Youth award winners exemplify hard work and perseverance

Photos courtesy MH Chamber of Commerce Catherine Lai, left, is the 2021 Student of the Year and Ryder Kirk is the 2021 Youth Rising Star.


By Robert Airoldi

Catherine Lai and Ryder Kirk, two outstanding young people who attend Morgan Hill schools, will be presented with special honors for their involvement in the community and academic excellence at the Morgan Hill Chamber of Commerce’s Celebrate awards event later this year

Lai, a Sobrato High School senior, is the 2021 Student of the Year. A second new Celebrate honor, the 2021 Youth Rising Star Award, is presented to Ryder Kirk, an eighth-grader at Britton Middle School.

Lai was surprised at her home in a video-call by school officials and staff and ambassadors of the Chamber in mid-December. She serves as a junior auxiliary volunteer at a local hospital and is a member/officer in Sobrato High School Red Cross Club for years. She is also the president of the school’s peer tutoring program and coordinates, recruits, and trains the tutors to work with students who need extra support.

Her nomination was submitted in a letter from the Ann Sobrato High School Leadership Team, which is headed by Principal Theresa Sage.

“Catherine is a student who exemplifies determination, strength, and character,” the letter read. “(She) is constantly progressing and achieving  . . .  More importantly, Catherine is able to translate her learning and maturity into effective leadership and considerable contributions to her community.”

She said she was pleasantly surprised when she learned she received the award.

“Growing up, one of my core values was to always put 110 percent into everything I do,” she said. “Receiving this award means my core values have shown through my efforts in both school and helping my community. This is an award not only for me, but for my parents, my counselor, and my teachers who guided and supported me.”

Lai has a passion for understanding the workings of the human body and has a dream to one day enjoy a medical career as an orthodontist or an obstetrician. She has a grade point average of 4.5, among the highest at Sobrato. She has also received several academic excellence awards. She has achieved a score of 670 on the math section of the SAT in the eighth grade. She is the recipient of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth High Honors Award.

As the first recipient of the Youth Rising Star Ward, Ryder Kirk was surprised by the announcement of the honor when members of the Chamber visited his Morgan Hill home in early December. The young man stays involved in the community by volunteering and donating to organizations that help those in need.

“I was completely shocked,” he said. “I did not know that I had been nominated for this award and I felt so honored that my merit badge counselor, friends, and family had nominated me.”

He will be attending Ann Sobrato High School in the fall. Not only does Kirk maintain straight A’s despite his learning disabilities, but he has also demonstrated leadership skills and focuses on helping his community as much as possible such as feeding the homeless through the street team ministry of the South County Faith Based Coalition. He loves supporting Community Christian Fellowship Church and wraps secret Santa gifts purchased with his own money he earns from collecting recycling water bottles.

“Ryder has overcome many academic obstacles of being dyslexic and being on the spectrum. He is bright, kind and daily gives back to his community,” said his neighbor Kim Adams, who was a nominator. “He raised for his birthday year on Facebook more than $400 for Leashes of Love Rescue.”

Adams got a rescue pup in July  and has been training him to help support Kirk as a service dog because the student has diabetes.

“Ryder loves helping in the community and giving back. He is working towards his Eagle Scout ranking and was accepted into the National Honor Society,” Adams said. “Ryder plays basketball at Britton and enjoys camping in his free time. He truly has a heart for people and his community of Morgan Hill.”

Kirk said winning the award means a lot.

“I’m very humbled,” he said. “I want to inspire other teens with any type of learning disability to believe in themselves and work hard and be helpful to everyone. I want them to know they can do great things. Living right now through a global  pandemic it is especially meaningful to me knowing that I can help others and inspire them and brighten their day.”

The Chamber’s 2021 Celebrate event is still being organized and no date has been set yet by staff. Because of the threat to public health by COVID-19, it will most likely be done as a video online presentation of the awards instead of the usual gala.


Robert Airoldi