Bright From The Start
● By Robert Frey
Local Youths Bound For GreatnessBy Shanna P. Dickens | Photos by Fusion Photography
Traversing the choppy waters in the phase of life that is adolescence can be a messy affair filled with self-doubt. But we we’re about to prove that isn’t the case for everyone. These young people possess a surefooted poise that has allowed them to seek and achieve greatness and accomplish their goals at ages that are truly awe inspiring.
With today’s youth facing greater distraction than ever before and a prominent spotlight on them, these Bright from the Start honorees are shattering preconceived notions about their generation. Read ahead for each of their full stories.
Sophia Brazda, 17Teurlings Catholic High School
As a child Sophia Brazda was enamored with musicals. So much so that her first word was “Bert” in a British accent a la “Mary Poppins.” When she was in second grade, she hung a Columbia University poster above her bed. To put it mildly, she had a flair for the dramatics, a passion for the theatrics and a destiny with greatness. When Sophia was 11, her mother took her to see “Beauty and the Beast “ performed by the Christian Youth Theater – it was the last CYT performance she enjoyed from the audience. She joined immediately.
“I left the first day of rehearsals and I told my dad, ‘this is where people like me belong,’” Sophia recalls. “It was everything I loved about theater, but it also brought in the God aspect. Using your faith and talents that God has given you is so much more than an extracurricular activity. I’m on my 11th performance with the CYT; it’s become my second family.”
Performing quickly became the centrifugal force of Sophia’s life. When she was 12 she was accepted into a Broadway summer teaching group in New York. Today, she regularly sings with the Jimmy Maxwell Orchestra in New Orleans and has performed at some of the most prestigious Mardi Gras Balls in Louisiana. The boldest move of Sophia’s career came from a promise she made to her grandfather, Hall of Fame Jazz musician Paul Ferrera, when she was young. She promised she would never be afraid to go after her dreams. So, earlier this year, she boarded a plane to New York to audition at the Julliard School. Out of 3,000 people auditioning, Sophia made a call back that consisted of only 20 people – an unprecedented feat, especially at 17.
“Julliard was the best experience of my entire life,” she explains. “The feeling of walking through Juilliard with all of these amazing talented people from all around the world…I felt so out of place and so at home at the same time. By then end of the day, I wasn’t so worried about actually getting into Juilliard, something had settled in me and I felt confirmed that no matter what happened, this is what I want to do.”
Sophia returned home to resume her other numerous extracurricular activities. She is the creator of the Creative Writing Club, the executive board treasurer of the Student Council, founder of the women’s empowerment based Galentines Club and is the Lieutenant Governor of Girls State. This year Sophia will be representing Louisiana at National Speech and Debate competitions in both Washington D.C. and Fort Lauderdale. Sophia received scholarships and acceptances from a myriad of impressive colleges, but no matter what she chooses, her love for performance will always be her driving force.
“One day I want to come back to Lafayette and establish a creative arts program or school. Lafayette is so often overlooked for the potential that it has. There is so much talent here, and I’d love to be a part of making that grow. When you find that one thing that resonates in your heart it’s what you have to do. It’s a moral obligation.”
Alex Little, 19T.M. Landry College Preparatory
Earlier this year, Alex and his younger brother Ayrton (more on him later) were accepted in Stanford and Harvard Universities, respectively. Videos depicting the boys opening their acceptance letters made their way online. In the videos you can see their complete shock at the realization that their dreams were coming true. You can also hear a solid wall of celebratory sound delivered by gleeful jumping classmates and teachers. The videos quickly went viral (nearly 6 million views on Twitter alone) and what followed next was a media tour, including a stop on The Ellen Degeneres Show.
“I was used to watching my friends and classmates get into the schools they’ve dreamed of, so when it was my turn to open my acceptance letter it was a very surreal experience,” Alex explains. “It was a culmination of years of work coming down to one button press. Seeing that I was accepted to Stanford was purely and utterly euphoric. A win for me is a win for the entire school.”
To Alex, the reaction the video received was about so much more than his success. He details the heartwarming experience of being part of something positive garnering a viral status. With so much negativity in the media, Alex says he’s proud to be a part of something that made people excited about advancements in education. And he isn’t the only one who is proud.
