This month, thousands of young Mainers are making one of life’s great transitions at high school graduations across the state. For this annual feature, we seek out seniors who, because of heart, talent or toughness, are likely to make a difference in the world. In fact, they already have.

Staff writer Kelley Bouchard shares the stories of 10 outstanding members of the class of 2022 and their accomplishments so far. They are top scholars, athletes, social activists and community volunteers. They include a member of the Civil Air Patrol, two Eagle Scouts, and several singers and musicians.

There’s a gender-nonconforming author who has written a young adult novel, an Iraqi immigrant who wants to build a mosque, a pilot in training who aspires to be an astronaut, an avid birder who plans to be a priest and an Appalachian Trail through-hiker who wants to improve global health care.

They have overcome bullying, language barriers, poverty, prejudice, major medical challenges and everyday teen struggles. And they excelled despite a global pandemic that forced them to attend classes online, canceled a host of school events and changed their lives in many ways.

Their intended careers include marine biology, business, music, writing, social work, architecture and engineering. They have already done so much and we’re excited to see what happens next.

WILL ADDISON: Falmouth High School

Will Addison hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2020 and intends to hike Mount Kilimanjaro this summer. He plans to study biology and global health and development at Trinity College. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

On June 5, 2020, Will Addison set out on a journey that is attempted by few adults, let alone teenagers.

For Addison, who is graduating from Falmouth High School, hiking the Appalachian Trail was just something he wanted to do.

Over the next four months, at age 15, he would hike 2,183 miles from Maine to the southern terminus of the trail in Georgia. He would battle bugs, blisters, loneliness and Lyme disease, all while managing hemophilia that posed an additional threat and provided a concrete reason for his effort.

He would trek nearly all of the mountain trail alone – it was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and most people were staying home – and he would take only three rest days along the way. He also would meet and be supported by some extraordinary and unforgettable people.

But after only one day on the trail, which begins at Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park, the experienced hiker and camper was ready to quit. It took him over an hour just to set up his tent.

“Blisters had already developed on the bottoms and sides of my feet, and I did not see a single soul that day,” Addison wrote in his college application essay. “After eating rehydrated mashed potatoes, I crawled into my tent and had a breakdown.”

Addison used his battery-charged satellite communicator to send a text message to his father, David, an avid outdoorsman who had taken his son on weeklong backpacking trips. His father then reached out to his Scout troop leader, Don Staples, who sent Addison the first of almost daily messages of encouragement and support that helped get the hiker to his goal.

“He told me to break it down,” Addison recalled. “Take it one step at a time, one day at a time. That was my lowest moment. I wanted to quit, but I got a hold of myself that day. I had a lot of the skills needed for the hike, but there was a learning curve.”

Addison eventually hit his stride, hiking eight to 12 hours each day, even through rainstorms and hurricanes. On his best days he hiked 20 to 25 miles, especially in the southern states.

He was assisted by “trail angels” and a network of other supporters in the hemophilia service community that was organized by his mother, Victoria Kuhn. They met him when he stopped to resupply at road crossings every week or two, delivering the clotting factor he injects three times a week to prevent chronic bleeding.

In return, Addison used his hike to raise $30,000 for Save One Life, a nonprofit that helps people in developing nations who have bleeding disorders.

“I wanted to make the hike more than just about me,” he said. “They’re the only organization that does this type of work.”

Addison maintained top grades at Falmouth High despite missing the first month of his junior year, in part by completing reading assignments while on the trail. He was captain of the varsity track team and a dedicated Scout, becoming an Eagle Scout, a senior patrol leader and a member of the Order of the Arrow honor society.

He plans to study biology and global health and development at Trinity College, with a goal of addressing the lack of adequate health care in many countries.

Addison said he is grateful for the support he received from his family, including his twin sister, Grace, and his scout leaders and the people who helped him along the Appalachian Trail. He’s especially glad he met Rob Bird, a famous trail angel who hosted thousands of hikers in Massachusetts and Tennessee.

Addison spent several days with Bird in Tennessee near the end of his trek, and visited him again this year, shortly before Bird died in February at 74 from brain cancer.

“His kindness was unbelievable,” Addison said. “He is a role model I will carry with me always.”

EMILY CHEUNG: Deering High School

Emily Cheung helped to raise money to build a school dormitory in northern Vietnam and plans to study psychology and neuroscience at Yale University. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Emily Cheung’s resume already includes accomplishments relatively few people can claim in a lifetime.

