News & Features » Cover Story

16 Under 16

Young men and women who amaze and inspire



Samantha Winkelmann, 12
Rudlin Torah academy

Sam Winkelmann is a torpedo in an orange swimsuit. At a recent swim practice, the team ends its workout with a medley relay. Winkelmann effortlessly windmills her arms for the backstroke and glides underwater nearly halfway down the pool before surfacing for her breaststroke lap. At the end of each length, she scoots out of the water and doesn't wait to catch her breath before she starts cheering on the other swimmers, even louder for a younger child on her team whose pokiness threatens her lane's lead.

Swimming is only one of Winkelmann's many interests. She's won the citywide all-star championship for diving three years running, attended the Junior National Young Leaders Conference in Washington, D.C., speaks fluent French and studies half of her school subjects in Hebrew at Rudlin Torah Academy.

"I'm very busy," Winkelmann says, grinning.

But for all her star power, Winkelmann prefers working with other people. She performs better in relay races and synchronized diving routines, where she can be part of a team. Eschewing the spotlight for teamwork seems to let her enjoy things she's not the best at and take on new challenges in stride.

As she puts it, "I do better when I'm helping other people." — Amy Biegelsen


Matthew Shapiro, 15
J.R. Tucker High

When Matthew Shapiro was preparing for high school, his brother, Jason, a senior, advised him to make the most of it. "Always stay busy," he said. "Do as much as you can."

Shapiro took the words a little too literally. In his freshman year he became a team manager, sports reporter for the newspaper, class president and student advocate.

Shapiro has loved sports — especially football, baseball and basketball — "pretty much all my life," he says. Cerebral palsy, for which he uses a wheelchair, keeps him from getting on the field or court himself. But it would be difficult to find a more dedicated sports fan. He was there for every practice session and game as manager of Tucker's varsity basketball team last season.

As a member of the school's SPACE team (Students Participating Actively in County Education), Matthew helps bring students' concerns to the superintendent's attention. Recently he brought up the lack of wheelchair accessibility to the school's outdoors bleachers. During football games, he says, he has to sit at the bottom instead of with his friends, which is "a bummer." (The superintendent's office is looking into it.)

Shapiro dreams of becoming a sports broadcaster. He has the rich radio voice and the experience — from the Scholastic Play-by-Play Network and on the air with "SportsPhone With Big Al" on ESPN Radio 950-AM. And he knows what it takes, he says: "They have to know what they're talking about. They have to love their games and love what they do." — Melissa Scott Sinclair


Cole Hodges, 11
Skipwith Elementary

When Cole Hodges was 5, a friend's sister was diagnosed with leukemia. So Hodges came up with an idea to help: He "donated" his next birthday to the girl's family. Instead of asking for presents, Hodges asked friends and family to donate money to his friend's family.

"I just felt so good after I donated it to my friend's sister," says Cole, a fifth-grader at Skipwith Elementary School. "And they needed the money more than I needed the presents."

That year, he raised $126 for his friend and began an annual tradition of helping others by raising money on his birthday — which continued on his most recent birthday in March, even though his party had to be canceled because he was sick.

So far, Hodges has donated his birthday to such causes as the Relay for Life to support cancer research, tsunami relief for victims in Banda Aceh, and the Daily Planet, which serves Richmond's homeless population.

Recently, with the help of his mom, Joan Crown, Hodges launched a Web site,, in an effort to inspire more people to donate their birthdays to good causes. "He just seems to really care about others and what he can do to help," says Hodges' father, Art Hodges. "He's able to see the bigger picture." — Jack Cooksey


Zakia Pleasants, 13
Wilder Middle

DJ Kia P: volunteer, role model, mix-master.

Zakia Pleasants, an eighth-grader at Wilder Middle School, nabbed a part of her education elsewhere. At the age of 11, she started working the turntables at the Scratch DJ Academy in New York (founded by the late Run-DMC pioneer Jam Master Jay).

The lessons? Counting beats per minute, scratching, mixing and learning how not to be shy on the microphone. Which isn't a problem for Pleasants, who speaks with a grace and confidence that makes her a natural with an audience and explains her interest in pursuing radio and broadcasting.

