20 Under 20 honors students for community service

Westminster has never given its students mandatory service hours to fulfill, yet so many of the school’s students still engage in giving back to the community. Atlanta Intown recently published the 11th annual 20 Under 20 honorees that highlighted 20 students and 26 runners-up who found time to give back in extraordinary ways. Three juniors from Westminster, Anup Bottu, Zander Kassabian, and Daven Yadav were all recipients of the award, and five other Westminster students received recognition for their service.
The 20 students recognized have amassed thousands of hours of volunteer time, created nonprofits, and worked with the underprivileged as part of their service. Bottu, Kassabian, and Yadav created a nonprofit called START, Inc. (Science to Action Road Trips) that aims to inspire students to learn different math and science concepts through experiential learning opportunities that may not have otherwise been provided to them.
“We’re just trying to get kids that don’t have an opportunity to go to a school like Westminster, that’re in fourth and fifth grade, inspired to learn math,” said Kassabian. “Otherwise, it’s like they’re stuck in this level where they don’t fully understand, and we want to get them to these STEM levels that we think are going to be the future.”
In order to help the students understand science better and embed a desire in them to reach higher levels of understanding in areas of science, technology, engineering, and math, Bottu, Kassabian, and Yadav take the students on field trips. The group visits places such as SkyZone or iFly where the juniors try to pair fun with learning in the minds of the fourth and fifth graders with them.
“When we go to a place like SkyZone, we will let the kids bounce around for a while, and then we will have them do an experiment that really shows physics in motion,” said Bottu. “Our goal is to show them that all the concepts they’re learning on the whiteboard can be applied in real life.”
Atlanta Intown asks public and private schools, service organizations, and the general public to nominate students who have actively volunteered in their community. Bottu, Kassabian, and Yadav received one nomination from Meghan James, the community service coordinator at Westminster.
They also received a nomination from the service coordinator of a program called GivingPoint that they participated in a year ago. GivingPoint is a local nonprofit that aims to bring together innovative technology, social networking, and hands-on training programs to help youth find and use their unique passions to contribute to a better world.
Bottu, Kassabian, and Yadav, initially developed the idea for START, Inc. in the final months of their ninth grade year. They began the actual work of starting the nonprofit the next fall. Receiving the 20 Under 20 award has encouraged the juniors to continue to build towards their goal.
“I feel the 20 under 20 recognition is just a milestone,” said Kassabian. “It’s just an inspiration to keep going and be able to improve on what we’re doing.”
Through their work with START, Bottu received a clear view of the current educational system and changes that could be made to improve the standard based learning that is primarily seen in classrooms.
“There’s one student, in specific, his name is Cody, and he was really interested in science, but his scores didn’t reflect how interested and how good he was at science,” said Bottu. “It showed me that, to a certain extent, tests that we have in our current educational system stunt the kids that are more creative and may actually end up doing the STEM field.”
It was always important to Bottu to inspire and give back to others, as it was something Jan Allen, seventh grade girls grade chair and middle school english teacher, told him in class when he was in sixth grade that inspired him to begin the process with START, Inc.
“Ms. Allen said one thing that really stuck with me,” said Bottu. “It was that for you to do something in the world or for you to figure out your meaning, it’s going to be a combination of three things that gets you there: what you’re good at, what you’re interested in, and how you can give back to the community. We all liked math, we’re all pretty good at math, so we had to figure out, in order for us to have this kind of meaning in our high school career, how we are going to give back to the community.”
This year, there was a trend among the 20 Under 20 honorees of an interest and passion for social justice causes. Many of the students’ volunteer work was geared towards helping underserved minority communities around the city. Senior Baird Kazazian was an honoree for the 20 Under 20 and founded the Atlanta Junior Chapter of The Society for Orphaned Armenian Relief. Kazazian also serves on the executive committee of the UNICEF Southeast Youth Board, and he was a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal for his volunteer efforts in 2018.
Another student who worked to help an underserved minority community was junior Brooke Stevens. Her passion was helping those who have disabilities and working to create bonds between those with and without disabilities.
