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For River Hill High sophomore, volunteering is a way of life

Athena Kan, a sophomore at River Hill High School, did not have to look very far to learn the values of volunteering.

Her parents, Kenny and Henrietta, are largely responsible for Athena's volunteering spirit. The family has participated in American Heart Association walks in Howard County and Baltimore for years.

"When life gets hectic, we find that volunteering as a family is a powerful way to strengthen family life with a beneficial purpose," Kenny said.

Athena, 14, was named the Howard County Youth Volunteer of the Year last month for her involvement with a number of charities, including a foundation she and her sister, Tiffany, started last year — Coalition Halting Obesity in Children Everywhere. CHOICE educates the public on the dangers of childhood obesity and presents ways to prevent it.

"I feel as though volunteering is an essential part of any teenager's life," Athena said. "In order to get the full experience of living an adolescent life, you need to volunteer, go out into the community, not have these 'first-world problems' and go beyond to learn what it's like to serve others."

Athena began researching how socioeconomic status affects childhood obesity through an independent research program at River Hill. She could have settled on creating a PowerPoint and presenting it to teachers on what she had found, but she felt that wasn't enough.

"I wanted to do something that would help the community," Athena said.

She began to draft a lesson plan that would educate elementary school students on childhood obesity.

With the help of school system personnel Dulcy Sullivan, health education instructional facilitator, and Linda Rangos, coordinator of health and physical education, Athena is developing a 45-minute lesson plan.

When it is completed, Athena will send the plan to the Office of Heath and Physical Education. After a final review, the lesson plan will be provided to fourth-grade teachers as a resource to support the health education curriculum.

Athena has personal ties to the issue of obesity.

"Three of my great-grandparents died because of heart disease and stroke. Both my grandma and aunt have diabetes, and obesity is a contributor in many diabetes cases," Athena said. "As I researched it more, I found that surprisingly one-third of all children are overweight or obese in America, and that's a really big deal."

In addition to CHOICE, Athena volunteers with the American Heart Association, Howard County Association of Student Councils (she is the Health and Social Issues Coordinator), HC DrugFree and serves as the Student Commissioner for the Howard County Commission for Women.

According to Mickey Gomez, a member of the Youth Volunteer of the Year selection committee, Athena stood out in the crowd.

"[Athena's] drive to, on her own, address issues in a really organized and intentional way really stood out to me," she said.

Athena, who is on her school's debate team and swims competitively in the summer, relies on her parents to drive her to the various meetings and events. They don't consider it a burden.

"We do not mind driving her around," Kenny said. "As immigrant parents who had benefited from the services of volunteers who helped us get acculturated to the US a few decades ago, we are delighted to help our kids give back to the community."

Volunteering also allows Athena to spend time with her sister Tiffany, a 16-year-old junior at River Hill.

"I think it's a very good way for us, as sisters, to bond," Athena said. "I know that sounds cheesy, but I really do enjoy it. She's the [high school student] that I know the best, so I am the most comfortable basically putting the fate of CHOICE in her hands and working with her."

According to Tiffany, the volunteering spirit shines through in all aspects of Athena's life.

"Athena is pretty much the same person both at home and while she is volunteering," Tiffany said. "She is a caring individual with a big heart who cares to make an impact on the community around her."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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