As one of the youngest DJs in the state, she's played her share of parties, weddings, boxing matches and baby showers (and tunes it to her audience: R&B for showers, she says, because "I figure a pregnant woman doesn't want to listen to all that loud music").

She's also donated her time to playing such events as the reopening of the Whitcomb Court Community Center and has recently started playing every other Friday at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Richmond. She says she enjoys playing the latter the most, because she gets feedback from her peers and can show others how to do something positive. Now, if only she could get her little brother to listen to her. — Brandon Reynolds


Ryan Jones, 15
Prince George High

Ryan Jones seems to live by the notion that small gestures add up, especially when they come from the heart. He has a habit of doing things, says his aunt and caregiver, RaQueal Covington, such as keeping the house clean and looking after his younger siblings and cousins, without being asked.

He finds inspiration in singing on the praise-and-dance team at his church, Holy Ground Refuge Ministry, where he serves as a junior deacon, and in his choir at school. What Ryan misses in a father as a role model, he found in his grandmother, who taught him to be confident and humble at the same time. She died three years ago. Her memory lives on, Covington says, in the way Ryan approaches each day as an opportunity.

One Sunday when the microphones weren't working at church and none of the men around could fix them, Ryan did, just in time to enable the service to go on. Weekdays after school, he accompanies Covington on her job cleaning buildings, she says, because he doesn't want her going alone. He pitches in, too.

Ryan is a role model in the truest sense, she says: "We can count on Ryan being there, no matter what troubles arise."

— Brandon Walters


Daniel Gonet, 13
Liberty Middle

Some musicians play for themselves. Some play for the thrill of applause.

Daniel Gonet flat-out loves to play: for the homeless, for brides, for nursing home residents, for carolers.

He first took an interest in the flute as a toddler. Then at age 4, he says, "whenever I walked around with my mom, I would be saying to her, 'Flute, flute.'" He got his wish. But "it took me a year to learn how to blow into it," Gonet says.

Most 4-year-olds would have dropped the flute and picked up a fire truck. Gonet persevered. His teacher taught him to practice the proper blowing method by spitting out grains of rice, a technique he now passes on to younger students. "You can't just slobber them out," he explains. "You gotta push 'em out in a special way."

When Gonet was 9, he began learning the violin. When he was 13, he took up the saxophone. Now he's second-chair flute in the Richmond Symphony Youth Concert Orchestra, first-chair flute in his school's symphonic band, second-chair sax in the school jazz band and second-chair flute in the Virginia Music Educators Association's All-District Band. His music teachers rave about his talent and abilities.

Gonet also makes time to play at weddings, retirement homes, benefits for the Coordinators2inc adoption agency and dinners for the homeless through CARITAS. His reward for the last, he says: "Lots of applause and just, like, smiles." — Melissa Scott Sinclair


Jenna Holton, 13
Lucille Brown Middle

Here's what Jenna Holton hates: white walls, white cars, white sticks of chalk obediently stacked in new chalk boxes.

"Perfection is a no-no," Holton says, but "white does give you some ideas."

For Holton, the unadorned is a call to arms, so she stitches rag dolls, makes charcoal sketches, prints lithographs and exercises an experimental sense of fashion, matching striped tights and a skirt she's extended with three tiers of fabric salvaged from discarded clothes.

Perhaps there have been periods of too much adornment for Holton's taste. When she introduces her family, she's still careful to note the "half-"s or "step-"s that tag each of her three sisters. Her eclectic family was a challenge while it was coming together, but her artistic outlets helped get her through.

Now, Jenna says, she loves living with them all and is able to direct her creative juices instead of taking refuge in them.

"So, sure she's talented, sure she wins awards," writes her stepfather, Barry Bless, a member of the band Ululating Mummies, "but what wins my respect is having witnessed her struggle to become the wonderfully empathetic and engaged person she is."