“As a single mom, our mother struggled at times,” he says frankly. “For her to finally see those acceptance letters, it was our way of showing her that we’ve worked hard to be able to give this to her. She was so proud.”
While the spotlight was on Alex he received recognition from some of the most technologically esteemed companies in the country. A senior manager from Tesla video called Alex after his Ellen appearance. He was also given the opportunity to visit Intel’s campus in San Jose, specifically the Artificial Intelligence office. Alex caught the attention of industry giants, but he hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
“I want to work in computer sciences,” he states. “That’s why I was drawn west, because of the proximity to Silicon Valley. I would love to work in Artificial Intelligence because of its versatility. But honestly, my goal is to start a nonprofit to get kids involved in STEM fields. I especially want kids in South Louisiana to know that all of these opportunities are available to them.”
Alex’s senior year has been far from typical. He’s excited for each opportunity his future holds and grateful for all of the experiences that lead him here. But there’s one takeaway from his stint as a viral sensation that he holds a little more closely.
“I feel like I grew so much with my brother. I was able to see him as an equal and not just my little brother. It was interesting to see the evolution of our relationship. Soon we’ll be on different sides of the country and this is the closest we’ve ever been.”
Elise Hebert, 11Caneview Elementary School
Upon meeting Elise Hebert you can immediately tell that she is a special child. She’s all at once kind hearted, hard working and modest. The 11 year old has yet to realize that her caring nature is what sets her apart – she’s only doing what she believes to be the right thing. The most remarkable thing about Elise is the way she gives of herself to the benefit of others, even those she doesn’t know.
“When I was 10 I donated my hair to Wigs for Kids,” Elise says. “My hair was really long and I knew that there were people who didn’t have any hair so I wanted to give it to them.”
Before making the decision to donate her hair, Elise had watched her grandfather go through cancer. Watching someone she knew go through treatment inspired her to reach out in her own way. Elise’s caring and helpful spirit is an innate quality that she exudes through every part of her life, especially at school.
“In the mornings, before the bell rings, I go and help the kindergarteners with their work,” she explains. “What I help them with depends on what they’re struggling with; it can be numbers or reading, so I’ll do flashcards with them or they’ll read to me. I love doing that because it’s all about helping people.”
Those aren’t the only children Elise helps out with. She goes above and beyond at home with her two younger siblings, helping get them ready in the mornings and helping them with their homework. But, it was another family member who attributed to Elise’s belief that everyone should be treated the same – her cousin with developmental delays.
“We would play together when we were little at my grandma’s,” Elise recalls. “I just saw someone who was my friend. When we went to school I started seeing people pick on him and it made me really sad.”
That experience shaped Elise to be as kind as she can be to those around her, a quality that earned her the Citizenship Award at Caneview for 2016-2017. Elise was also named the 2017-2018 Caneview Student of the Year. As important as caring for others is to Elise, her own academia is equally as important, as she maintains a 4.0.
“I always try to make sure I have As,” she reveals. “Sometimes it can be difficult for me, but I still work as hard as I can. I’ve always made As and I want to keep it that way.”
When she isn’t doing homework, you won’t find Elise sitting around. She spends her free time taking dance classes or immersing herself in the great outdoors. When the time comes, Elise hopes to attend UL and go on to be a teacher – a perfect profession for someone whose highest honor comes from helping others.
“I was really proud when I received the Citizenship Award. That is given to the person who interacts with and helps people the most. Whenever people are struggling, I will always help them.”
Parker McDonald, 18Highland Baptist Christian School
It’s hard to pin Parker McDonald down. He’s active and involved. He has a wide-ranging wrap sheet of interests, and he seems to excel in all of them. As an athlete, he plays football and soccer and serves as a soccer referee on the weekends. As an academic, he’s a math and science whiz who earned a 34 on his ACT. Surprisingly, these areas are not the ones Parker reflects on with pride. His source of pride is found in what others might consider failures.
