Meet some of our Difference Maker Scholarship recipients!

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Kelly AdamsKelly Adams

Having a tumor removed from her head in 6th grade led Kelly to support the American Brain Tumor Association. In high school, she operated 5K runs and raised over $20,000. She shadowed and worked with neurosurgeons and staff to see how patients are treated and how hospitals handle these types of cases. Kelly plans to become a pediatric neurosurgeon to help future children overcome cancer and have successful lives.

Shirin GhorbaniShirin Ghorbani

When Shirin learned that other schools didn’t have a fresh produce food pantry for needy people, she started a food pantry in the city. She began working with local supermarkets to provide items for people who could not physically get to the supermarket or afford the produce. They provided over 3,000 pounds of fresh produce for these needy citizens and food centers. Next, she will also provide for adult day care centers and elementary schools.

Eric GeurnseyEric Geurnsey

Eric created STEM workshops for young students and presented the 4H science experiment. He also created a 3D model of an underwater robot to demonstrate underwater exploration and a wind turbine to examine wind power. During the pandemic, he presented these STEM lessons online. The activities helped students engage in STEM work in a fun and interactive way by providing the material in ways they could understand with easy-to-follow instructions.

Will GunsterWill Gunster

Eric’s promising basketball career ended with a devastating knee injury in his sophomore year. He joined the school’s newspaper as a sports reporter and revived radio announcing. He also began to work with younger students with special needs and was a camp counselor at a day camp for students with autism, mentoring and helping them to learn and grow through the game of basketball. He also worked with a group that serves non-verbal students with the opportunities to learn, grow, and compete.

Anne SefenAnne Sefen

During the pandemic, Anne moved to Ecuador and taught English to students. Back home, she formed a culture club that uses her native language to help at a women’s shelter. She is a volunteer EMT at a station that provides Christmas trees to needy families and children in hospitals. Anne is now able to assist in evaluating patient needs in emergencies.

Lina VugaLina Vuga

Lina survived a severely broken home to become a participant in her school’s ministry, which organized masses, prayer services, and training for students. She represented her school at the Network of Sacred Heart Schools and is a member of the Social Action Student Advisory Board, which runs schoolwide drives and provides on-campus festival activities. She also works with her church’s youth group to facilitate festivals, field trips, and faith retreats across the country.

Talia BradleyTalia Bradley

Receiving a Difference Maker Scholarship signifies that my passion for supporting my community is recognized and appreciated. It reinforces that everyone can contribute something in order to make a huge difference. I am extremely honored to be awarded this scholarship and will continue to live by Alex’s beliefs. I will attend Indiana University where I will major in Elementary Education and minor in media and creative advertising.

Caitlin SoboslayCaitlin Soboslay

I have been a volunteer teacher at the County’s Elementary Summer School Program for children with learning disabilities. These children often speak up or advocate for themselves. I learned to help students learn to focus, perform tasks and improve both academically and socially. I used art to help us accomplish these goals. I will attend North Carolina State and study in the Graphic and Experience Design program. I will volunteer while in Raleigh and study for a semester in Prague in order to gain experience in a different culture.

Mae GreevesMae Greeves

It is an honor to be recognized as a Difference Maker. I have used my personal experiences to motivate and help others. I assist children with physical and developmental challenges to improve their motor and sensory skills. This scholarship serves as validation of my commitment to making a positive impact on the lives of others. I will attend the University of Michigan and study kinesiology and movement science.

Hadley EmeryHadley Emery

I am thankful that I have been chosen to receive a Difference Maker Scholarship. I am motivated to continue being an advocate and a voice for others. I will continue to stand up for those who are underserved and unseen and to see that everyone has value and the good in people. I will attend Brigham Young University and pursue a degree in Biology with the goal of becoming a registered nurse and specializing in Forensic Nursing.

Jena LeJena Le

My personal beliefs and values mirror Alex’s. I want to make changes to improve the world and help others. With my experience in helping depressed peers, I will continue my work with BEEKIND, which helps administrators and students better equip students to help peers in need. I will attend Cornell University and pursue a degree in Industrial and Labor Relations.

Ohan SemirjyanOhan Semirjyan

I share many of Alex’s beliefs. I want to make changes, help others, and improve the world. This scholarship will help me get started in achieving these goals. I will be attending the University of Maryland at College Park.

Frahanco DeressaFrahanco Deressa

Remembering that freshman year is difficult for high school students and that remote learning was making learning even more challenging , I wanted to help freshmen with time management, homework, health and wellness, extracurricular activity participation, and to develop leadership skills, so I helped start a program called “Be Ready.” We partnered with the school’s online summer program to help students get ahead or review courses they’d already taken. We also reached students in grades 3-10 to meet the needs of all students who were unable to participate in online learning at home and laid the groundwork for those students to be successful when they reached high school. We were also able to reach out to other schools to develop “Be Ready” pathways. To date, the program has tutored more than 300 students across 40 MCPS schools and amassed more than 5,000 hours of tutoring.