"I'd rather have a tea party than a loud bash," Holton muses philosophically. Adolescence is usually when things start to get hard. For Holton, it's the beginning of finding a middle path. — Amy Biegelsen


Aurelia Denise Pierce, 15
George Wythe High

People say Aurelia Pierce's enthusiasm is so infectious she lights up a room. A member of the George Wythe High School of the Arts dance team and varsity cheerleading squad, an officer of the Student Council Association and an honor-roll student, she also holds a black belt in karate.

Her accomplishments and involvement are products of a personal commitment to succeed despite any hardships or distractions she may have faced in her home life, writes Pierce's cheerleading coach, Amanda Davis, who nominated her for the award. Despite those challenges, Davis says, "She just has a light about her."

Pierce says cheerleading is her passion. But it goes beyond that, says Earl Pappy, who was her principal at Boushall Middle School and is now the principal at George Wythe High School. He knows Aurelia and her 16-year-old sister, LaJoia, well and says both young women are "highly motivated and stellar role models."

"There's a certain clique-like atmosphere that arises in high school as in larger society," Pappy says, but Aurelia is able to transcend it. "She fits in like a chameleon," he says. "She's very likable but also very conscientious" to include others who might otherwise feel out of place.

Pierce says that one day she hopes to be a beautician and own her own shop. "I just work hard to be myself, and know I have what it takes to succeed because I'm a strong person," she says. — Brandon Walters


Brianna Baker, 11
Moody Middle

At a raucous, high-energy competition for cheerleaders, Brianna Baker sits poised and posture-perfect, waiting for the results. The team she coaches, a novice squad out of Blackstone that just recently got its first uniforms, wins second place and a national bid. Baker's eyes go wide with excitement, and the girls squeal with surprise at the news.

Baker teaches etiquette, modeling and dancing to girls who otherwise might not have the opportunity to learn these. Some are from low-income backgrounds and others from rural areas. She assists her mother, Latricia, with Sisterly Grace, a local dance studio that develops children's skills "to see how far they can go," as Baker puts it. "This gives you confidence to cheer for yourself even when no one else is."

She's also a praise-dancer for her church, a tennis player, musician and honor roll student with hopes of becoming an attorney like her role model, Misty Evans.

And Evans has her eye on Baker too. "Brianna stands out because she's a self-motivated person who is truly involved and desires to know more about her calling in life," Evans says of her nominee. "She seeks ways to use her gifts to help others." — Deveron Timberlake


Lelia Hyman, 14
Hungary Creek Middle

Sorry, kids, most pop stars don't write their own music. Most don't play their own instruments. And a lot of young talents rely on "Star Search" to get noticed.

Not so with Lelia (pronounced "Lee-la") Hyman, who at 11 put together a Christian pop band, twenty4seven, for which she plays keyboard, sings and writes songs — dozens, at last count. "The members have changed over time, but the message has stayed the same," she says. And the message is in the name: "It's that God is with us 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Hyman sees her band as a response to the "types of music and message that are really dark" out there. An eighth-grader at Hungary Creek Middle School, she's still buzzing with excitement at her acceptance to the Center for the Arts at Henrico High School, where she'll continue to refine her art.

As for now, twenty4seven has played such places as Paramount's Kings Dominion, Christian coffeehouses and Carytown, and the band is scheduled to play the Monument Avenue 10K April 1. There's an album, "Heart, Soul, Mind, Strength," a Web site,, and, of course, a purpose. "We're going to keep writing about truth as it happens to our generation," Hyman says. — Brandon Reynolds


Malcolm Ammons, 14
St. Joseph

Give a young man a plasma cutter, and the world is his industrial-grade oyster. Petersburg's Malcolm Ammons, an eighth-grader at St. Joseph School, follows his interests to some strange and interesting places.

After he met artist Tom McCormack through his father, Ammons says he started exploring the art of cutting and bending metal, turning out sculpture that has been displayed at the Petersburg Regional Art Center and at his father's architecture studio.

He started skateboarding with friends in August and now builds his own skateboard decks as a business, designing and painting them for sale. Ammons goes from interest to practice in a short period of time. His interest in the arts extends to drawing, painting, photography and Claymation, as well as supporting the arts. When Petersburg's performing arts venue, Sycamore Rouge, was gearing up to open, Ammons volunteered, stamping envelopes, cleaning the building, hanging signs and painting.

