NORTH FULTON, Ga. – Two 17-year-old North Fulton students living about 10 miles apart have each been named a Nestlé’s USA Very Best in Youth award – when only 18 were awarded nationwide from hundreds of submissions.
Malcolm Barnard, a junior at Johns Creek High School, and Shaun Verma, a senior at Milton High School, were selected from young outstanding leaders across the country for their academic excellence, their ability to improve their communities and lead others.
Barnard is a Science Olympiad president and National Wildlife Federation youth ambassador. It was through his efforts that his town, Johns Creek, was named the 60th National Wildlife Federation Community Wildlife Habitat in the country.
Barnard has had an interest in nature since he was a youngster and went on vacation to Tybee Island off Georgia’s coast.
“I explored the tidal pools, and was interested in all of the life you could find there,” he said. “I met a lot of great people along the way who showed me things.”
Perhaps the biggest spark in his interest in becoming a naturalist was Jerry Hightower who has been a park ranger for the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area since 1978.
“He encouraged me to go out in the community and volunteer,” Barnard said. “He mentored me as well.”
With Hightower to encourage him, he developed a “real passion” for nature and the outdoors.
“I’m just going to follow it and see where it leads me,” he said.
In getting Johns Creek its certification as a Wildlife Habitat Community, the teenager had to go before the city mayor and City Council and explain what he wanted to do and get their backing.
Then he contacted other environmental leaders in the community including certified master gardeners and master naturalists to help him certify more than 200 homes and businesses in the city as well as all 18 public schools as wildlife habitats.
That led to his invitation as a speaker at the Disney Youth Conservation Leadership Conference in 2012.
“I got to meet [anthropologist] Jane Goodall, a hero of mine,” he said.
Barnard plans to major in either marine biology or aquatic biology (the former concerns saltwater life and the latter fresh water life).
Shaun Verma wants to be a doctor. So when he was in middle school, he organized a nonprofit leadership group called MD Junior, which sought local doctors to mentor junior high and high school students about the profession of medicine.
“It was a way to bring middle and high school students together with doctors. But MDJunior is also about our mission – to inspire selfless service through mentorship,” Verma said.
Verma organized his first MDJunior club when he was 15 at the Fulton Science Academy (the website is MDJunior.org). As a Milton freshman, he reached out to his principal to start a chapter there. Now he has spread 20 chapters in North Fulton, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas and one in California connecting 600 students with mentor-doctors.
As a member of the debate club and tennis team, Verma says he gets chances to meet other students and convince them to begin chapters at their schools.
Not only does he successfully recruit doctors who will mentor him and his fellow students, he has turned MDJunior into an organization that volunteers on medical missions in Honduras. The students accompany the doctors and learn to perform some simple medical procedures in the field, mostly sanitation education.
It might be as simple as teaching poor villagers to brush their teeth or how to dig latrines. It might mean assisting doctors with eye exams or taking their vitals such as blood pressure and temperature.
“We work on three pillars of selfless service: knowledge, skills and attitude,” he said.
Verma said part of the mission is learning while serving.
With his leadership, missions have begun to go twice a year to Honduras with about 15 medical professionals and 15 students. There is even a Honduran chapter of MDJunior where students in the cities take their voluntarism into the countryside.
Verma has received the personal thanks of the Honduran president and first lady for his work.
He has received the Harris Wofford National Youth Award (2012) and the Young Heroes of North Fulton County Award (2012).
“I’ve always been interested in medicine. I want to be a doctor, but I also want to work in public health policy,” he said.
Verma has been accepted to Johns Hopkins University where he plans to go to medical school to become a cardiologist and get a degree in public health.
“I want to pursue both. So I will see where the road takes me,” he said.
Verma and Barnard will each receive a $1,000 donation for the charity of their choice and will be flown with a parent or guardian to Los Angeles for a red-carpet awards ceremony.