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Upstate Parent's 10 Students Who Make A Difference 2021

Upstate Parent’s Students Who Make a Difference come from nominations received from teachers and administrators of schools across the Upstate. These fifth graders represent a bright future for us all. Their reach goes beyond academics, though many excel in that arena as well. They display caring, compassion, a spirit of service and passion about a variety of causes and endeavors. They are leaders, doers and the helping hands of those around them. 

Join us in congratulating these 10 outstanding students. We can’t wait to see what the future holds for them. 

Dennis Acosta-Apolonio - Grove Elementary

Like many students, Dennis Acosta-Apolonio switched from in-person learning at Grove Elementary School to Greenville County Schools Virtual Program this year. So far, he has excelled in the new and challenging environment, according to his teacher, Blair Duncan.

“Dennis is never absent, is always the first person to turn in his work, and even completes extra credit assignments with the hopes of sharing his points with others who are struggling to achieve good grades,” Duncan said.

Dennis, 11, said he enjoys learning and credited his teacher with “doing fun stuff.”

He enjoys reading and playing with LEGOs and baseball. He sometimes helps his sister with her schoolwork and always tries to encourage others to do their best. 

His advice for his classmates is to just be themselves and listen to their teachers.

His mother Justina said her son is hard-working and loves doing his schoolwork.

“He’s always respectful,” she said. 

Duncan said Dennis exemplifies positivity and kindness daily and often offers to help others when they need it.

The fifth grader said he looks up to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights heroes, adding it’s important to treat others as equals.  

As for the future, Dennis also has big goals. He wants to be on the space mission to go to Mars and wouldn’t mind tackling a bigger position while he’s at it.

“I want to be president when I grow up,” he said. “It’s a very important job.”

Dereck Baca - Duncan Chapel Elementary

Dereck Baca, 10, is a student at Duncan Chapel Elementary School in Greenville, where he is seen as a true academic leader by his teachers and peers.

When asked why, he believes it is because he loves learning so much. 

“I love STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — and I like doing creative stuff,” Dereck said. “When you learn in a fun way, science, technology, engineering, and math can have a lot of entertainment to it.”

A gifted and talented student, Dereck has been a straight-A student since the first grade. He studies drama, enjoys reading, participates in the school’s Run Hard Club, and takes karate and judo. He thinks he wants to be an astronomer when he grows up.

“I love astronomy,” he said. “I like to look at the night sky and name all the stars.”

He clarified he doesn’t want to be an astronaut, adding “I want to look at the sky, but keep my feet on the ground.”

His teacher, Natalie Richards, said Dereck takes his education and extracurricular activities seriously, and he “challenges his classmates to do better.”

“Dereck is one of the most well-rounded children I have ever had the pleasure to teach and has an incredibly bright future ahead of him,” she said. 

Dereck said his parents, Eva and Wilmer, have always been supportive, and he looks up to them both.

His mother said the family moved to America from Honduras five and half years ago. 

“When we came, we could not speak English — nothing,” she said. “Dereck learned so fast. In six months, when he was in K5, he learned reading and writing.”

She credits Dereck with helping to teach her English and said he also helps his non-English-speaking classmates learn the language. 

“We try to support him, and all the time we say, “You need to do your best for you, for the people, for this country, and for the world,” she said. “We are very proud of him.”

Dereck, who said he likes helping others when he’s able, doesn’t enjoy the recognition that often comes from doing so.

“I don’t like standing out,” he said, explaining that, to him, doing good should be normal and not always a reason to be in the spotlight. “I want to say something to all the people trying to learn English though. Try your best. Listen to what they teach you at school, and never give up.”

Honour Cleveland Greenville County Schools Virtual Program at Rudolph G. Gordon School

At first look, Honour Cleveland seems like your typical 10-year-old boy. He enjoys playing basketball and creating with LEGOs, and he spends some of his time playing video games with his friends. His favorite subject as a student in the Greenville County Schools Virtual Program at Rudolph G. Gordon School in Greenville is math, and the young man speaks with confidence when he reveals what he wants to pursue when he gets older.