Stevens started a chapter of Play Unified, which is a national organization through the Special Olympics. She came up with the idea in 2016 and started the chapter at the beginning of 2017 after she realized there wasn’t a lot in our community that helps those with disabilities.
“My cousin, Logan, was actually born with down syndrome, and I realized that Westminster, before the Play Unified club, didn’t really do anything with kids who had intellectual disabilities,” said Stevens. “I saw this as an opportunity to implement change to help bridge the gap between people who do and don’t have disabilities.”
Play Unified aims to help people become more comfortable interacting with people who have disabilities. Stevens strongly believes in the importance of people understanding that those with disabilities are just like those without.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that people with disabilities have the same feelings and emotions as us,” said Stevens. “They’re sweet and caring, they mean well just like we do, and it’s really important to see past their challenges because they can’t control it.”
As a club, Play Unified wishes to reach out to more people in the Westminster community. Every month, Play Unified takes part in activities such as volunteering at Top Soccer, an organization that partners kids who have disabilities and who don’t have disabilities together to participate in a soccer scrimmage, helping Gigi’s Playhouse, a development center for kids with down syndrome, playing basketball with the North Atlanta High School unified basketball team, and building new portable bocce ball courts for the Atlanta Public Schools adapted physical education program.
Senior Jessica Lao was also an honoree of the 20 Under 20 award for her work co-directing the student run nonprofit club at Westminster, Circle of Women. The club aims to increase access for secondary education for girls around the world. Lao’s biggest responsibility through the club was managing the budget; as director of fundraising, she helped raise $15,000 for the organization.
“I’m baffled that a high schooler got the chance to manage a budget in the tens of thousands,” said Lao. “But more than anything, I’m grateful for how the experience showed me that there are no limits to how to touch lives.”
Her experience volunteering for Circle of Women involved successful grants, emails to sponsors, and hosting events such as Mother-Daughter brunches on Mother’s Day, movie screenings, and selling products at gift fairs. In addition, the Circle of Women experience benefits the volunteers as much as it impacts the recipients.
“When I look back on my work with the Circle, it’s easier to imagine the work we sweated over at home than the buildings that must have risen up miles away,” said Lao. “While plane tickets to Peru would have bankrupted the whole project, I’m all the more thankful for the girls I did get to meet and the trials we scrambled through together. For the price of one, there were two schools of girls who learned the meaning of sisterhood, sweat, and miracles.”
Many of the 20 Under 20 honorees traveled to other countries for their volunteer work. Junior Albert Liang volunteered his time in Guatemala building houses. He also helps as a tutor and mentor in Spanish, and he created Chess Buddies Foundation, a nonprofit that teaches the game of chess in both Spanish and English.
Chess Buddies is dedicated to spreading the benefits of chess to children of all ages and backgrounds one game at a time. The organization visits local communities and provides them with chess boards, pieces, books, and training programs. Liang has played chess for 11 years, and he now passionately teaches kids and aims to spread joy through the game in their community alongside other members of Westminster and Walton’s chess club.
“No matter how tired I was at the end of the week, the kids always gave me the energy and inspired me to match their enthusiasm in my teaching,” said Liang. “They’ve taught me what it means to have a genuine connection and listen to their stories.”
Liang started Chess Buddies with the desire to bring fun and challenge into the lives of the students he teaches especially since he recognizes the high costs of such after school programs. Chess Buddies aims to teach time management, critical thinking, and creativity to the kids through the game of chess, and provide them with a curiosity for learning.
“I’ve really gained a different perspective of what opportunity means to underprivileged kids,” said Liang. “I’m proud of being part of the team to provide that opportunity, whether it’s for the kids I’m teaching chess to or for the families we built houses in Guatemala.”
Sophomore Aaron Yu was also nominated for the 20 Under 20 award for his volunteer work with Meals on Wheels, tutoring in mathematics, musical performances at local retirement homes, and helping others sharpen their debate skills.
These members of the Westminster community inspire others to find ways to engage with the community. These eight students went above and beyond, performing hours of volunteer work while also managing their own busy schedules, and contributing to making the world a better place by following their passions and motivating others to do the same.