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Oh, the places they’ll go…

Our second annual round-up of inspiring local teens who are taking the world by storm.

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Athletic Architect

Chris Kono is tall and rangy and laid-back, but get him going on baseball or sculpture and the intensity emerges. A 2009 Brunswick graduate, he will leave his mark on the King Street campus in more ways than one; his witty series of industrial-looking boxes pierced with bright plastic tubing marches across a brick wall in the arts complex.

Chris’s southpaw pitches have been clocked at 87 mph, but he describes himself as “more of a finesse guy” and looks to Andy Pettitte of the Yankees as someone to emulate. He plays in the Amateur Athletic Union, this summer in tournaments all over the South that included nail-biters with major league scouts in the stands. He’s not looking to be drafted, however. Even though he’ll play baseball for the College of the Holy Cross, he already senses that architecture and his sleekly sophisticated sculptures are the future. He freely admits to being one of those kids who was always drawing in class and sketches constantly, futzing around with random shapes and ideas on paper. “My math teacher let me do it,” he comments, “because he knew it helped me focus more and listen on asubconscious level.”

His parents, he jokes, were supportive until the sculpture studio took over the garage and they had to park in the driveway. Chris works mostly in wood and from a sketch, and his pieces are primarily intended for outside where the landscape can be viewed through them in ever-changing framed spaces. They are deceptively spare, like the two bottle-green rectangles that can be arranged in innumerable ways or the bright yellow construction that resembles a handful of giant pickup sticks dropped on the lawn. “On a rainy day or on a sunny day, or depending on your angle, the piece is always going to look different,” Chris says. “Weather and nature change the work, and the changes are part of the design.”

Rocking the Rink

Oscar Ladd is in the unique position of having one foot in two distinct worlds. With his cochlear implant he lives in a hearing world, attending Westminster Academy and hanging out with his friends and three younger siblings; with the device that activates the implant removed, he returns to the uncompromising silence of the profoundly deaf. “You want to see?” he asks unselfconsciously, flipping up his wheat-brown hair to reveal the black plastic device behind his right ear. “I just take it off and then I can’t hear anything.”

Oscar’s hearing impairment was diagnosed at two. He got the cochlear implant when he was seven, which, followed by years of speech therapy, was successful to the extent that most people don’t believe he’s deaf. He also reads lips so subtly that you can’t catch him at it.

He was up on ice skates at three — every winter Dad flooded the flagstone patio for a makeshift rink — and at ten was off to camp at the Stan Mikita Hockey School for the Hearing Impaired, which is sanctioned by the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association. And the school’s varsity squad is a major feeder for the USA Deaflympics team.

Oscar, who plays defense, was shocked when he made the AHIHA team at sixteen. “They already had a team of older players,” he says, “plus you’re playing against guys who are eighteen and older. Some of the Russians play pro so it’s not like typical high school hockey.” But youth paid off and at a 2009 meet in Canada, Oscar and his teammates beat those burly Russians.

“Hockey is a really fast game . . . and it’s twice as fast when you can’t hear,” he says (no hearing aids are allowed on the ice). “You have to keep your head up, otherwise you’re gonna get killed — that was the hardest thing to learn. Only by watching the other players can you know where the puck is. You can’t exactly sign.” He grins and holds up his hands. “The gloves?”

Next step, fingers crossed, will be the 2011 International Deaflympics in Slovakia, and after that perhaps a career in sports marketing. “I love the game,” says Oscar. “It’s given me a goal in life, and it’s definitely made me work harder at everything else.”   

International Inspiration

At eighteen, Bea (pronounced Bay-uh) Dizon is a citizen of the world, having spent time in Chile as an exchange student and in Africa and Europe on life-altering missions. She has visited her parents’ homeland of the Philippines several times, once to teach schoolchildren for Gawad Kalinga, an international organization fighting poverty. “I really don’t speak Tagalog,” she says, “but I can understand it, a little. I’m glad I got to teach in English.”

At the Convent of the Sacred Heart Bea balanced honors and AP classes with rowing crew, for which she practiced five days a week, attended regattas on weekends, and won the Coach’s Award her senior year. She’s still not sure why.

“I tried to keep a positive attitude,” she says, “but everyone on the team was amazing.”

Bea journeyed to Uganda the summer before her senior year with “Computers for Uganda,” installing gently-used machines in thirteen schools. “I actually wasn’t that knowledgeable about computers before I went,” she says, “so it was hands-on training.” She taught typing, Microsoft Word and Excel — the Ugandans taught her native songs and dances and, she says, more than she can ever repay. “It made me realize that we have so much and they have so little, but they know how to be happy.

The people are addicting, the weather is addicting, the sunsets are beautiful.” After she earns a business degree at Lehigh University, where she starts this fall, Bea vows to return and help the Ugandans “build their country.”

After three weeks in Africa, Bea flew home for exactly one night before jetting to France to work with Ampleforth Pilgrimage, which annually brings pilgrims and “helpers” to Lourdes. There she worked in a hospital, helping les malades to dress and bathe and eat, pushing them in their wheelchairs to take the healing waters and attend mass at the shrine of St. Bernadette. The experience was intense and uplifting, emotionally and spiritually. “It’s hard to put into words, but it made me see things in a different light,” says Bea. “Life is so precious.”

Queen Bee

With her long blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes and open manner, Eliza McNitt could easily be mistaken for an actress instead of a scientist. Although she’s been acting since she was three and played thirteen lead roles at Greenwich High, she is equally respected for her documentary, Requiem for the Honeybee. The film persuasively tracks the correlation between colony collapse disorder, which is the term of the inexplicable vanishing of honeybees around the world, and the introduction of imidacloprid insecticides.

Eliza and her project partner, Charles Green, started working on the film in 2007 for an honors science class. Two years and eighty hours of editing later, it won the 2009 C-SPAN student cam documentary competition and top honors at the 2009 Connecticut Science Fair. Requiem for the Honeybee went on to win the Grand Award at the 2009 INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair, at which Eliza had to defend her research for nine hours before a panel of judges. “Exploring science through film is my passion,” she says. She will attend film school at NYU this fall. 

Like Isaac Newton, Eliza’s moment of revelation came from an apple. “My grandfather told me, ‘Don’t eat that, it’s covered with pesticides,’ ” she remembers. “That was the first time I’d ever stopped to think about pesticides on the exterior of fruit.” She swiftly made the leap from apples to honeybees, which are the main pollinators of apples, and began tracing the migration of pesticides through the production of honey. “The bigger, overarching issue was colony collapse disorder,” she says, “which is very complicated and has been likened to AIDS because it weakens the immune system. Bees are susceptible to all sorts of viruses because they’re extremely overworked: A human can pollinate 3,000 crops a day, a bee can pollinate 30,000. Without honey-bees to pollinate crops, we don’t eat. The implications are terrifying.”

While filming, Eliza put on a beekeeper’s suit to walk among her subjects. “It was incredible,” she says excitedly.

“I was in the midst of millions of bees with only my hands exposed, to hold my camera. I didn’t get one sting — I was so comfortable around the little critters.”