local immigrant’s rights organizations.

Alex Paz, 17, from San Marcos received the award for directing more than 30 videos for the San Marcos Unified School District.

Riya Agarwal, 17, from Torrey Pines was honored for spreading cultural awareness through the House of Pacific Relations organization in Balboa Park.

Jose Ramon Lopez, 17, was recognized for having the courage to overcome adversity after he was placed in the foster care system at the age of 9.

Makhfria Abdullahi, 17, from Morse High was honored for raising funds for social justice organizations.

Kaavya Raamukumar, 16, from Del Norte High was awarded for performing in international music and dance festivals.

Diego Real, 17, from Mount Miguel High received the award for his passion for engineering and collaboration with NASA programs.

Zaw Ler Yabe, 16, was recognized for serving in several leadership roles at Hoover High and for volunteering with nonprofits.

Christopher Caliguiri, 16, from Canyon Crest Academy received the innovation award for developing a robot platform and working alongside NASA researchers.

Vanessa Galindo, 18, was honored for creating news packages at San Diego High.

Anika Menon, 17, from Mount Carmel High was awarded for working with nonprofits and volunteering with hospitals.

Andrew Diep-Tran, 16, from San Marcos was honored for founding a nonprofit Operation Economics International.

Beret Dernbach, 17, from San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts was awarded for being a dancer and winning several world championship titles.

Masitis Ahmed, 18, was recognized for persevering through health issues as a child. She now attends SDSU and plans on becoming a commercial pilot.

David Scuba, 15, from Torrey Pines received the award for building robots and participating in robotics competitions.

Catherine Tamayo, 16, from Academy of our Lady of Peace was awarded for competing as a student attorney in countywide mock trial tournaments.

Chris Htoo, 17, from e3civic High was honored for his work with photography.

Amelie Simpson, 16, was recognized for leading Rotary’s Interact Club at Valhalla High and for participation with other school clubs and nonprofits in San Diego.

Liam Gardner, 16, from San Diego High was awarded for playing the bass, viola, violin, cello, piano and guitar.

Matthew Tillyer, 18, from Classical Academy High was honored for having personal determination to overcome health issues that left him physically disabled.

Lilian Franqui, 13, from Pacific Beach was selected for her dedication to music and school. She is a member of several clubs and mentors young musicians.

Olivia Yang, 16, a professional figure skater, was awarded for her volunteer and research work with the Salk Institute.

— Andrea Lopez-Villafaña is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune

Andrea Lopez-Villafaña