Iris GhorbaniShhaadi “Iris” Ghorbani

I am an EMT and am able to extract injured patients from multi-story buildings, properly splint a dislocation, and ensure that patients arrive at the hospital safely. Because I can function in situations where injuries and stress are present, I can support people physically and emotionally. I also have been able to use my skills for other services such as advocating for mental health support for the community. I founded “Community-Support-Alliance,” a group that has instituted a pen pal program between students and quarantined youth and focuses on developing the ability to support others through the trials and triumphs of mental wellness. I work with the Lazarus Peer Leadership Program to address the needs of the community. I also created “Project Quarantine,” aimed at combating mental health hardships while being challenged by the pandemic-induced distancing and recruited mental health professionals, teachers, and dozens of other partners to help. I connected the program to a larger organization, the “Signs of Suicide,” which allowed avenues to help those in dire mental health circumstances.

Michelle WinterMichelle Winter

Life can be wonderful. But sometime events occur that are too cruel to process. My older brother, with whom I was very close, died suddenly. I was devastated. It took many months to even feel like I could breathe well and begin to live. But I began to have a more positive outlook by remembering that my brother had always supported me, encouraged me to do well academically, to participate in sports, and to treat others well. I started to feel more focused and empathetic for others. I reached out to students who sat alone at lunch and teammates who were quiet and didn’t interact with others. I now rely on my brother’s support and encouragement to help both myself and others go beyond their self-imposed limits to improve themselves.

Edwige GembelasuEdwige Ghembesalu

In elementary school, I became aware that Black and minority students were not performing academically as well as White and Asian students, either in earning grades or participating in upper-level courses. I joined a group whose goal was to help close that achievement gap. Many students joined, and we saw learning skills and scores improve. We then had a place for students to express how to better the high school experience for minority and low-income students and presented what we learned to the school administration. We expressed frustrations and disappointment for missed education and opportunities. My passion and efforts have made significant changes to programs at the school and have helped a great many students increase their skills and be successful.

Olivia JonesOlivia Jones

I born with a serious heart condition. My miracle was that a heart became available and I received a transplant. For the last sixteen years, I have worked with the Face-of-Heart Association to normalize organ donation. I helped increase awareness of organ donation and generated funding for pediatric cardiac research. Serving with the Washington DC Champion for the Children’s Miracle Network, we helped raise over $10 million for uncompensated care and art therapy directed to the Children’s National Hospital. Presenting to high school health classes, corporate donors, and national leadership platforms and advocating at the Maryland General Assembly has helped to ensure that drivers are asked to become organ donors as part of the driver registration process. Working with the CEO and executive leadership team of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa, has facilitated a partnership to enhance pediatric cardiac care. My mission is to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. For those needing help, courage is often doing what is necessary without knowing the outcome.

Brady GoyneBrady Goyne

I was unsure, nervous, and intimidated when I began my freshman year of high school. I didn’t know my way around the big school or know many people, and I walked around quiet and feeling lost. I envied the upperclassmen who appeared very secure and happy. My avenue to getting involved was sports. Being a freshman on school teams presents other challenges, but I was determined to find my place and work very hard. I was successful and able to become a strong player. I became a leader, encouraging everyone to train their best and facilitate a team-oriented culture. This helped bridge the vacuum between lower and upper classmen by forging relationships among all grade levels. I participated in the Student Athlete Leadership Council to which further helped younger students become acclimated to and successful in our school. I was devastated in my senior year when I broke my collarbone. I could not train or play but chose not to let the injury keep me down. Instead, I used it as an opportunity to continue helping others. I led team training activities, practices, helped coach in games, and helped the team achieve success.

Cate SchultzCate Schultz

I founded and lead the Outdoor Education and Recreation program at the Greentree Shelter, which is a branch of the National Center for Children and Families. This organization works with children who experience homelessness by providing them with a curriculum that focuses on tangible connections to the outdoors through experiments, gardening, and nature-oriented games. The children learn about leadership, teamwork, and environmental conservation. Students are able to spend time planting in soil, run around safely outside, and connect with others in nature. This all brightens their day and reduces anxiety.

Hank GreevesHank Greeves

As an intern in the animal-assisted therapy program at Children’s National Hospital, I saw how effective animals were at making the children in the hospital happier. I realized that the animals were not permitted to visit patients in the Intensive Care Unit (where they were most needed) due to possible contamination effects. By working with engineers, hospital staff, and lawyers, I was able to create the first ever dog cart that satisfies strict intensive care unit protocols, provides a comfortable environment for the animal, and enables child patients to interact with a therapy dog at their bedside.

