The Ministry of Education announced 12 new Proud of Them award winners at a reception and dinner Wednesday evening at the George Town Yacht Club.
The semiannual awards, launched in 2013, recognize young people between the ages of 10 and 25 for achievements in academics, sports, career, culture, business and community service.
“This is a night where you can reach back and pat yourselves on the shoulder,” said Education Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly, addressing the small crowd.
Each recipient was honored individually for his or her achievements and received a certificate and a $500 award.
Diego Smith, a chef at Blue Iguana Grill at the Holiday Inn, has been pursuing a culinary career since he graduated from Capistrano Valley Christian School in San Juan Capistrano, California. He attended the school on a basketball scholarship and made first team all-league before graduating in 2014.
He studied professional cookery at Middlesbrough College in England for two years before enrolling in George Brown College in Toronto to study Italian cooking, which involved spending four months in Bologna, Italy. He hopes to open his own restaurant some day.
Mr. Smith is the second member of his family to receive a Proud of Them award. His sister, Abigail Stoddart, was honored last year.
Winners of the Proud of Them initiative are featured on billboards posted around the island.
“It will be funny to see myself out there,” Mr. Smith said, “but also I’ll be proud to be recognized not only for working hard but doing something I’m passionate about.”
Honored for academics, Dominic Owens, 17, is a student at St. Ignatius High School, with plans to further his education by studying accounting and finance in the U.K. He said he recently received three A grades on his A-level exams.
“I think this is probably the most prestigious award that I’ve won,” Mr. Owens said. “Having my picture on the billboard means I’ve achieved what other excelling Caymanians have and I find that to be an honor.
Last year, Mr. Owens was Cayman’s representative at the Global Young Leaders Conference that was held in Washington D.C.
Nancy Barnard said her daughter, Jade, is an overall outstanding student at Cayman Prep, excelling in both math and English. She won the principal’s award for both Year 8 and, in December, for Year 9. She was a Rubis Top Student finalist in 2018.
Jade and her brother, Luke, have their own recycling operation in West Bay, collecting recyclable materials from neighbors who were willing to pay so they did not have to deal with it. Jade also volunteers with such organizations as the Humane Society and Cayman HospiceCare (now Jasmine).
Unsure of a career path yet, Jade said, “I want to do something that can help the world.”
A first-year student at Baylor University, where he is in the honors program, Nathan McCoy, 18, is studying public health and pointing toward a career in medicine.
A graduate of Cayman International School, Mr. McCoy said he excelled there as a student and also did a significant amount of community service work.
“I did a lot of stuff with the National Honor Society,” he said, “a lot of beach cleanups, and tutoring at George Town Primary.
“It’s a very big honor to be recognized by your country,” he said of Wednesday’s award. “I take a lot of pride in that.”
Some of his Baylor classmates have talked about coming to Cayman for spring break, he said. He laughed at the idea they might see his face on a billboard.
“If they come down, I’ll be like, ‘Hey, there I am!’”
Unlike many students her age, Allison Flores-Hernandez, 14, enjoys getting up and speaking in front of a crowd. She’s won several awards in the past few years for her public speaking, including two first-place finishes in the Claudette Upton Speech Competition.
“I started around Year 5 and I just continued,” Allison said of her speech and debate career. “I enjoy writing the speeches. I memorize them very easily so I have a lot of time to practice on my method of presentation.”
A resident of Cayman Brac, Allison attends Layman Scott High School, where she has won top student and academic excellence awards. She hopes to eventually study cinematography at a U.K. university.
She has not yet told her friends to look for her, hoping it will be a surprise.
“I’ll wait and they’ll say, ‘Allison, you’re on a billboard!’” she said. “It’s very exciting.”
Newly graduated from Harrisburg University in Pennsylvania, Shannon Williams, 21, is working as an internal software developer at Walkers law firm. Mr. Williams said he did well at Harrisburg and his Proud of Them award was for academics. But, he said, he was not a good student in high school.