Cheung, who is graduating from Deering High School, led an effort to raise $50,000 to build a dormitory at an elementary school in northern Vietnam.

As a senior, Cheung served as a district governor of the Key Club, presiding over a 28-member board representing 150 clubs and 5,000 members across New England and Bermuda. She spearheaded the dormitory fundraiser for Children of Peace International as the district’s projects chair, when she was a sophomore. And she made sure the fundraiser met its goal before she graduated.

“It was important to me because my parents are from Vietnam and they had such limited opportunities there,” Cheung said. “It felt like fate. I felt lucky to have the opportunity to give back.”

The project is expected to improve access to education in the mountain town of Sa Pa, where many children must walk at least 3 miles to school along roads without sidewalks or guardrails. Many children don’t attend because of the long, hazardous commute.

“There are kids who have died on their way to school,” Cheung said. “The dormitory will allow children to stay at the school during the week, so they can attend without risking their lives.”

The government of Vietnam, meanwhile, has agreed to rebuild the school itself, which will give students in Sa Pa a fully functioning facility. Cheung plans to visit when construction is completed.

“Education has always been the most important thing in my life – it’s the main thing that gives me power,” she said. “My grandmother never had the opportunity to get an education.”

Cheung has taken a rigorous slate of honors and Advanced Placement courses at Deering, as well as six college courses at the University of Southern Maine.

She plans to study psychology and neuroscience at Yale University. “They are two parts of the same thing,” she said. “They overlap and explain each other.”

She has already launched a career in health care. She studied biomedical science at Portland Arts and Technology High School. She completed internships with Maine Medical Center and USM, and she was a junior volunteer for two summers at Maine Med. She’s on track to become a certified nursing assistant upon graduation.

“I thought it was a really cool idea to leave high school with a certification so I can work and earn money in college,” she said. “It also gave me an idea of what it’s like to work in medicine.”

Cheung participated in Deering’s choir all four years and the Maine All-State Music Festival choir in 2021 and 2022. She and her debate partner, Balqies Mohamed, were co-captains of Deering’s debate team and 2022 state champions in public forum debate.

Cheung was Deering’s representative to Portland’s school board during her senior year, and she volunteered at Lincoln Middle School homework clubs throughout high school.

She also has waitressed in her family’s restaurant since she was 12 years old, which has given her a deep appreciation for all that her parents have done for her and her older brother.

“They work 70-hour weeks,” Cheung said. “I’ve seen how hard they work. I’ve seen their everyday struggles. There’s a lot of sacrifice in what they do.”

JARED CONANT: Yarmouth High School

Jared Conant served as state ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and held food drives on his birthdays. He plans to study engineering at the University of Southern Maine. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Jared Conant is graduating from Yarmouth High School with top marks for being an active class member, caring for others and staying positive, all while facing significant challenges of his own.

Conant has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder that causes progressive muscle degeneration and requires him to use a wheelchair. Yet he doesn’t let the disease define him and approaches every opportunity to get involved and help out with incredible spirit and drive.

“Being positive helps me be in a good place, both for myself and for other people,” Conant said. “It’s important not to get stuck in the bad stuff and focus on the good stuff.”

Diagnosed in second grade, Conant was state ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association for many years, attending events and speaking out to raise awareness and money to find a cure. More recently, he has been an active student council member, planning and participating in various fundraisers, school culture programs and events, including the prom.

For six years, Conant has organized a fundraiser and food drive on his birthday because the local food pantry has a dearth of donations in February. His efforts have brought in $18,500 and 17,000 pounds of food.

“Giving back to people makes me feel better than getting something from someone,” Conant said in his college application essay. “The donations are then distributed to people in need in my community. I feel a sense of pride in changing lives. I could get lost in my own needs, but instead, I choose to turn my energy toward helping others.”

A sports fan, Conant participated in the high school’s varsity baseball and soccer programs, winning awards for attending practices, keeping stats and even playing a few minutes in some games. He also facilitated junior varsity soccer tournaments each year to raise money to send Maine kids with muscle diseases to summer camp.

He won the 2021 Lindsey Berghuis Courage Award, the 2019 Maine Hunger Dialogue Youth Leadership Award, and the 2018 and 2020 True Blue Clipper Award, as well as honors in citizenship, chorus, Spanish and other academic achievements. In his spare time, he builds Lego Star Wars models that he shares on social media and his AwesomeBro Bricks YouTube channel.