Teryn MitchellTeryn Mitchell

I learned of situations of physical abuse of students by adults in county schools and decided to structure methods for supporting the abused students. I approached administrators and security personnel at my school to develop plans to deal with these tragic events. We were so successful in developing plans that the county now trains every teacher how to handle these situations. I have learned to ask questions, challenge my peers, and trust myself.

Roma DhingraRoma Dhingra

After witnessing patients win and lose from cancer, I was inspired to initiate the Poolesville Combating Childhood Cancer Club at my school. Only 4% of federal technology research funding contributes to childhood cancer research. I expanded the organization with seven other county high schools. Several fundraisers have accumulated several thousand dollars for pediatric cancer research and toys to cheer up hospitalized children who have cancer.

Ijeoma OkoroIjeoma Okoro

When my mother gave birth to my sister, the doctor made a mistake, leaving my mother paralyzed. After years of watching her doctors and nurses work so hard to lessen her pain, I was inspired to become a doctor. I later developed my own illness, which led to me being hospitalized. After working with professionals, talking with peers, and educating myself on the topic, I learned that mental health issues are often stigmatized within communities of color, leading to inadequate care. I seized the opportunity to raise awareness by working with Montgomery County’s Commission on Children and Youth and other organizations to bring this topic to light. I hope to become an empathetic health care professional both youth and adults of color feel comfortable coming to.

Vivian LiVivian Li

The climate crisis is a very important issue for me. I reviewed my middle school curriculum and learned that it did not have enough material built into the county curriculum. College lectures were available online, but they were too advanced for most younger students. Elementary educational materials were too juvenile for high school students. The videos and articles I found online did not have projects or activities associated with them. I gathered peers from science, art, and social sciences to create Climate U, a complete curriculum that included accurate information, projects, activities, and assessments. We wrote the websites ourselves from scratch! Climate U is accessible online by anyone at any time, and the county school system is working to implement it into the curriculum of the entire county.

Sophie JorgensenSophie Jorgensen

It means a lot to me to win this scholarship. It means I made a big difference to my peers and my community’s lives and helped a lot of people be more successful in subjects such as mathematics. Alex’s values really resonate with me, especially the fact that he never backed down from challenges and he noticed opportunities in his community to make a difference, just like I have done in my life. I will be attending University of Maryland.

Isabella YangIsabella Yang

This scholarship is really important to me. It will help further my education and continue my skating so I can continue to follow my dreams. I read about Alex’s values of transcending the situation, placing everything you have into something to make a difference — it’s so important to see the value and light in other people’s lives. I will be studying medicine at Washington University in St. Louis. I just want to care for people – that’s just really important to me!

Gigi WestGiandra Taraji-Jaden West (Gigi)

This scholarship means everything to me. It will help pay for my books and tuition. Alex’s Never Back Down philosophy really resonates with me because I had to struggle in school and not give up. It helped me get better and get good grades. I will be attending Jackson State University in Mississippi and major in Entrepreneurship and minor in Chemistry.

Tanya KambouTanya Kambou

With this scholarship, I am able to make a difference in other people’s lives. Valuing others is a principle I like to navigate the world with. We’re put on Earth for the purpose of helping others. Alex valued others and realized everybody has the potential to dream big and do things that can help others and make a difference in the world. I love that about him. I plan on attending University of Maryland and become a cardiologist.

Grace SchulerGrace Schuler

I’m paying my way through college so this scholarship will help me do that and allow me to continue Alex’s legacy through my education. His quote “Never Back Down” doesn’t just mean not to give up on something but it means to continue something that is challenging to you. It could be anything in life like a difficulty, community service, it can mean something different to everyone. I will be attending Drexel University in Philadelphia majoring in Hospitality Management and minoring in Business and hope to eventually own my event company in Philly.

Bryant EvansBryant Evans

I’m honored and blessed to have received the Alex Popeck Difference Maker Scholarship. I’ll be attending Frostburg State University in the fall to further my football career and pursue a degree in Law and Political Science. Receiving this scholarship has made a difference in my life by assisting me with the cost of college tuition and books. I’ve continued to live by Alex’s principles and values, and I hope you will consider doing the same. Never back down from a challenge and always strive for excellence in and outside of the classroom.

Kyle FritschiKyle Fritschi

Ever since I was diagnosed with cancer as a freshman, I saw the world in a different way. It wasn’t all about me anymore and I realized that people everywhere are struggling with something and I wanted to change that as best I could. I work with organizations like the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society as well as the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. The “Never Back Down” motto has motivated me to do great things for great people. It’s taught me to keep fighting for what I believe in and to stop at nothing until I see a difference in my world.