“What I’m most proud of was when I did track, because I’m not a runner,” Parker says. “I have a small birth defect that doesn’t allow my rib cage to expand all of the way, so I have less stamina. Track was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’d start the race as a normal 14 year old and end it a 70-year-old-man. One race I burnt myself half to death, collapsed in the tent and I heard them say ‘Parker McDonald, sixth place.’ I was so excited! You learn so much more from a loss.”
Parker is also involved in the arts. He’s a member of the School of Music and is in the church band at Highland Baptist. In addition to having played the accordion since he was 11, he also plays piano and bass guitar. His accordion playing (and personal stash of Tony Chachere’s) definitely set him apart in Pennsylvania last summer. Parker was the first applicant from Louisiana to be accepted to the six-week program for the Academy of Math and Science at Carnegie Mellon University.
“I had no idea what to expect, but by day two I had found the exact group of people who were just like me,” he recalls. “I thought that academically it would be an amazing experience, but that socially, it wouldn’t be much fun. I had an absolute blast.”
While amongst his truest peers, Parker built a video game controller that connects to a PC through the USB port, a task that took three weeks of learning special coding. Of the 130 attendants, Parker was in the top 20 percent. With a resume like this, it should come as no surprise that Parker was accepted into LSU’s Roger Hadfield Ogden Honors College. It’s an academic opportunity tailored to students who are looking to further challenge themselves.
At LSU, Parker plans to study physics, specifically astrophysics. He recalls becoming interested in the subject as a child when classroom lessons on space left him with more questions than answers, prompting him to set out on his own to learn everything he could about the cosmos. His dream career? It’s a lofty one.
“I want to work for NASA with the Mars Project. Once you account for getting to Mars, setting up the correct living conditions seems completely doable. Do you think God put these other planets there for us to just look at them? No. So, go forth and prosper.”
Dailee Johnson, 7Early Learning Center
At only 7 years old, Dailee Johnson has a level of confidence that typically takes a lifetime to master. Dailee is smart, and she knows it, and she wants to see exactly how much she can accomplish with her intelligence. So when she heard about a little boy in New York named Caleb who read 100 books in one day…she would not be out done.
“When I heard about Caleb, I wanted to challenge myself, too,” she recalls. “I decided to read 120 books in one day. I never stopped; I didn’t give up. There were sometimes when I wanted to stop, but I didn’t because I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to stop or give up.’ I’m studious and a leader, so I didn’t give up.”
Dailee remembers that on the day of the challenge she set up a dry erase board and every time she finished a book, she would draw a tally mark. Dailee’s mother Wanda recounts that every 10 books Dailee completed they would stop and have a short dance party before resuming. This helped with her concentration, but Dailee didn’t need it for added entertainment, because as she explains, she can’t think of much that’s more fun for her than reading. When she completed the 120-book challenge, Dailee received recognition from Governor Edwards and was featured on the local news for her accomplishment.
“Being on the news was a good thing because other people will see me on TV and they’ll start reading, too,” she says proudly. “I think it’s important to read. I always say, ‘if I can read, you can do it, too.’”
Dailee doesn’t simply give words of encouragement; she’s actively working to help get other children more interested in reading. Dailee and her mother are involved in the iRead Daily Project at the St. Martin Parish Library, which encourage literacy throughout the community. After she completed her challenge, Dailee wanted to put the books to good use, so she spent a day handing them out to the children in her neighborhood.
“I think it’s good to give other people books so that they can learn to love to read like me,” Dailee explains. “They can challenge their minds like I did.”
Walking around the children’s section of the St. Martin library with Dailee is like being with someone recounting their greatest hits. She caresses each book affectionately, and there aren’t too many she hasn’t read and loved. When Dailee reads from her favorite books, she does it deliberately, sounding out each word and asking all the right questions. If you think she is satisfied with reading 120 books in one day, think again.
“I saw that there was a little girl who read 1,000 books in one year, so I think I want to do that. My next big goal is to read 150 books in one day and then I’ll try to read 1,000 in one year. I will never stop challenging myself.”
Ayrton Little, 17T.M. Landry College Preparatory
Ayrton is the younger of the viral star duo the Little brothers – you can read about his brother’s journey on page 37. A video of Ayrton opening his Harvard University acceptance letter made a huge mark on the social media landscape and took both brothers on a whirlwind adventure that included television spots and news articles. Becoming Internet famous might not have been in Ayrton’s plans, but attending Harvard always was.