Conant plans to study engineering at the University of Southern Maine, building on a mentorship program he attended for two years. He’s looking forward to living in a dormitory, being more independent and meeting a lot of new people from different backgrounds. In the future he’d like to help improve internet access in more rural areas of Maine.

He is most grateful to his father, Barry, who has transported him everywhere through the years. He physically lifted him, emotionally supported him and helped him write speeches. All the while, his father has dealt with challenges and losses of his own, including the death of Conant’s mother, Ada, from breast cancer when Conant was 4 years old.

“He’s helped me to have a more positive attitude in life and to live one day at a time,” Conant said. “It all made me grow up faster. Life is short and you need to focus on the good things that happen.”

CASPER COWAN: Westbrook High School

Casper Cowan led efforts to make Westbrook schools more welcoming to transgender students and plans to study marine biology at the University of Maine. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

It was a shocking lesson in what not to say to a transgender person.

Casper Cowan was a sophomore at Westbrook High School. In eighth grade, he had come out as a transgender male and taken a new first name, leaving behind the one he was given at birth. That had become his deadname, something many transgender people strive to conceal.

Cowan was sitting in class when out of nowhere the teacher started talking about his deadname. The whole class was listening, including students from upper grades who didn’t know his deadname.

“She walks up to me and says my deadname, then goes on a rant about how pretty she thinks my deadname is, and how she has no idea why I would ever want to change it,” Cowan recalled. “Then she starts trying to convince me, saying that there are some boys that are named my deadname. The whole time I’m just staring at her, deer in headlights. It just exposed something that I didn’t want anyone to know.”

It was an excruciating but transformative moment for Cowan. He has worked diligently to help make the high school more inclusive to LGBTQ+ students, becoming the leader of the Spectrum Club, a group of queer and straight students that supports equality for all. This year he gave a presentation to high school teachers on how to interact with transgender students more effectively and create a more accepting classroom, and he worked with school officials to update policies affecting transgender and nonbinary students.

“It really pushed me to do more for my community because I know that I can stand up for myself,” Cowan said. “But I see kids walking through the hallways who can’t speak up for themselves. They don’t have a voice and they don’t know how to gain their voice. I guess that speaking up for them is the best that I can currently do.”

Cowan knows how hurtful some students can be. He experienced bullying from middle school into high school. He repeatedly deflected verbal attacks from boys who didn’t like that he was different.

“It was a lot of slurs or I was yelled at in the hallways or they tried to play little pranks on me by asking me out as a joke,” Cowan said. “I never gave them a reaction, so (it) died down. When we hit high school, I never really saw any of those guys anymore, but I heard through the grapevine that they were still deadnaming me, misgendering me and just being rude about me behind my back.”

Things improved greatly after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It seemed to make some students more compassionate.

“By the time we came back in person junior year, nothing negative was said about me,” Cowan said. “I had several students, when one of my teachers misgendered me, they corrected her for me. I can’t say the same for the younger grades at my school. If anything, they got worse through COVID.”

Cowan plans to study marine biology at the University of Maine, focusing on conservation and the harmful effects of climate change and microplastics in our waterways. A student leader in Westbrook High’s band programs, he also intends to play tuba in the university’s marching band and join a variety of human rights and environmental groups.

He is most grateful to his mother, Gretchen Lauer, who always supported him when other family members didn’t, and to school staff who made him feel welcome, especially Caleb Taylor, an English teacher who advised the Spectrum Club.

“He’s always been super nice and caring,” Cowan said. “He’d always want to hear about any problem I ever had. He helped me figure out solutions and ways to combat it. I had never met an openly gay teacher before, and it was really nice to see another gay person just being an everyday person.”

SARAH DHALAI: Portland Arts and Technology High School

Sara Dhalai developed her interest in working with young people at the Boys & Girls Club at Riverton Park and plans to study social work at the University of Southern Maine. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Sara Dhalai was nominated by two schools, making her a shoo-in for the 2022 Graduates to Watch.

She established herself as a top student in the two-year early childhood education program at Portland Arts and Technology High School, as well as a standout student at Deering High School and a leader in the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine.

Dhalai was born in Kentucky to immigrant parents; her mother is from Somalia and her father is from Yemen. When their difficult marriage ended, her mother, Ardo Sharif, moved to Portland, seeking a better life for herself and her two children. It meant starting from scratch.

