Felix Martinez, Greater Lawrence Technical School
On the first day of culinary class, Felix Martinez wore a pressed white chef coat, with a food thermometer and pen tucked properly into a side pocket. Checked pants, black shoes, and chef hat completed the outfit. He was the only freshman to arrive in uniform.
“I liked how my uniform looked on me,” said Martinez, 18, his easy smile revealing silver braces. “I felt professional, that I made the change that I wanted to.”
He left his native Puerto Rico at age 14, after asking his parents if he could attend school in the United States. “The life for young people in Puerto Rico is hard. . . . I wanted the opportunity to make the most of myself.”
Martinez came to Lawrence with an older half-sister and her daughter. He spoke only Spanish, first enrolling at Lawrence High School. A few months later, his parents joined him, and he transferred to the regional tech school in Andover.
At Greater Lawrence, he enrolled in English Learner Language classes for English and history. He joined the student and school councils, and chose culinary arts for vocational learning.
“When I came through the [kitchen] door, culinary called me,” he said.
He is the youngest of 13 kids in a blended family. His parents, Blanca and Felix Martinez, had a combined 11 children from prior marriages. Martinez is the first in the clan to graduate from high school.
His parents, two sisters, nieces, and the pastor of his church cheered when he received his diploma. “I fought for my future and I won,” he said. “I thank God for this school.”
In the fall, he’ll pursue a new career path, studying nursing at Northern Essex Community College.
Jenna DiMento, Triton Regional
She is a one-woman rock band, and a rock climbing star, too.
Jenna DiMento plays seven instruments: clarinet, saxophone, guitar, drums, trumpet, piano, and xylophone. She sang soprano in school choirs, and counts her voice as an eighth instrument.
“Well, it makes music,” said DiMento, 18.
She also was captain of the school’s climbing club. “It’s just you and yourself trying to get to the top of the rock,” said DiMento, who is certified to lead climbs. “You have to use your body and mind to reach your goal.”
Music is her soul. She played clarinet in the concert band, saxophone in the jazz band, and xylophone in the Vikings’ marching band. She picked up the others along the way, and plans to add trombone.
In this year’s school musical, “Legally Blonde,” DiMento played three different clarinets, often switching with only a measure to spare. “I would put one down and pick the other up real fast. It really challenged me to figure it out,” she said.
DiMento, who started clarinet in fourth grade, practices at least two hours per day.
As a junior, she toured Europe with Sound of America, a summer program for high school students. She played clarinet in concert halls and churches in six countries. “It was really cool to hear ourselves in those places. It sounded so different than ever before.”
An honors student, DiMento was ranked third in her class of 221 seniors. She was secretary of the student council, and this year was the student representative to the Triton Regional School Committee. The youngest of three children of Bill and Beth DiMento of Rowley, she plans to major in music education at Ithaca College.
She hopes to become a high school band teacher, which has been her goal since she fought to save Triton music programs from budget cuts a few years ago, rallying her peers to support their program and teachers.
“We got the School Committee to reconsider,” said DiMento, chosen by her peers to address the committee. “Ever since, I’ve wanted to make sure that future kids get to have the same experiences I had.”
Sabrina Mirabella, Wilmington High School
Sabrina Mirabella shined a light on struggles for human rights in distant lands.
“It’s so easy to get caught up in the drama of high school,” said Mirabella, 18. “Some kids get so focused on schoolwork, sports. . . . Yes, that’s important. But we all live in one world.”
As president of the PEACE Club — an acronym for People Everywhere Are Created Equal — Mirabella encouraged her peers to think about the plight of people in troubled places. She drew on lessons learned in Facing History and Ourselves, a course about the Holocaust and racial prejudice.
In May, the club held Peace For Africa Day to raise awareness about human rights struggles on that continent. Franco Majok, a Southern Sudan refugee who now lives in Lynn, was the guest speaker. The club made a $300 donation to Majok’s nonprofit that built a school in his native village.
Mirabella is the second of four children of Paula and Joe Mirabella. From a young age, she learned to think about others.
She was a member of the academic decathlon team, competing in English and history, and played tennis, serving as captain her senior year. She was a peer mentor and also participated in the women’s and drama clubs.
Mirabella was chosen to attend Ladies For Leadership, a teen training program held in Burlington. She brought it to Wilmington High. “Girls . . . need to learn compassion and confidence to be good leaders.”
Mirabella’s leadership was rewarded this year with the Principal’s Award. In the fall, she’ll attend Johnson & Wales University in Providence to pursue another passion — culinary arts. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to find a way to put it together with human rights.”
Leo Haskell, Winthrop High School
Leo Haskell’s big break came playing a small role in “Charlotte’s Web” during his freshman year.
“I was the judge and had no speaking lines,” recalled Haskell, 18. “I just walked across the stage, but it was a huge deal for me. I was one of only two freshmen cast in the fall show.”
Winthrop High became his stage. He was a regular in school drama and musical productions. In his junior year, he played Sonny in “Grease,” a role his father had played years before at the school. For the WHS Dinner Theater, he sang pop and rap at Prince Pizzeria in Saugus. He also worked on lights, set design, and costumes. “I just liked being involved in theater at all levels,” he said.
He wasn’t all show business. As a freshman, he joined the student council, honing leadership skills for class offices. He was elected junior class president, a job that made him the chief social planner. He ran the annual county fair, and organized the junior social at a yacht club in town. “I realized then that I had a passion for running things,” he said.
Haskell was elected senior class president, without opposition. Along with another senior boy, Haskell joined the cheerleading squad his senior year. He was a peer mentor to special needs students.
The oldest of Julie and Leo Haskell’s three sons, he plans to study hospitality and event planning at Johnson & Wales University in Providence. “I wouldn’t be the person I am without the opportunities I had here,” he said.
Helen Ngo, Chelsea High School
She is Vietnamese-American in a largely Latino city, a Buddhist who went to Catholic grade school.
“I am different, facially and physically, from most kids here,” said Helen Ngo, 18. “I knew I had to do what I could to be strong. I can’t just feel afraid to be myself.”
She joined the school’s Asian Club, a group she led for two years as president. Under Ngo’s leadership, the club donated $3,000 to nonprofits working to bring clean water to Asian nations, assist immigrants to the United States, and help victims of the Japanese earthquake.
At graduation, Ngo received a $1,000 scholarship from McDonald’s, and the school’s Citizenship Award.
Ngo is the younger of two children of Thuan Ngo and Nga Dang, who emigrated from Vietnam to Chelsea 20 years ago. Growing up, she endured taunts and racial slurs.
Her parents enrolled her in a Vietnamese language and culture class on Saturdays. She still attends. She volunteers at Chelsea Community Schools, an afterschool program, where she loves to play puppets with youngsters.
An honors student, Ngo ranked in the top 5 percent in her class of 250. She was captain of the school’s mock trial team, which could prepare her well for her next goal. She’ll attend the University of Massachusetts Boston and hopes to become a civil rights lawyer. “I don’t like seeing people not knowing what their rights are,” she said. “I really want to be a voice for them.”