2016 - 2017 National Youth of the Year and A.C.E. of the Year Winners

2016 - 2017 National Youth of the year winner, Vismaya Kharkar

THEME: "inspiring a community to become a better place"

The 2017 National Youth of the Year Award goes to Vismaya Kharkar, who is sponsored by the Exchange Club of Salt Lake City, UT, of the Rocky Mountain District.

This young achiever graduated high school in 2017 with a 4.62 GPA and a detailed resume of personal achievements.

Vismaya spent three years working at the Center for Investigational Therapeutics, studying compounds that work to counteract the carcinogenic functions of homologous proteins. She discovered a tumor-suppressive function of one particular protein and, in 2016, set out to further research and understand that protein. Through reading more than 50 scientific papers, sorting through hundreds more, and writing her own review, Vismaya learned a great deal about the scientific community, as well as the protein’s role in cancer. Her findings contradicted what had been originally believed to be true, leading to her review’s acceptance and publication in the Journal of Cancer Studies and Therapeutics, October 2016 (200 words).

In addition to giving back through her scientific endeavors, Vismaya served others through services in rural schools in Wai, India. First venturing to the country during her freshman year of high school, Vismaya taught students science and opened herself to a new world of personal growth and global understanding.

“…I realized that I had a responsibility to them to turn my gaze outwards.” Vismaya recalls. “…I gained a better appreciation for my own good fortune, and developed a deeper understanding of the importance of service, no matter how daunting.”

Vismaya returned to Wai two years later to teach English as a second language. Her gratitude for the students of the rural village grew even deeper; so, last spring, Vismaya conducted a book drive at her school. In August, she was able to deliver more than 400 children’s books to the Wai School Library.

Vismaya is also proud to have helped raise money and awareness through the HOSA Games, in cooperation with 85 schools and more than 1,000 officers across Utah, for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

She has successfully participated in HOSA: Future Health Professionals and as State Service Vice President; served as a Youthlinc Peer Refugee Tutoring Mentor and an AP Peer Tutor; and belonged to National Honors Society, IB CAS (Creativity, Activity, Service) Council, Student Advisory Board for Salt Lake Valley Science and Engineering Fair, Freshman Mentor Society, and Future Business Leaders of America.

Vismaya’s personal achievements and awards include receiving 1st place in the Business Communications Event at the Future Business Leaders of America 2014 National Conference; receiving 2nd place in the Medical Spelling Event at the HOSA: Future Health Professionals 2016 International Leadership Conference; achieving placement as a National Merit Scholarship Finalist; selection as HOSA: Future Health Professionals State Service Vice President, with successful initiation of the HOSA Games, in service of the National Alliance on Mental Illness; and being named a recipient of the 15-year Grand Cup for Piano from the National Federation of Music Clubs.

Vismaya will attend Harvard University in the fall.

in her own words

When we say that we are more than the sum of our parts, we mean that our experiences are more than just events passing us by; rather, they are what form us, and the impetus for how we choose to form the world around us. What we experience, and the experiences we choose to pursue, inspire each of our life’s dreams. I’ve spent high school trying to find my dream – the one that would keep me restless and driven until I achieved it, and would shape me into a better person along the way.

The summer after my freshman year, I had the opportunity to perform service at rural schools in Wai, India. When I had first heard about the program, I chose to join simply because I had been taught, growing up, the fundamental truth that serving others was important. But my part in the project – working as a translator of Marathi, the local language – had felt, to me, of little use in a group of education majors, and the perfect way to embarrass myself. I was barely three years older than the students in Wai; what could I offer them, with no experience and no idea what to expect?

Stepping off the plane, armed with a bottle of boiled water and no shortage of misgivings, I was greeted by low-hanging monsoon clouds and swarms of omnipresent mosquitoes, both mirroring my unease. My first lesson, teaching science, was a disaster – being giggled at by a room full of seventh graders informed me that my Marathi was significantly rustier than I had thought.