“I want to be an architect,” he said. “I feel like it’s a good job and it gives me a nice amount of money that I can use to help me and my family.”

Speaking with Honour, it quickly becomes apparent why his teacher, Catherine RaeLee Keller, nominated him for this achievement. Keller said Honour “is a 10-year-old boy wise beyond his years.” She said he sets ambitious goals and puts in the hard work to achieve them, and he often offers to help others in need, whether it be his classmates, teachers, or people he doesn’t know. 

For example, Honour and his family gathered donations for the homeless this past Thanksgiving.

“This fifth-grader deserves this nomination because in a world so crippled with negativity, Honour brings such a bright, positive spirit to our virtual classroom every day,” she said. “I just know that Honour will continue to make this world a better place to live.”

Humble, Honour said he loves his family and wants to make them proud, and he doesn’t mind working hard to achieve his dreams.

His parents, Veronica and Nathan Cleveland, both said they were proud of their son, noting he served on student council in second grade and stays involved with his school through extracurricular activities, including Boy Scouts. Mostly, they are proud of his empathy for others.

“He has always been a caring person,” his mother said. “He cares about how other people feel and wants to make sure everyone feels included. We love that about him.”

His father agreed, adding, “He’s not afraid to be a leader. Like my wife said, he has the ability to make everyone feel included, and I think that’s an awesome talent to have at such a young age. He’s going to be able to use that when he gets out of school and in real life.”  

Joselyn Davenport - McKissick Academy of Science and Technology

Joselyn Davenport, 10, is a fifth-grade student at McKissick Academy of Science and Technology in Easley, where she is in the Beta Club, plays volleyball, and participates in the school’s Kindness Club. 

During the coronavirus pandemic, she kept busy by writing letters to nursing home residents. Joselyn said she tells recipients about herself and asks them questions, such as what do you like to do or what’s your favorite food to eat?

She hasn’t gotten any replies yet, but she’s hopeful she will soon.

Her teacher, Sarah Tate, said Joselyn is known to be helpful, often assisting others, including teachers and students.

“She is a genuine and good-hearted person, and I am excited to watch her grow and become an outstanding citizen and leader of our community one day,” Tate said.

When she’s not in school, Joselyn enjoys gymnastics, and she also has a love for animals, including her family’s dogs. Her favorite school subject is math. 

When asked what goals she has, she said she hopes to be a teacher someday.

“That way I could help more people,” she said. “I also want to be a teacher because I think it could be fun.”

She said her mother, Katy, is her role model because she works hard and is loving.

Katy said Joselyn has an older sister who has special needs, and Joselyn often helps her sibling with homework.

“Just like she does with the kids at her school, she’s always encouraging her and spends time playing with her,” Katy said. 

As a student leader at her school, Joselyn enjoys sharing advice with her classmates.

“Sometimes I tell them not to second guess themselves,” she said. “I told my friend not to second guess herself and she got 100.”

Anayah Jackson - Mary H. Wright Elementary School

At Mary H. Wright Elementary School in Spartanburg, Anayah Jackson is the perfect example of a hard-working student, according to her teachers.

“Anayah exemplifies an exceptional student by turning in assignments, getting along with others, and respecting her teachers and friends,” said her teacher, Tammy Jordan. “She has made the honor roll each semester since she has been in school. … She is also a leader and desires to make a difference in life.”

The fifth-grader loves reading and writing; she often writes stories about her family, which includes her mother, Ashley Landrum, and her sister, but she doesn’t yet know what she wants to be when she gets older. Her favorite subject in school is math, and she enjoys playing basketball, too. 

When asked what advice she would give her classmates to be a better student, she was quick to answer.

“Never give up, and never stop trying,” she said. “Always do your best. That’s most important.”

Jordan said she once asked Anayah what she’d do if she had a million dollars. Anayah’s answer was simple: she’d give it to charity.

“They don’t really have the opportunities like people like me have, so if they get some of the money, it means they’d have inspiration to try better,” Anayah explained. 