“We had nothing,” Dhalai wrote in her college application essay. “We started out living in downtown Portland in a small apartment. My mother tried her hardest to make our experience growing up the best she could. However, due to her language barrier, she struggled getting a job, making friends and paying bills.”

Undeterred, her mother eventually found work, moved the family to a better neighborhood, got involved in local events and became a community leader. Inspired by her mother’s blossoming independence and strength in the face of adversity, Dhalai has followed and exceeded her example.

“My mother is resilient,” Dhalai said. “She made sure we never knew that she was struggling. She’s always smiling. She’s always positive. She can always find a solution.”

Dhalai credits her mother with signing her up for activities at the Boys & Girls Club at Riverton Park, the public housing complex where they live. She spent countless hours at the clubhouse while her mom was at work, participating in various fun activities that also boosted her self-confidence and encouraged community involvement.

Like her mother, she began acting as an interpreter and translating documents for other immigrant families, tapping her ability to speak Somali and Arabic. By her freshman year, she was working at the clubhouse, tutoring children in after-school programs and filling key leadership roles.

“(The club) provided me with a lot of support and resources,” Dhalai said. “It made me want to pursue my passion for working with children.”

As a junior, she enrolled in PATHS’ early childhood education program, which gives students hands-on experience  teaching and caring for young children. At the same time, she completed an internship at the Riverton clubhouse.

This year, Dhalai is working for Portland’s recreation department, supervising an after-school program at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, where she has developed and run activities for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

She also was a member of Deering’s Muslim Student Association and worked weekends at Panera Bread in South Portland.

She plans to study social work at the University of Southern Maine and hopes to one day help children especially children of immigrants – access community resources that will improve their lives.

She appreciates the freedom her mother has allowed her to become the person she is – to play sports and go on field trips and dress as she likes, whether or not she wears a hijab.

“She let me be who I want to be and supported me,” Dhalai said.

MATTHEW GILBERT: Greely High School

Matthew Gilbert was the No. 1 birder in Maine in 2020. He plans to study ecology and environmental science at Cornell University and eventually become a Catholic priest. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Matthew Gilbert sees the wonder of God’s creation in the many feathered species of the world, and he can identify hundreds of them in the wild when he catches a glimpse of their plumage or hears their calls. named Gilbert the No. 1 birder in Maine in 2020, when he identified 298 species in person across the state and recorded his experiences on the citizen science database. In all, he can identify over 480 birds by sight, including 140 species that he also can recognize by their songs or calls.

It’s one of many superlatives already bestowed on the Cumberland teen, who is graduating from Greely High School at the top of his class and eventually plans to become a Catholic priest.

“I’ve been interested in birds as long as I can remember,” Gilbert said. “It’s kind of weird because nobody in my family is even interested in nature.”

His interest picked up during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he set out to complete a “big year” count, which is an effort to find, observe and document as many birds as possible. He didn’t have a driver’s license yet, so he did chores to earn his mother Lisa’s chauffeur services. An hour of chores got him an hour of drive time. He scoured birding books and monitored birding websites, blogs and social media to choose locations for likely sightings.

“I went out birding every morning,” he said. “We traveled from the Golden Road in Millinocket to Acadia National Park.”

Gilbert’s self-taught birding efforts included courses with the University of New England and Hog Island Coastal Maine Bird Studies, and a graduate seminar in ornithology at Cornell University, where he plans to study ecology and environmental science.

“I’m in awe of the diversity of life,” he wrote in his college application essay. “How organisms interact, how every species occupies a unique niche, and the sheer variety of birds, animals and natural communities.”

Gilbert said he plans to delay studying for the priesthood and will attend a Catholic seminary in the future.

“I want to learn beyond what a seminary can offer,” he said. “Everything I do is based on my faith. I feel called to be a priest. It just feels like something I could do that would help bring people to God.”

Gilbert took the hardest courses throughout high school, as well as college courses in English, history and statistics. He also conducted yearlong independent historical studies for the National History Day competition. Topics included former Maine Sen. George Mitchell’s role in Northern Ireland peace talks and puffin conservation efforts in Maine.

He will attend Cornell on a full scholarship from the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation. Last year, he was one of five high school juniors across the country who were named Coolidge Scholars based on academic achievement, public policy interest, humility, public service and essays about the former president, who served from 1923 to 1929. About 4,700 students applied for the college scholarship.

