Local students receive Children’s Challenge awards from Del Mar-Solana Beach Optimist Club


By Karen Billing

The Del Mar-Solana Beach Optimist Club held its Vic Kops Children’s Challenge Awards on May 22 at Lomas Santa Fe Country Club, honoring 10 exceptional young elementary school students in the areas of community service, art, courage, fellowship, humanities/writing and science.

The 31st annual awards are named in honor of Optimist Vic Kops, who passed away in 2007. Kops developed the awards as a way to honor “kids in a league all their own” who are not honored enough for the good things that they do.

Ten students is more than the Optimists have ever honored before, but they had so many outstanding entries this year the number was warranted, according to chairperson Susan Pfleeger.

“We have some amazing kids in our community,” Pfleeger said.

In the category of courage, the Optimists honored Ocean Air fourth-grader Maxwell Yao, a youngster who bravely battled brain cancer.

Diagnosed just after his 10th birthday, Maxwell was taken out of school for a year as he received chemotherapy and radiology treatments.

According to his mother, Yannuo, Maxwell decided he was just going to fight no matter what happened — she said that he never cried and he never complained. He repeatedly assured his parents that he would be fine.

“His courage and quiet strength carried his parents through the hardest 10 months of his life,” teacher Michelle Beeson read from a letter written by Yannuo.

When Maxwell returned to school he wanted to play violin in the school’s strings group and Beeson held an audition for him in between hospital visits. Beeson said he played with such “utter beauty” that she placed him in the sixth-grade strings group, the only fourth grader in the group.

His courage was an inspiration to his family and now to so many others, Beeson said.

“He looked fear in the eye and said ‘Get out of my way, I have things to do,’” Beeson said.

The community service award went to Carmel Del Mar fourth-graders Tess Maretz, Faith Choe and Avalon Moore.

The girls’ teacher David Skinner said the girls made it their own mission to start a lunch club to help tutor first- and second-graders. Called the TFA (Tess, Faith and Avalon) Tutoring Club, the girls transform Skinner’s classroom at lunch into their own little school. They divide up kids by grade level and subject and come up with their own lesson plans.

“If I had more students like that, I’d be worried about my job,” Skinner said, noting that on days they don’t hold the club there are a lot of disappointed little first and second-graders at his door. “They really have inspired younger students with the joy of learning.”

On display at the award ceremony was the art of Ashley Falls second-grader and winner in the category of arts Yolanda Sun. Her father, Chengkun Sun, said that her interest in drawing began at age 3 and she enjoys sharing her love of animals and nature through her work.

“She’s made me more proud than ever before,” said Chengkun. “We hope this award encourages her to go far in art.”

Katie Sheng, a sixth-grader at Sage Canyon School, also won an award in the category of art. Her mother, Ming Chiang, said her talent in art is “exceptional” as evidenced by a realistic drawing of a wolf on display. Katie also excels in writing and is very athletic, playing softball.

“We really appreciate what she showed us and we want to honor her for being a great, great kid,” said Ming.

In the category of science, Solana Vista third-grader Asher Petkevich was honored for his skill as an inventor. Asher won first place in his grade level as well as first place overall in the school’s invention fair for his “Wacky Water Machine 1.0.” With his machine, Asher created a way to efficiently water four plants at the same time.

Teacher Ryan Girod praised Asher’s ability to take what he learned in the classroom about pulley systems to apply it to his own creation.

In the category of fellowship Torrey Hills fifth-grader Maxine Lacher was honored by her mom Orit Ostrowiak and teacher Jessica Cohen for her participation in the Big Kid Friend program at school. Maxine volunteers to provide additional friendship, motivation and support to a younger student with special needs. She even ran the school’s jogathon alongside her younger friend.

“My daughter inspires me every single day,” Ostrowiak said. “She makes the world a better place.”

Pfleeger said there were many wonderful writers who applied this year in the category of humanities/writing and two were selected as standouts.

“You wouldn’t believe the stories this child has come up with,” said mom Madhu Malkani of winner Pranaya Malkani, a Torrey Hills first-grader.

By age 5, Pranaya had already authored several books — her neatly printed handwriting and illustrations on stapled-together paper telling stories about aliens, a turtle who falls asleep in school, and the adventures of a little mouse.

Her latest book, “Rumpus on the Farm,” is about lightning striking a barn, mixing up how all the animals sound (the cow sounded like a pig and the horse sounded like a sheep).

Torrey Hills fourth-grader Chase Anichini was honored for turning her experiences being bullied (at another school) into a book she wrote with her family called “Baffle That Bully.” In her book she seeks to help other kids facing bullies like she did “with her head held high and a smile on her face,” said mom Amy Jones Anichini.

“She turned a negative experience into something positive and enduring,” Jones Anichini said.

All of the winners received a $100 check and will be stars on the flyers announcing next year’s awards.