Her mother described Anayah as very determined and competitive, adding, “Overall, she’s a great kid.”

Michelle Medina - Monaview Elementary

Michelle Medina, 10, has already been recognized as one of Monaview Elementary School’s Terrific Kids, an honor awarded to students who continuously model positive and respectful behaviors. It’s no surprise to those who know the fifth grader that she’s being recognized as one of Upstate Parent’s 10 Students Who Make a Difference in 2021. 

Her teacher, Lauren Hepner, said Michelle is a model student academically, and she participates on the Battle of the Books Team and in the Challenge Program.

“You can always count on Michelle to lend a helping hand to teachers or students around campus,” Hepner said. 

Humble about her achievements, Michelle said she enjoys reading, creating art, cooking, and baking, but she hasn’t figured out what she wants to be when she’s older. She enjoys helping others, she said, and tries to encourage her classmates to help others, too.

“(I encourage people to) try their best,” she said. 

Her mother, Bianca Medina, said Michelle has always loved learned and going to school.

“I remember when she started going to K-4 and K-5, she would cry on days when she didn’t go to school,” Bianca said. “Most kids don’t cry because they want to go to school; they cry because they don’t want to go.”

Bianca said Michelle always tries hard when it comes to schoolwork.

“She makes me very proud,” she said. 

Hepner said it’s obvious Michelle truly cares about her education, despite being young.

“Michelle is a positive influence at Monaview and in the Greenville community as she makes a difference in the lives of those around her,” Hepner said. 

Johana Arocs Melendez - Westcliffe Elementary

Johana Arocs Melendez, has attended Westcliffe Elementary School in Greenville since she was in K-4.

“We have watched her grow up from a curious, shy, but friendly 4-year-old into a smart, kind, hardworking, confident young lady,” said Robbin Surfus, Johana’s fifth-grade teacher. 

Surfus said she nominated the 11-year-old student, “who is eager to learn and always tries her best,” because of Johana’s well-rounded personality.

“She is one who always volunteers to help her classmates, teachers, past and present,” Surfus said. “Johana is very involved in school activities. She has served in important roles on the Morning News Show, Media Managers and Safety Patrol.  She has also been involved in Westcliffe's Robotics Club and competitions.”

Johana said her favorite subjects are math, writing, and social studies, and she hopes to one day be a teacher so she can continue helping others succeed in life.

“I like helping kids, and I like teaching other kids a bunch of stuff,” she said. Her advice for her classmates is, “never give up.”

As the oldest of five children, Johana often helps her mom, Kenia Melendez, take care of her three younger brothers and sister. When asked if she had a role model, Johana said she looked up to Jo Beth Manley, her school’s guidance counselor, and hopes to someday be able to help children the way Manley does.

“She’s kind and she helps people,” Johana said. “If they’re in a hard position, she knows what they’re going through.”

Her teacher said Johana leads by example.

“She has set a positive example through her kindness, hard work, and dedication to her studies and Westcliffe Elementary,” Surfus said.

Kara Phillips - Fork Shoals School

Fifth-grader Kara Phillips attends Fork Shoals School in Greenville, where she sets an example of what tomorrow’s leaders should embody, according to school counselor Autumn Cline. 

“Kara works very hard and is exceptionally caring,” Cline said. “Her family has given her the nickname Care Bear for the amount of caring she shares with those around her.”

Kara, 12, said the nickname is cute, although her brothers can “get annoying with it.”

Her mother, Morgan, explained that Kara has two brothers on the autism spectrum. 

“Having special needs siblings can be difficult at times, but she doesn’t let that stand in her way,” her mother said. ”She’s the hardest working child I’ve ever seen when it comes to her education.”

Kara admits she struggles with reading, so she asked one of her teachers to help her outside of class to improve her skills. The effort helped her make the A/B Honor Roll this semester.

For fun, Kara enjoys watching movies, especially Harry Potter films, and loves to draw. She also has a cat named Pikachu. With a love for animals, she hopes to be a veterinarian someday, or maybe a golfer. 