In the first of his two years at the University College of the Cayman Islands, he took a course in computer programming that changed his outlook.
“I fell in love with it,” he said. “I found my passion there. I knew I had to do better in school, so I decided to take things more seriously.”
Another recipient in the academic area, Isabella Hall, 19, recently graduated from UCCI with an associate degree in computer science. She’s planning to attend a university overseas to earn a bachelor’s degree and hopes to have her own marketing business one day.
Her award, she said, “means my hard work and dedication has paid off in my academics.”
Ms. Hall was deputy head student while attending John Gray High School, where she graduated in 2016. She spent a lot of time teaching and tutoring other students during her high school years, she said, especially with those who were preparing for exit exams.
Wednesday night offered a break from the barking and whining that sometimes fills Julisa Dilbert’s days. She is the owner of Happy Paws Cayman, a dog sitting and dog walking service she has been running for the past five years. She has eight employees, has two more in training and recently expanded her services to the Sister Islands. She was recognized in the business category.
Her hard work, she said, “feels like it’s paid off.”
A graduate of John Gray High School in 2012, Ms. Dilbert said she earned a bachelor’s degree in business management through Penn-Foster College, an online school.
She cannot wait to see her picture on a billboard.
“I already said I’m going to take a selfie with it and put it on social media for Happy Paws,” she said.
At 18, Greyshell Bent is busy finishing an associate degree in business administration at UCCI. She plans to study fashion marketing in the U.K. While she seems to have a mind for business, she also has a heart for her community. She was recognized with a Proud of Them award for community service.
She first got involved in volunteer work at John Gray High School when her social studies teacher, Maxine Eldemire, encouraged her to join the Key Club. She helped out on such projects as the Kiwanis’ Santa landing and bike-a-thon and also served dinners to the elderly. She served as lieutenant governor for the five island clubs and, eventually, for the regional Key Club, based in Florida.
“From high school up to now, I dedicated so much time, I was proud to receive it,” she said of Wednesday’s award.
In the last few years, Tarec Francis, 17, said he has volunteered many hours to work various 5K fundraising events. He’s also part of the Youth Flex radio show, co-hosting an hour on air every Wednesday where guests talk about issues important to the Cayman Islands.
“I volunteer a lot and give back to the community,“ Mr. Francis said, adding he also does well in school.
A student at UCCI, Mr. Francis is working on an associate degree in hospitality management and applied science. He plans to become a chef once he’s done with school.
The youngest of Wednesday’s recipients, Jillian Crooks, 12, was recognized for her success in the swimming pool. She has competed in several off-island events. Her best outing so far was at the Central American and Caribbean Amateur Swimming Confederation Championships in Aruba. She swam in 10 individual events, finishing first in five races. She set a meet record in the 50-meter freestyle.
Jillian, who is homeschooled, said her best subjects are math and science and she hopes to become an emergency room surgeon.
A standout in track and field, Jorel Bellafonte, 23, made a name for himself while attending Calabar High School in Jamaica. He was scouted by a number of American universities, including USC, UCLA, Texas A&M and Florida State. He chose to go to Clemson.
Mr. Bellafonte was part of Clemson’s fifth place 4 X 400 yard relay at last year’s NCAA Championships. He received a bachelor’s degree in economics last year as well.
He said he’s hoping to work for Cayman’s Economics and Statistics Office as a statistician, although he would like to work his way to the top of the agency.
“I feel obligated to serve my country,” he said.
He’s been dedicated to Cayman for a long time, he said, refusing requests to represent anyone else.
“Jamaica asked me to compete for them several times but I always chose to compete for Cayman,” he said. “Before I was anything else, I was a Caymanian. I’ve always represented my country.”
He will be doing that now as a Proud of Them recipient.
“It means everything,” he said. “In today’s world, you measure your success by the validation of others. I’ve always tried to do well by my country and it’s good to know I’ve achieved that.”