“It’s amazing to be able to go (to college) wherever you want and not worry about how you’ll pay for it,” he said.

Gilbert also won a full scholarship to the University of Maine for his research on warbler migration in the 2021 Maine State Science Fair.

He is an accomplished musician and singer, adept at piano, trumpet and trombone, and has performed as a member of several school-based state, regional and national ensembles. He’s also a member of The Psalterium Institute in Lisbon Falls, which performs sacred Catholic choral music.

One of four brothers, Gilbert has been an altar server since third grade at the Parish of the Holy Eucharist in Falmouth, where he also now serves as a cantor at Sunday Mass.

He has worked or volunteered as a mentor, museum guide, wildlife surveyor, workshop presenter and art sales manager. He also is an Eagle Scout and Boy Scout assistant senior patrol leader, whose projects included documenting wildlife habitats throughout Yarmouth, canoeing the Allagash River in northern Maine and climbing Mount Katahdin three times.

“It’s hard to hike Katahdin or see hundreds of birds and not feel the presence of God,” he said.

FATIMAH LAMLOOM: Casco Bay High School

Fatimah Lamloom won a grant to renovate the prayer room at Casco Bay High School and plans to study architecture and engineering at the University of Southern Maine. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

For her senior project at Casco Bay High School, Fatimah Lamloom studied the impact of Islamophobia on mosque construction in the United States, where mosques often are located in plain storefronts and community centers.

To contribute her “slice of the solution,” Lamloom got a $480 grant from Painting for a Purpose, a Portland nonprofit, and used it to renovate and beautify the high school’s prayer space. Tucked in a storage room, it was a drab and uninviting place, with off-white walls and a single small rug where students could kneel and pray.

With help from other students and staff members, Lamloom transformed it into an inspiring space. Now, the walls are painted a lovely lavender and draped with soft lights and curtains. And there are several small rugs for the students who now join her in prayer.

It’s a capstone project for a young woman who came to the United States from Iraq at age 4, when the only English word she knew was “flower,” and now she is set to graduate magna cum laude.

“It’s very airy and peaceful,” Lamloom said of the prayer space. “It was magical to be able to complete that project. It felt like I was leaving a positive mark on the school and the city.”

The renovation also is a high point in a spiritual journey that Lamloom has taken since the COVID-19 pandemic left her feeling lonely and closed off. She found refuge in her Muslim faith.

“There’s nothing as stable and healthy as God,” Lamloom said. “It’s the hand that never lets go. This is my purpose – to touch people’s hearts and remind them of that.”

She founded the high school’s Muslim Student Association to ensure that students of her faith aren’t overlooked or discounted in school programs. The group recently hosted a community gathering to help people better understand Ramadan.

“Casco Bay is a really progressive school but as I delved into my faith, I realized we weren’t represented very well,” said Lamloom, who has been tapped by teachers to facilitate anti-racism events and mediate student conflicts.

As a freshman, she won the school’s Navigator Award for Excellence in Leadership, the highest honor given by faculty, and for 11 years she was a member of Pihcintu, a Portland-based multicultural girls chorus that performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington and the United Nations in New York.

“It was so beautiful and empowering,” Lamloom said. “We came from different backgrounds, but we sang with one voice. If you think of life as a tree, the chorus was the trunk and my faith is the branches.”

She was a Homer Fellow at the Portland Museum of Art and a study center youth leader with the Portland Housing Authority. She volunteers at the Preble Street soup kitchen, works part time at Chipotle and competes at Portland Community Squash.

“The sport itself taught me about determination and striving to succeed at something really difficult,” she said. “Everything I’ve done is like a puzzle piece of me.”

Lamloom plans to study architecture and engineering at the University of Southern Maine, and she plans to focus her career on building worship spaces that reflect her dedication to God.

“I have this really big dream to build my own mosque one day,” she said. “There’s something about designing a structure that brings people together. I want to build a space that reflects how beautiful our faith is.”

LEIGH OLDERSHAW: Windham High School

Leigh Oldershaw is a published author of a young adult novel and plans to study creative writing at Columbia University. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Leigh Oldershaw began spending every free moment writing at age 12.

Now, Oldershaw is the author of a young adult novel, “Bach in the Barn,” published by The Telling Room, a space for young writers in Portland.