His involvement in the city leads him to participate in river cleanup projects and food drives. He says he pursues whatever captures his interest at the time, and whether it's metalwork, skateboard design or helping get a performing arts center on its feet, he approaches it with the same attitude. "It's fun," he says. "It's that simple — it's just fun." — Brandon Reynolds


Hannah Hammel, 12
Lucille Brown Middle

It's fair to say that Hannah Hammel is somewhat ahead of her time: The 12-year-old flutist and pianist often performs alongside students who are several years older.

"Everything she's done, she's been just about the youngest to do," says her mother, Alice Hammel, who, like Hannah's father, Bruce, is a college music professor.

That includes being invited to play — as a sixth- and seventh-grader — as part of Virginia Commonwealth University's Festival of Winds, Brass, and Percussion, a high-school event.

Hammel's exceptional ability is no small wonder, perhaps, given her dedication. Every morning during the school week, the student of Lucille Brown Middle School's International Baccalaureate program wakes at 6 to practice music before getting ready for classes.

But she doesn't just get better by practicing. As a competitive flutist, Hammel says she relishes performing most of all, because it pushes her to potential. "The more you perform, the better you get at it," Hammel says. Plus, she adds, "You sound better than you do when you're just playing in your room."

In addition to placing in many local and state flute competitions, Hammel has earned first chair for flute in her school band program for the past two years and has performed with the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra and the Youth Concert Orchestra as their youngest wind player. — Jack Cooksey




On the basketball court, Dominique Meeks lets her game do the talking. As a freshman at Collegiate School, she finished her first season on the girls' varsity team as the top scorer — averaging 10 points a game. She also leads defensively with an average of 10 rebounds a game.

Her coach, Rives Fleming, says Meeks' leadership on the court is reserved and mature — not flashy or loud. "She's not all about herself," says Fleming. "She's about doing whatever she can to help the team."

It's a theme that seems to translate into most of the 15-year-old's life. Her father died of a heart attack when she was 8. Then her mother, Libby, was diagnosed with ALS, commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease. Meeks helps run the house and care for her sister, Danielle, 11, and her brother, Daniel, 8.

In addition to being an award-winning student with excellent grades, Meeks devotes time to community service through her church and has helped organize a fund-raiser, the Walk to D'Feet ALS.

Dominique's goal, eventually, is to become a bilingual pediatrician, serving both Spanish- and English-speaking children. "I can be a model to my little brother and sister," she says. We think she already is. — Jack Cooksey


Jake Eck, 14
James River High

At an age when most people are in a hurry to do everything, ninth-grader Jake Eck chooses his words carefully, considering the answer to a question before committing himself to it. It's a good quality to have for someone who spends his time with young cancer patients, giving them hope with his presence.

Eck was diagnosed and treated for a brain tumor five years ago, and while he says the hospital treatments weren't so bad — "It'd be like a break from school for me," he says — the journey through it left him changed.

"Before I got cancer, I wasn't really devoted to anything and I didn't do well in school and I didn't think I was a very nice person," he says. Afterward, he says, he became more compassionate.

As a volunteer for the Association for the Support of Children with Cancer, Eck shares his time and experiences with others fighting the disease. He also puts together a team for the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life, an all-night event, and has raised $43,000.

Somewhere in there, he finds the time to play ice hockey, too. When asked what kind of message he would pass along to others, he's quiet for a long time. "OK, I think I got something," he says. And he talks about the responsibility of a survivor to give hope to others. It's another relay, another way he passes the baton and keeps people moving through the night. — Brandon Reynolds


Elizabeth L. Mobley, 15
L.C. Bird High

U.S. military operations in Iraq are perhaps too far removed to make it onto the radar of most American teenagers. But for Elizabeth Mobley, a freshman at L.C. Bird High School, the war is up close and personal. Her stepfather, U.S. Army Capt. Christopher A. Cooper, was sent to active duty there almost a year ago.

With firsthand understanding of the issues that military families face, Mobley became active last year in Operation Military Kids and Speak Out for Military Kids, two groups that seek to give a voice and support to children of deployed soldiers.

