What makes our stars shine?

Published 11:31 am Thursday, March 3, 2016

Hopefully by now you’ve all had a chance to flip through the pages of our 2016 Horizons edition. One of my favorite features to do every year is our Shining Stars section, which spotlights one student from each of our local high schools who stands out in the crowd due to academic achievement, extra curricular participation, community involvement and future plans.

This year, we featured Rachael Szilagyi from Brandywine, Peyton Ritchie from Buchanan, Colin Kelley from Cassopolis, Zach Davis from Dowagiac, Makayla Long from Edwardsburg and Mika Farinella from Niles New Tech.

I am continuously impressed by how articulate, mature and passionate these Shining Stars are. As I prepared for this year’s interviews, I kept in mind the success of previous students featured and wondered, “what makes these stars shine so brightly?”

So I asked, “What has made you who you are today?”

I expected this question to be a difficult one to answer, so I was surprised by how quickly all six of the students responded.

The answer, generally, was all of you.

Students listed role models ranging from older siblings to educators, coaches, peers and doctors.

Many spoke holistically about the communities they grew up in, and every one of the students mentioned a particular person who has made a positive impact on their lives.

Colin Kelley told me about how the agriculturally centered village of Cassopolis has shaped him into a hard-working leader who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He expressed gratitude for the many people who line the streets when his school’s FFA team comes home from state competitions, just as they would a sports team returning from a post-season win.

Similarly, Rachael Szilagyi was excited to talk about the support the Brandywine Lady Cats basketball team gets and the energy the crowd brings to every home basketball game. Makayla Long and Zach Davis both shared similar sentiments about their schools’ team spirit, but also the community’s backing for so many other aspects of the school district, like the marching band and school musicals.

Mika Farinella, who works at Massimo’s downtown, was able to share some insight into being a young adult working at large community events like the annual Burn Run.

Peyton Ritchie had probably the most unique perspective of all the Shining Stars in regards to this question, as she is a member of the family who owns Buchanan’s famous racetrack — Redbud Motocross. This teenager was very passionate about sharing the connection she feels to her community and grew emotional when talking about leaving it to go to college.

My point is, it’s quite clear that these outstanding young adults are products of their roots. It’s not uncommon for young people to dislike their hometowns and be eager to leave for new destinations as soon as possible.

But each of these students openly said they will deeply miss the communities that made them. Several of them said they planned to stay put or return after college to give back to the communities that made them who they are today.

I think it’s important for everyone to realize the impact they have on the next generation of leaders. Keep this in mind as you interact with young people — either at home with your own families, at work or out in your community.

You have a chance to make a difference in not only their lives, but the entire community.


Ambrosia Neldon is the managing editor at Leader Publications. She can be reached by phone at (269) 687-7713, or by email at ambrosia.neldon@leaderpub.com.