Determined not to allow my mother tongue to best me, I tackled the problem. I conferred with my family for translations of science vocabulary that I had never needed before; I talked to the Wai teachers about Indian methods of teaching. As I improved, the students that I was able to help bloomed in front of my eyes. I watched shy students answer questions only because they could ask me to translate to English for them, and students intimidated by the cheerful Westminster College students and their English turn to me to fulfill their budding scientific curiosity.

Seeing firsthand the difference I was making left me in awe. Before the trip, preoccupied with my own doubt, I had not understood that the happiness I could bring to the Wai students was much more important than my own fear. These students regularly walked several kilometers to get to school each day, and did not get enough to eat; I realized that I had a responsibility to them to turn my gaze outwards. Through that week of classes in Wai, I gained a better appreciation for my own good fortune, and developed a deeper understanding of the importance of service, no matter how daunting.

It was that realization – that I had the potential to truly make a difference – that changed my outlook toward high school and my life as a whole. West High was transformed from merely an old, maroon building to a springboard from which I could build myself into a better person and work hard to better the world around me. I’d found my inspiration.

I returned to Wai in 2015 after learning that Wai students were taught English as their second language, and that their learning was focused on grammar. I decided to teach English literature lessons, hoping to offer them comfort in comprehension and analysis of stories in English. I wasn’t nervous, despite the fact that I was teaching alone this time. The sense of responsibility to serve that I had gained the previous summer gave me the courage to offer a part of myself – my love of literature – to my students.

The students I taught in Wai taught me in return; most of all, to embrace the unexpected and turn my focus toward helping those around me. My experiences in Wai inspired me to have faith in the ability of each and every person, including myself, to have a positive impact on the world around them.

So, last spring, I set out to inspire West High to the same cause that had stirred me; I conducted a book drive, and last August, was able to deliver over 400 children’s books to the Wai School Library to facilitate English classes. I also joined HOSA: Future Health Professionals, rising to become the State Service Vice President this year. Hoping to rouse the state of Utah to action about another social issue that I am passionate about – reducing the stigma associated with mental health – I created an initiative called the HOSA Games, working with 85 schools and over 1,000 officers around the state of Utah in a competition to raise money and awareness for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The synergy and camaraderie I found during brainstorming rounds and breakout sessions at our Fall Leadership Conference in October, as well as with the Westminster students in Wai, showed me that passion and inspiration is, aptly, like a flame. It can be spread from person to person, and every individual has the potential to start their own hearth - Wai inspired me to better my community, and I worked to inspire HOSA and West High in return. Ultimately, by working together, sharing our inspiration, and taking up the mantle of bettering not only ourselves but also our communities, we become more than simply a sum of our experiences, and so have the power to change the world.

2016 - 2017 National A.C.E. award winner, Curtis James (C.J.) Miller

The 2017 National A.C.E. of the Year Award goes to Curtis James (C.J.) Miller, who is sponsored by the Exchange Club of Detroit, MI, of the Michigan District.


C.J. is a remarkable young man who graduated from University Prep High School in May 2017 with a 3.5 GPA, overcoming horrific trauma, abuse, and isolation at the hands of his birth mother and her boyfriend.


After five years of being locked in a dark attic – often duct taped to a chair, being fed once a day and only given one cup of water a day, and having his life threatened – C.J. was rescued from the home where he was being held. He was reunited with his father, whom he hadn’t seen in 11 years, and diagnosed with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and PTSD. His captors were each sentenced to 25 years in prison.


C.J. has thrived in the past three years, closing a six-year academic gap. When he was reintroduced to school, as a freshman with a 3rd grade education, C.J. was barely able to sit in the classroom for half a day; upon graduation, C.J. was independently completing projects and assignments.


In addition to his academic successes, C.J. has become a community volunteer with Build-On, through his high school. He has worked with kindergarten children making arts and crafts at the local children’s museum and packing food pallets for the underserved. One of his most memorable projects was a three-week effort with Back Alley Bikes. With this program C.J. learned to clean and repair bicycles, which were then donated to local children.


His future plan are centered on making the community, and world, a better place to live by helping to build a residential facility similar to the one that assisted him when he was rescued. C.J. believes he began “healing right away” because the facility was setup to run like a family.