“Harvard has always been my dream school,” Ayrton professes. “When you’re younger, everyone says their dream is to play professional football or basketball. I always knew I wasn’t athletic, but I realized that I loved school the same way others loved sports. I began hearing that Harvard was ‘the best.’ So I decided then that attending Harvard was my dream.”
Ayrton does love school and education. He loves it so much that he skipped a grade and will be graduating a year early. At Harvard, his field of study will be Math and Computer Science. Ayrton isn’t simply interested in math, he’s deeply passionate about the subject and has a unique way of simplifying the subject that so many find daunting.
“People would never say ‘I can’t read,’ but they will say ‘I can’t do math,’” he muses. “Letters are symbols transmitting messages in the same way that numbers are. What really made me realize how much I love math was teaching the lower level students here at school. I love watching people realize that math isn’t this foreign unknown concept.”
As he explains, “imparting knowledge on others is my passion.” This is why Saturday tutoring through T.M. Landry College Preparatory is another area of his life that is a great source of pride. The program is open to the community and is free of charge and gives students like Ayrton the chance to share their love of education with others. The popularity of his acceptance letter video was yet another way to excite people about education.
“I didn’t think anyone would care about my video,” he admits. “I think it really resonated with people because they saw so many people being excited about education. It was something positive – it wasn’t just another viral fight compellation.”
Ayrton’s career goals include working for companies with names like J.P. Morgan or Goldman Sacks before eventually starting his own hedge fund with some of his T.M. Landry College Preparatory classmates. Though these ambitions may sound grand, they are not what define success for Ayrton.
“For awhile, I thought success was accomplishing your goals, but I realized that part of being successful is helping others succeed. My plan is to come back to my community and reinforce my belief in education. I want someone else to go viral. I want someone else to feel what I’ve felt. Whatever I do is not necessarily for me – it’s for everyone who comes after me, because I want them to have a better, happier life.”
Harrison Schexnayder, 18Catholic High School
Harrison Schexnayder has had a very memorable senior year. As an athlete, he has played both soccer and football, even being named All State. While there were many momentous occasions from the past year, it was an experience with his Catholic High School football teammates that stood out the most.
“We won our first state championship in 55 years,” Harrison states. “That was one of the most amazing experiences of my life and definitely my biggest honor. We worked so hard all season for that goal. Our senior class really focused in on the goal of going to the dome, and once we got there, we were like ‘alright, why not win it?’ It was so special because everyone from all over New Iberia came to watch us. There were ‘Believe’ signs everywhere. Winning felt like a huge community event.”
Academics are also a notable part of Harrison’s life. He was in the top 10 in his class and earned a 34 on his ACT. Harrison will be the first to admit that academics comes fairly easy to him, but he will also quickly tell you how grateful for that he is. His stellar grades earned him a full paid ROTC scholarship to Tulane University.
“I believe that every young man should consider two things: the call to priesthood and the call to serve for the United States,” he explains of his ROTC scholarship. “I want to be in the Army. My plan is to go to do four years in college studying Biomedical Engineering and become a commissioned officer, then join the Army Reserves and go to medical school while finishing my reserve contract. I want to join active duty as a doctor and be based in military hospitals.”
Harrison’s collegiate and military career may take him far, but his end goal is to return to New Iberia to be an orthopedic surgeon. In the meantime, he is helping those much further away from home. Harrison is preparing to attend his third mission trip this summer. He will once again be travelling to Cahabón, Guatemala with the group La Mision Encontrandome con Cristo. While there the group helps the villagers gain access to electricity, running water and other amenities easily taken for granted. As Harrison recounts, it’s hard to tell which party benefits more from the mission.
“It’s amazing what they live with. They’re so happy to see us and so grateful for whatever it is we are able to give them. We give them a lot, but spiritually, we get so much more out of it. It brings me back to my relationship with God. While we’re there we have adoration for an hour after mass. People will explain what they experienced, and seeing all of that put into action through faith is a way to really bring you back to the spiritual world when the world we live in can be so secular and not about God.”