Humble, one of her personal goals was to become a better communicator this year, and her teachers report that she is thriving, Cline said. They also said Kara always spreads kindness wherever she goes, whether it’s through volunteering at her church or by making signs to encourage those around her.

When asked what her advice is for her fellow students, Kara said, “Be proud of what you do, and don’t let anyone stop you from doing it.”

She also said she looks up to her friends because they’re good people. 

Her mother calls Kara her little ray of sunshine. 

“She’s always smiling and happy and full of joy,” Morgan said. “She tries to make sure the people around her experience that same joy. If she sees someone who is upset, she goes out of her way to comfort them. I couldn’t be prouder to have a daughter like her.”

Cooper Tholen - Mitchell Road Elementary

Cooper Tholen was described as a gifted young man who is involved in many activities, both in school and out, by his teacher Carli Soukup at Mitchell Road Elementary School in Greenville.

“Cooper is such a well-rounded child but, most importantly, he is the kind kid in class and all of his classmates, and myself, will remember him for that,” Soukup said. 

The 11-year-old doesn’t hesitate when asked what he wants to be when he gets older.

“I want to be a hydromechanical engineer, probably working somewhere in Vermont,” he said. “Vermont seems like a great place to live when I’m older. I want to become a hydromechanical engineer because my friend’s father is one, and honestly, that seems like a great job. He gets to travel around. He gets to help humanity as a whole, and to be quite frank, I think water is fun.”

Cooper is also quick to list his favorite school subjects — science, social studies, and physical education — and his hobbies encompass everything from basketball and skateboarding to Boy Scouts. Soccer is his favorite activity, he said, but he’s also starting football soon.

He credits his parents as role models, and he is known to learn quickly and help others who may not pick up on school material as fast as he does, Soukup said.

Cooper said he is always happy to help others succeed and called himself a “human Google” who can easily remember trivia and facts.

“My friends come to me for help multiple times throughout the day,” he said, adding that he loves to learn.

His parents, Mica and Michael Tholen, are always proud of their son.

“He’s always got a smile for everyone,” his mother said. “He’s the child I can always count on to say, ‘Hey, how are you feeling? Can I help you, Mom?’ I’ve just always been proud of how aware he is of other people’s feelings, and his willingness to care about them.”

Amelia Matthews Thompson - Greenville County Schools Virtual Program

Katrin Merenda, a teacher in the Greenville County Schools K–8 Virtual Program, said 11-year-old Amelia Matthews Thompson is “one of the most amazing human beings I have ever had the privilege to teach.”

That’s because Amelia goes above and beyond to help everyone in the classroom and always makes an investment in her schoolwork, Merenda said.  

Amelia said her favorite school subject is math “because there’s only one straight answer,” and she already knows what she wants to be when she grows up — a prima ballerina and a singer. She studies ballet and recently performed in a local production of “The Nutcracker.”

She and her family have volunteered at area soup kitchens, feeding the homeless, but since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Amelia has been in quarantine and practicing caution. Her mother, Christine Matthews, was recently diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy, so Amelia, her father Kyle and her brothers Dominique and Andy all shaved their heads in a show of support.

“My mother and I have a close relationship,” Amelia explained. “Her hair will fall out, so we all got our heads shaved.”

Amelia also loves animals, especially cats — although she doesn’t have one because a family member is allergic. Her dog is named Macaroni, and she hopes to get another one someday so she can name the new pet Cheese. 

When it comes to helping others, the fifth grader has a philosophy.

“When you try to help, make sure you’re truly helping,” Amelia said. “Don’t just say, ‘You can do it!’ You can say that, but you should also try to help them by, maybe, signing up to tutor them or something. Don’t just say words. Have action.”

Amelia’s mother said she’s proud of her daughter for being an academic leader and example for her fellow students.

“She’s been having a good experience academically (through virtual learning), but of course, some kids struggle with it,” she said. “Amelia will send them a message and see if she can help somehow. She tries to be very kind and include everybody.”