Each generation worries about the next: Teenagers nowadays! Social media-obsessed, hormone-crazed, lazy hooligans. Am I right? Well, spend some time with these three teens – philanthropist, musician, athlete, and – and you’ll be humming a different tune. With Olympic-sized dreams and the determination to overcome obstacles, these young adults have boundless potential.
Speaking Up for a Sister’s Courage
Andrew Gallagher’s younger sister, Cameron, struggled with depression as a teenager and never understood why there was a stigma surrounding the illness. While training for a half marathon, she came up with the idea to have a small neighborhood 5K to raise money and awareness for mental health. When Cameron died after completing her goal of finishing a half marathon in Virginia Beach in March, her brother Andrew, took up the torch to share his sister’s important message. Andrew, along with Cameron’s best friend, Abby Donelson of Henrico, was thrust into the role of community organizer and mental wellness advocate.
“Cameron started this – it’s her thing,” said 19-year-old Andrew, who graduated from Benedictine and is attending University of Virginia this fall. “We’re just sort of taking it over now and running with it.”
It was Andrew’s idea to hold a launch party, which he and his parents, Grace and David, organized with the help of Venture Richmond. On May 31, thousands of friends and strangers came out to Brown’s Island to enjoy live music, face painting, bouncy houses, corn hole, and food trucks.
“It wasn’t as much about raising money as getting support for the 5K and telling everyone what we were about,” said Andrew. “It was all in Cameron’s spirit. Cameron would have just loved it. I think my family really needed that.”
Speaking to the crowd assembled that day, Andrew showed a tremendous amount of grace and courage. All around the young man on stage, screens displayed motivational and uplifting quotes like those that Cameron posted around her room.
“It was probably the most overwhelming feeling of being so proud and impressed by him and at the same time wishing he didn’t have to do that,” said Grace. “It was so brave and courageous, [he gave] such an honest and open speech. I was really amazed by him.”
Andrew hopes to study business at UVA, inspired by growing up in his dad’s family business. In between working at Country Club of Virginia this summer and preparing for college, he has been an instrumental part of the SpeakUp 5K’s creative team. Talking to potential sponsors, designing the race, and producing marketing materials came naturally to Andrew, who’s always enjoyed creating and working with people.
“I always assumed he was going to be a good leader,” said Grace. “But seeing a compassionate leader in him, a depth that a lot of teenagers don’t have because of the experience he’s had – that’s been amazing. He is driven by passion and loyalty that gives him the strength to do this for his sister. We’re watching him turn into a man.”
On the creative team, Andrew, Abby, and Andrew’s younger sister, Riley, work to bring the spunk – Cameron’s spunk – to the race.
“We’re thinking of different themes for each leg. I’m not going to give too much away, but it’s going to be really fun,” said Andrew, adding that the race will not be competitive.
The course begins at The Carillon in Byrd Park and as Cameron had planned, the proceeds will go to the Virginia Treatment Center for Children, which provides mental health treatment for children and adolescents.
“They have a plan to build this beautiful new place with windows and sunshine and a park,” said Andrew. “For people who are struggling, that could be a huge difference.”
In addition to raising funds to help VTCC build a new facility, Andrew hopes this month’s SpeakUp 5K will raise awareness about teen depression.
“When people have an illness or something that you can physically see, we all try to help them. But for people with mental illness, you can’t see their issues and that’s why we’re speaking up for them,” said Andrew.
He hopes that kids and teenagers will not think of peers with depression as “the sad kid,” but rather, offer them a smile, sit with them at lunch, or include them in invitations. That’s his vision and it’s all in Cameron’s name.
“It’s definitely the hardest thing any of us have ever gone through,” said Andrew. “But our way of dealing with it and letting Cameron live through us is keeping up the cause. She would have wanted us to do that.”
Most 16-year-old girls have the likes of Zac Efron or One Direction taped to their walls. Not Abbie Allison. Instead, Abbie decorated her room with a signed poster of her idol, Annamia Eriksson, a world-class French horn player.
Abbie began playing French horn in fifth grade and has played in what seems like every possible ensemble since. Representing Goochland County, she made it to All-District Band each year she could audition (seventh grade through her senior year), holding the second chair position in the top band for the last two years. In eighth and ninth grade, Abbie played with the Richmond Symphony Youth Concert Orchestra (YCO) and then made it into the competitive Richmond Youth Symphony Orchestra (RYSO) in tenth grade.
“It’s my home,” said Abbie of the Carpenter Theatre, where RYSO rehearses. “On practice days, it’s what I look forward to after school: to get to practice and leave everything else behind.”
Abbie enjoyed every opportunity to play the works of Tchaikovsky and Verdi and contemporary favorites like Arturo Márquez. She became the RYSO principal horn player and twice had the honor of performing in All States, a three-day marathon of rehearsals with the state’s best high school musicians and a renowned guest conductor, culminating in a concert.