Set in Maine in 1995, the book’s central character, 13-year-old Macy Griffin, is an example of transgender identity that Oldershaw once longed to find.

It took a lot of courage to create Macy.

“I had a lot of doubt about it at first because at the time that I wrote it, I wasn’t even really out to a lot of my family,” said Oldershaw, whose pen name is Leigh Ellis.

“The thought of writing a book (with a transgender character) was very overwhelming,” Oldershaw said. “But I always feel like my goal with writing is to tell the stories that I felt I needed to hear when I was younger, so that’s what I was really trying to do.”

For Oldershaw, who is gender-nonconforming and uses they/them/their pronouns, it was important to showcase positive queer experiences that were lacking in books, movies and TV shows when they were growing up.

“Nearly every scrap of media I came across starring a queer character, of which there were few, concluded with some variety of tragedy,” Oldershaw wrote in their college application essay.

“Bach in the Barn” is a coming-of-age story about a teen who is grieving their deceased mother and caring for a newfound alien creature while coming to terms with their identity as a queer person.

“I want to exist in a world where my existence doesn’t feel like a scream,” Oldershaw wrote in their essay. “I think storytelling is the best way to make this a reality. It’s a way of saying, ‘we are here, and we aren’t going anywhere. I am queer.’ ”

Oldershaw, who is graduating from Windham High School, wrote “Bach in the Barn” during their junior year after receiving a Young Emerging Authors Fellowship from The Telling Room. The paid, yearlong, after-school program allows students in grades 8-12 to write their own books with guidance from professional writers and editors.

“At The Telling Room, the teachers place the students at their level,” Oldershaw said. “We’re all just having a conversation. It’s not like they’re speaking at us. It feels very collaborative and it’s just a really calming space to be in.”

It’s a setting Oldershaw tried to replicate in co-leading a workshop at the 2022 New England Youth Identity Summit held at Waynflete School. It was about how writing can be used to create empathy, which also was the subject of their senior project.

“I really enjoy teaching,” Oldershaw said. “I could definitely see myself doing that, especially teaching writing.”

At Windham High, Oldershaw took a full load of honors, Advanced Placement and college courses. They also led the Creative Writing Club and participated in social justice and civil rights groups. And they worked part time at Cabbage Island Clambakes and Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop.

They plan to study creative writing at Columbia University, and maybe delve into journalism and screenwriting, too.

Oldershaw hopes to inspire queer young people as others have inspired them, including one older trans student they recalled from their early years at Windham High.

“I specifically remember this older trans guy who always wore rainbow suspenders,” Oldershaw said. “I would always see him and I would be so in awe that he was able to express himself that openly. I aspire to be like that.”

ANGEL ORTIZ: Waynflete School

Angel Ortiz is an accomplished singer who taught himself how to play piano and is about to release his first full-length album. He plans to study business at Howard University. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

It would have been a difficult experience for anyone, but for Angel Ortiz it was terrifying.

Ortiz suffered a vocal cord injury during his junior year at Waynflete School and lost his voice for four and a half months. It was heartbreaking for someone who began singing at churches and other public venues in fifth grade.

“I wasn’t able to talk or sing,” he said. “I am always singing. I consider my voice to be my superpower. It drove me nearly to tears because I thought I lost my superpower.”

Ortiz finally got an appointment with a medical specialist – it took a few months during the COVID-19 pandemic – and then spent some time in vocal therapy before working with a vocal coach to recover his full voice.

Now, he’s wrapping up his first full-length album of original songs, building on the positive learning experience he had as a sophomore putting out a Christmas EP, available on SoundCloud at aloiii and on Instagram at aloiii music.

Written, composed and produced by Ortiz, the 10-song album will be quite an accomplishment for someone who taught himself how to play classical piano after he enrolled at Waynflete.

“I started messing around on the pianos at school when I was a freshman and I practiced a lot during the pandemic,” he said. “There was something in me that wanted to improve as a musician. I fell in love with the instrument.”

Being self-taught is familiar territory for Ortiz, who lives in Topsham. He learned to sing by imitating favorite artists on the radio. He mastered digital music production at home through trial and error. He composed original ensemble pieces for Waynflete events. He took an online course on the music business through New York University. He visited recording studios in Nashville, sponsored by friends who believe in his talent.

And he taught himself Spanish, tackling lessons on his own every afternoon throughout middle school. He was certified fluent with the Global Seal of Biliteracy after completing a monthlong homestay in Spain as a junior. Learning Spanish made him feel closer to his Hispanic roots and helped him connect with family members in Puerto Rico.