The groups help kids deal with the feelings and fears of watching a parent go off to war, she says — something that needs to be addressed. "I was one of those kids who held everything inside and kept it to myself," Mobley says.

Her role in the groups has taken her before state legislators and other organizations to represent the needs and experiences of military kids in Virginia.

In addition, her mother, Wendy Cooper, says Mobley has demonstrated an uncommon maturity by taking on major duties in her household while still bringing home good grades. "She's been the pillar that's kept the house standing," Cooper says. — Jack Cooksey


Erica Schmude, 8
Cool Spring Elementary

Smiling has become something of a career for Erica Schmude. She's learned to harness the power of a photogenic grin to raise awareness and money for a cure. It's not a mercenary thing, but one of love for other children suffering with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a potentially crippling condition that threatened to wreck her life when she was a toddler.

Schmude found relief from pain in a powerful new medication and picked up the pace of her activities: tae kwon do, the Latin Ballet, acting classes, and a role as Junior Hero of the Year, twice, for the Arthritis Foundation.

That's where the smiles come in. Schmude's the face of the illness in publicity campaigns, rallies and fund-raising walks. She's talked to members of Congress about the need for funding for arthritis research, and she's eager to advocate for the children she's met who are in different stages of the condition. It is for them that Schmude hopes her efforts will lead to a full-fledged cure.

And to get through the discomfort of weekly shots, she has a secret strategy: "I sing so I don't feel it." — Deveron Timberlake


After the issues have been cleared off the racks and the catering carts from the awards dinner have been tucked away, our previous two years' worth of 16 Under 16 honorees returned to their civilian lives. But their stars hardly burned out.

Sarah McCalla, 15, was featured in 2005 for fronting the rock band Zerohour. Since then, she's started attending Maggie L. Walker Governor's School, but the band is still going strong. It played more than 50 gigs last year and is scheduled to perform at The Diamond for a Braves game May 14. The band also just finished its third album.

Harrison Strickler, one of our honorees in 2005, had a celebrity encounter. Strickler, 8, has leukemia, but he was all smiles when he posed for Style's photographer in front of a poster of his hero, Lance Armstrong. After the issue was published, a family friend sent a copy of the picture to the Lance Armstrong Foundation, where Harrison made the wall of fame. Armstrong's staff remembered the picture later in the year at a Tour of Hope Rally Harrison attended in Washington, D.C., and caught up with him. Now Harrison has another picture of himself with his hero, this time with Armstrong in person.

Chris Weber, the 15-year-old president of CT Weber Enterprises LLC, has made new strides in his online retail business. He's rakes in $5,000 to $6,000 a month on his electronics retail site and has been recognized by eBay as a Silver PowerSeller, awarded to vendors who hit $3,000 a month in sales three months in a row. He's still active in the YMCA Leaders Club, which requires 100 hours of volunteer work a month. He's also hoping to make the golf club this year at Deep Run High School.

Brandon Atkinson was just 7 in 2004, when we featured him for his flat-track motorcycling prowess. Since then, he's switched from dirt track to road racing where some of the races use NASCAR tracks. He's been busy flying to Florida to test a special new bike, and he has clearance to race it in the 10- to 15-year-old division, even though he's only 9. Right now he's working toward qualifying for a race in Valencia, Spain.

It's hard to say what the biggest change has been since Abby Grennell appeared in our 2004 "16 Under 16," but for practical reasons we should probably say that Abby has legally changed her name to Aidan. "I was doing a lot of research about gender and gender politics," she says. "I didn't like that my name was so restricting in one gender." In the fall Grennell will be going to Christopher Newport University, where she wants to double-major in education and religious studies so she can become a minister in the Metropolitan Community Church, which her family attends. Aidan and her two moms were also the subject of a documentary called "I Have Gay Parents," which aired as part of MTV's "True Life" series and on LOGO, a cable network targeting gay and lesbian viewers. In the midst of it all, Grennell was chosen as drum major of the school marching band. — Amy Biegelsen

To view the Cover Story as it appeared in print: Click here Part 1 and Part 2.

Add a comment