“She’s very driven, not really by a sense of competition, but by herself,” said James Sykes, her Goochland Middle School band director. “She excels because that’s what she expects of herself.”
That musical drive transferred to academics as well. When Abbie realized she could graduate high school in three years, she didn’t hesitate. Taking on two history classes and two English classes, Abbie juggled a heavy course load (including three advanced placement classes) with RYSO practices and preparing her audition piece for colleges.
After nearly a year of practicing Franz Strauss’s Op. 8 and Beethoven’s Horn Sonata, Op. 17, Abbie received acceptance letters from all three music schools to which she applied. She chose Shenandoah Conservatory and begins attending classes for music performance this month.
For helping her get this far, Abbie gives a lot of credit to her mother who served as her chauffeur to practices and her cheerleader at more than fifty concerts over the years. But Abbie’s dream is only beginning. After she graduates from Shenandoah, this teen hopes to enter the military to play horn. Ultimately, she wants to become a member of the United States Marine band, “The President’s Own.”
She has drilled members of the prestigious band at Senior Regional Orchestra Q&A sessions, and saw President’s Own guest artists at master classes and music festivals. Her father, stepfather, grandfather and uncle were all military and she likes the challenge of becoming the first woman in her family to seek a career in the military.
“You’re granted sort of a rock star status in the classical musician world,” said Abbie. “You get invited to be a guest artist, conduct a master class, hold seminars. That’s really what I want to be able to do with the status of being a member of a premiere military band: inspire and encourage young musicians…I want other young female musicians to see the military as a musical career option, to be empowered and see that it is possible to go and be successful as a female musician in a male-dominated field.”
She looks up to strong musicians, especially those who pave the way for female horn players. When she met her idol, Annamia, Abbie was delighted to find that the talented woman was also gracious
“I was totally fan-girling,” said Abbie, blushing and smiling at the thought.
Perhaps one day, a poster of Abbie will serve as inspiration to a new generation of women brass players.
Going for Gold
Many parents take their kids to gymnastics class, where they might alternate between watching their little ones in action on the floor and scrolling through smart phone notices. When parents take their youngsters to Above the Bar Gymnastics Academy, they have an even harder time focusing on their own tumblers. Of course I saw you do that, they want to tell their children. They really do. But they can’t help but watch Kiwan Watts.
An 18-year-old who graduated from L.C. Bird in June, Kiwan is the national champion in floor exercise and won the all-around competition at the 2013 Men’s Junior National competition. When he was five, Kiwan began working with Coach Viorel Popescu at an area gym. When his coach moved to other gyms, Kiwan followed him. When Viorel and his wife Terry opened Above the Bar in September 2013, the teen athlete found his second home.
Despite his success and form, Kiwan’s road hasn’t been an easy one. He stuck with gymnastics despite severe asthma attacks throughout his childhood. When he was about 11, Kiwan went straight from the hospital to a Future Stars competition in Colorado Springs and still managed to place.
“Those are the times that you feel like, ‘Hey, we finally made it together,’” said Viorel. “Nobody cared, nobody knew that we were going through this. Could it have been an easy time to give up? Absolutely.”
Terry, who runs much of the business side of Above the Bar, is proud of Kiwan’s perseverance as well.
“There have been hundreds of moments in his life where he’s had to stop and make a decision, ‘Am I going to keep doing this? Am I going to keep going?’” she said. “He doesn’t think we see it, but we do.”
Twelve years of hard work paid off when Viorel and Terry called Kiwan and his mother, Taneisha Watts, into the gym and delivered the news: After four years of trying, he’d finally made the national junior team.
“The look on his face was priceless,” said Terry. “And then it was like somebody had lit him on fire. The way he came in and practiced since that moment hasn’t stopped. He has just taken off.”
In November 2013, Kiwan and three other gymnasts traveled to Acapulco, Mexico, to represent the United States in the 2013 International Junior Mexican Cup and Kiwan struck gold. He won the all-around competition and one of his teammates won second place, securing
the title for the United States.
“It was actually pretty great,” said Kiwan. “I was on TV and everyone was coming up to me and saying ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so amazing and I want your autograph.’”
While Kiwan enjoyed the spotlight, the real pay-off was the opportunity to be an inspiration to young gymnasts. “That’s all I wanted: to represent the state, my city, my region, my country.”
Kiwan will continue his rigorous practice schedule at Above the Bar while attending classes at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College this fall. He hopes to transfer in two years and major in architectural engineering.
So the question is out there: Will we get to cheer on another Virginian Olympian? Given the longevity of many male gymnasts’ careers and Kiwan’s commitment, the odds are favorable.
“I’m trying for 2016,” said Kiwan. “But if that doesn’t work, then 2020 is a possibility.”