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Promoting Peace Among Youth

Twelve young adults receive 2013 Student Peace Awards of Fairfax County.

Ahmad Shah Hemmat, one of the guest speakers, talks with award recipient Khaled Hasanin, a senior at Islamic Saudi Academy Boy’s School. Ahmad attended the Seeds of Peace camp for children from regions of conflict and continues to promote the message of peaceful conflict resolution today. Khaled founded the Islamic Club at his school to help promote good behavior in the lower grade levels.

Ahmad Shah Hemmat, one of the guest speakers, talks with award recipient Khaled Hasanin, a senior at Islamic Saudi Academy Boy’s School. Ahmad attended the Seeds of Peace camp for children from regions of conflict and continues to promote the message of peaceful conflict resolution today. Khaled founded the Islamic Club at his school to help promote good behavior in the lower grade levels. Photo by Andrea Worker.

At a reception held at the Clifton Community Hall on Sunday, March 3, the Herndon Friends Meeting presented the 2013 Student Peace Awards of Fairfax County to 12 exceptional area young adults.

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The Peace Makers, from left, Kevin Cao, award co-founders Margaret Rogers and Margaret Fisher of Herndon Friends Meeting, Katya Gilbo, Aracely Cifuentes, Niko Velkoff, Faith Johnson, Autumn Guckert and Amanda Halacy, recipients of the 2013 Student Peace Awards of Fairfax County 2013.

The program is in its eighth year and was open to juniors and seniors in all public and three private schools in the county. The guidelines for entry require that the student has worked “specifically for peace or conflict resolution … demonstrating commitment to peace by engaging in activities that strive to end conflict … that promote the understanding of divisive issues in order to bridge differences … and/or assist in the resolution of conflicts among students or members of the community who may feel isolated or alienated.” That’s quite the mandate, but listening to each recipient describe their efforts and read about their activities in the printed materials provided, there is little doubt that all of this year’s winners exceed the prescribed criteria. The winners are usually nominated by a teacher, administrative staffer or other mentor, many of whom joined parents and family members at the ceremony.

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Autumn Guckert, a junior at James W. Robinson, speaks about raising funds to join her church’s mission to Montenegro to work with Roma refugees. Having experienced bullying in middle school, Autumn also works with special needs students as part of her pledge of “radical inclusiveness.”

LIKE A MINI UNITED NATIONS gathering, the students represented a variety of ethnic backgrounds and interests, with some homegrown and others having come to America from as far away as Russia, Guatemala, and the Middle East. One after the other, they spoke with passion about their projects. One strives to bring special needs students into the mainstream. Another founded a student-run non-profit pairing older students with elementary children, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, to provide academic assistance and mentoring. “Blast to the Past” was organized by one winner to connect with the elderly at a retirement home in McLean, recording the stories the residents tell them and entering them onto their website to help bridge the generational gap. Among the group there are associations with schools and orphanages in Kenya, Montenegro, Burma, and Haiti, to name just a few. And the list of incredible peace promoting activities goes on.

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Aracely (Chely) Cifiuentes, a senior at Mountain View High School accepts her award from program co-founder Margaret Fisher. Chely works with 10- to 17-year-old youths with behavioral and emotional problems and their families, trying to show them a better path to overcoming their issues and earning respect and acceptance.

The attendees were all treated to an inspirational talk by guest speaker Bobbie Gottschalk, co-founder of Seeds of Peace, a global peace-promoting organization that runs three-week conflict resolution and leadership skills camp in Maine, bringing hundreds of young people from regions in conflict together in a supportive setting where they get to meet and develop positive relationships with their “enemies.” Gottschalk was joined by 24-year-old Ahmad Shah Hemmat from Afghanistan, who attended the camp at age 14, returned as a peer supporter at 16, then came back again as a camp counselor. “You never really graduate from being a peace-maker,” Hemmat said to the award winners. “And you never should.”

DONATIONS from sponsors like the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, the Reston Rotary Club and the Fairfax Partnership for Youth, as well as sales from the Herndon Friends Meeting book “Take Our Advice: A Handbook for Gardening in Northern Virginia,” helped to pay for the program materials, the reception and the monetary awards each winner receives.