“I grew up in Maine, but none of my (extended) family is here,” Ortiz said. “It’s a sense of feeling I belong somewhere, seeing people who look like me, and being proud of who I am on both sides of my family. I have a sense of pride in being Black and Latino.”

Ortiz has participated in nearly every activity at Waynflete, but especially in choral and instrumental groups, school musicals and individual performances at a wide variety of school events.

Outside school, he works as a singer and piano soloist at community events and coffeehouses. He also has been a peer mentor and student leader with Valo, a Yarmouth-based nonprofit that hosts free retreats for teens of all backgrounds to help them develop communication skills and have an impact on their communities. He led efforts to make the program more inclusive because he often felt isolated as a queer Afro-Latino, he said.

“It was a predominantly white hetero environment,” Ortiz said. “I felt kids of other demographics deserved to experience what Valo has to offer.”

Ortiz was elected to Waynflete’s student government all four years and named co-president as a senior. His classmates chose him to speak at graduation and he won this year’s Irvil K. Pease Award, which is voted on by the entire upper school student body and given to the senior who emphasizes concern for others by being willing to listen and reach out selflessly.

He plans to attend Howard University, attracted to the business program because it amplifies opportunities for Black students. One of six siblings, he is most grateful to his mother, Bridgette, who came to Maine when she was stationed here in the Navy and now works as an assistant principal at a Topsham elementary school.

“She is such a hard worker and provider for our family,” Ortiz said. “She has never let being Black stop her from being everything she can be.” 

GEORGE THEALL: Portland High School

George Theall flew his first solo flight at age 16. Now, he plans to attend U.S. Naval Academy with the goal of one day becoming an astronaut. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

George Theall got his first taste of weightlessness when he was 10 years old, and it whet his appetite for a career in space that still motivates him as he graduates from Portland High School.

It was during one of his first flying lessons. He was 5,000 feet above Sebago Lake in a Cessna 172 and his flight instructor was at the controls. In the back seat was his father, also named George, who had resumed flying lessons after taking them as a kid.

Suddenly, the plane dropped into a nosedive, heading straight for the lake below. Crumpled pieces of paper floated around the cockpit. Only his seatbelt kept him from floating as well. He heard his father laughing behind him.

After a few moments, the flight instructor pulled on the yoke and the plane leveled out of its rapid descent. Theall felt gravity’s weight once again, but he never forgot the excitement of feeling weightless.

“My young brain started wandering and developing fantasies of spaceflight,” Theall wrote in his college application essay. “These fantasies quickly developed into aspirations.”

Theall stuck with the flying lessons, completing his first solo flight in 2020. That same year, he joined the Civil Air Patrol squadron at the Portland International Jetport, rising to the position of cadet commander in the civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force.

Now, graduating as valedictorian of his class, Theall plans to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, fly fighter jets in the Navy and train to be an astronaut with NASA. A self-described “space nerd,” he keeps track of every advancement in space travel, research and exploration.

“I’ve always been interested in space,” he said. “In middle school, I studied space and researched how to become an astronaut.”

Theall took all the top classes in high school, including nine Advanced Placement courses that count toward college credit. He also conducted an independent study to design physics lab experiments, including one that uses antiquated equipment as a lab history lesson.

He was a varsity member of the outdoor track, cross-country and Nordic skiing teams, serving as captain of the latter two. He also volunteered for the Bicycle Coalition of Maine and Wayside Food Distribution Services, and he works part time as a carpenter’s helper for a construction company.

Theall said he is grateful to his parents for the opportunities they have given him, and to his teachers and coaches for the leadership abilities they have nurtured in him. He hopes to follow in the footsteps of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who has promoted public interest in space and science in general.

“He took the path I want to go,” Theall said. “I want to open up as many opportunities for other people as possible.”

Because for Theall, nothing beats the majesty of soaring through space. Since that first experience of weightlessness, he has traveled higher during cross country flights with his instructor, and even higher in commercial aircraft.

“Every time I go a bit higher, I feel just a bit closer to space,” he wrote in his essay. “I can feel the bond (that ties) me to the ground slowly weakening during each flight. … One day it will break, releasing me into the vastness of space, freeing me to realize the dreams of my 10-year-old self.”

Click here for the top high school graduates in Cumberland and York counties.

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