“I know the difference a place like this can make in the life of a hurting child, first-hand. It makes a big difference to have a loving family around you, rather than staff who go home after eight hours.”

in hIS own words

I’m Curtis James Miller, a young man who is making tremendous progress in overcoming the horrific trauma and sexual abuse I endured at the hands of my birth mother and her psychotic boyfriend. For five years (between the ages of 10-15 years of age), I was locked in an attic with the windows covered, tarps and a mattress on the floor. I was often duct taped to a chair for days at a time, and was only allowed to east once a day and given one cup of water to drink. I was taken to the bathroom once daily, sometimes having to use the toilet with my hands and feet duct taped. I had no individual freedom and I had to do exactly as I was told or suffer the unpleasant consequences. I had to ask permission for everything. I was told I could not go outside or look out of the window or I would be killed. I endured this inhumane treatment for five long years until one day there was a knock at the door and the police along with Child Protective Services came to investigate an abuse complaint they had received.

To their horror when they went upstairs to the attic, there I was – dirty, skinny and dehydrated with only my undershorts on. I was taken immediately to the local hospital for evaluation and treatment. I was diagnosed with ADHD, ASD, and PTSD. My mother and her boyfriend were arrested and convicted of child physical, emotional, and sexual abuse along with torture. They each received 25-year sentences.

The good news is I was reunited with my birth father who I hadn’t seen for 11 years (my mother took me away from him and we relocated to Marquette, MI). I was so happy to move in with my dad and new stepmother in Detroit. They found an awesome school for me to attend, where the staff embraced me and helped me a lot. I needed a lot of help because I hadn’t been to school since the 3rd grade and I was placed in the 9th grade. I was a very good reader since that was one of the few things I was allowed to do while in the attic. Within three short years, I progressed from hardly being able to sit in school for half a day and not doing the school assignments to being in school all day and completing assignments with assistance to now doing most of my assignments and projects on my own. I’m proud to say my GPA is 3.5 and I’ll graduate from University Prep High School in May 2017 with a diploma. (When I first came to school I was on a certificate of completion, but since I’ve done so well I can graduate with a diploma now!!!)  

Because I was isolated from people for five years, my social interaction is very awkward but I continue to embrace life with joy and great enthusiasm.

I’m most proud of volunteering with Build-On, which is a community service organization at my high school. I’m very happy that even though I am autistic, they welcomed me to participate in the various projects they sponsored. My first activity was helping kindergarten kids at the Children’s Museum making arts and crafts. I had a lot of fun helping someone else.

Our next project was Gleaners Food Bank. I went there and helped to pack five pallets of food to be taken to people who didn’t have much food to eat. I was part of a team – we each had one job to do to accomplish the task in the most efficient way. I did a good job in following directions (this is a big deal because I usually want to do things my way).

The highlight of my summer was after summer school for three weeks, Monday-Friday I worked at Back Alley Bikes. They taught me how to repair and clean bikes, then they would donate them to kids. I love working with my hands so this was awesome to me. I wanted to keep working there during the regular school year but that didn’t work out. I learned it is so wonderful to be open to learning new things especially when it can help someone else. I am extremely proud of the work I’ve done with Build-On so I’m going to continue to work with them throughout this my senior year of high school.

My future plans for making my community and the world a better place to live would be to build a residential facility with a program like the one I was placed in when I was rescued from my abusive mother and her boyfriend in Marquette, MI, called Teaching Family Homes. Even though it was a residential facility for abused and delinquent kids, it was run like a home with house parents. We had chores to do every day, ate meals together, and had to be kind to one another.

When DHS was looking to transfer me to Detroit, they couldn’t find a facility like the one I was in in Marquette. Because the facility was set up and run like a family, I was able to begin healing right away. I want this type of environment for other kids who have been hurt and abused, so they can feel love and cared for – then they can become loving, caring adults and not repeat the abuse that happened to them. Breaking this abuse cycle will make my community and the word a safer and nicer place to live. I know the difference a place like this can make in the life of a hurting child first hand.  It makes a big difference to have a loving family around you rather than staff who go home after eight hours. The other thing that made the difference with this facility was the community embraced it and the children.