Hannah BentzHannah Bentz

Being born with a form of Cerebral Palsy was never a drawback for me, merely a hurdle to clear on my way to accomplishing great things. I had to learn to compensate with my left hand an arm, so I did. I overcame the cruelty I had to endure in elementary and middle school for being different. But all of this made me a physically, emotionally and mentally strong person. I have chosen education as a career because it will allow me to develop a relationship with my students and give them courage and persistence for the obstacles that they will face.

Kathryn Brown

Kathryn Brown

Being awarded a Difference Maker Scholarship helped me to the next step in my life; going to the University of Maryland, College Park where I plan to major in broadcast journalism. I have a broadcast journalism internship opportunity this summer in DC and hope to one day be an anchor on E! News in L.A. and eventually have my own talk show.

Kaleigh WilliamsKaleigh Williams

Receiving a Difference Maker Scholarship is a great honor and opened my eyes to how loving and supportive our community is. I am representing Alex and the ideals he lived by. I attend St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and will be forever thankful for the opportunities this scholarship afforded me and can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Blake BonitaBlake Bonita

To receive a Difference Maker Scholarship is a life-long honor and responsibility that reminds us of how we should treat every precious day on this Earth. I have taken Alex’s principles of showing equal respect to all, of challenging friends and teammates to go above and beyond they think is possible, of striving to do my personal best even in the face of adversity and difficult times and of taking every opportunity to help people everywhere I go. I believe my collegiate community of College Park, MD is a better place as I leave than it was when I came four years ago and I look forward to the opportunity to further share Alex’s ideals in my future home of New York City when I begin my career as a Strategy and Operations Consultant for Deloitte out of the Rockefeller Office in Midtown Manhattan.

Omolola SanusiOmolola Sanusi

While in the 9th grade, I noticed a general apathy toward education, learning and achievement on campus. Most students had no idea or seemed to care about their future prospects. They got to work and gave a proposal to their principal to set up workshops for incoming 9th graders. They wanted to address transition to high school, handling stress and getting involved in extra-curricular activities. They got teachers on board and upper class men to help: The Scholars Program was born. Now the program meets twice a month with 9th graders and three times a week with the football team, whose members are some of the students on campus who struggle the most.They’ve even got plans to add in ACT and SAT prep days for Juniors!

Vong Truong

Vong Truong

I am an accelerated third-year Master of Professional Accounting student at The University of Texas at Austin (UT) and will graduate next year with both a bachelor and a master degree in accounting. Receiving a Difference Maker Scholarship reminds me to be a “Difference Maker” everyday…not just for myself, but also for people around me.

Trisha PilgrimTrisha Pilgrim

Being awarded the Difference Maker Scholarship was emotional for me because people were willing to believe in me and invest in my education. I am studying Kinesiology at the University of Maryland and plan to become an EMT and a personal trainer.

Cooper Weinberger

Cooper Weinberger

Receiving the Difference Maker Scholarship was a great honor. Alex’s principles inspire me to spread kindness, recognize the good in others, and to Never Back Down from a challenge.

Erik RobertsErik Roberts

Receiving the Difference Maker Scholarship helped financially and was a great honor to be recognized as a difference maker in my community. I keep the award on my desk so I see it every day to remind me of the greater mission at hand: to change the world in some way every single day. I will be entering UVA’s Distinguished Majors Program in history.

Alex Greenbaum

Alex Greenbaum

I’ve developed the philosophy that no matter how bad life gets, it’s always going to get better….Never Back Down. True character is demonstrated when one fights back when, faced with challenges and refuses to let the negatives have their way. I lost my brother when he was three to an unknown cause which devastated our family. Several years later my mother, who had been working with Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Several months later we lost her, too. But I had seen how my mother persevered and showed love and courage and I was determined to be like her. I have battled anxiety, depression and OCD to carry on my mother’s Relay for Life Cancer Group for ten years. I am at the University of Maryland now and hope to become an oncologist to help find a cure for cancer.

Xavier RiveraXavier Rivera

Being a reporter on our school’s newspaper, I got curious when I heard students complaining about the water in our school’s water fountains. The administration wouldn’t talk with me about it, and I learned that there was no waste quality data available. So a few of us took water samples from all twenty-six water fountains in the school and I got a local laboratory to test the samples free. The findings were incredible – the lead levels in seven fountains were found to exceed the EPA’s acceptable limits. They contained lead levels that, according to the World Health Organization’s standards, could poison students if consumed in enough quantity. In short, the water was very dangerous! Now the administration wanted to talk with me and we collaborated to devise a flushing program to reduce the lead content of the fountains. The story I wrote in our school paper was chosen as the top high school newspaper story of the year!

Chelsey Zane

Chelsey Zane

Receiving the Difference Maker Scholarship has had a huge impact on my life. It allowed me to perform cancer research for Weill Cornell Medicine in Manhattan by covering my living expenses during an unpaid internship. During this internship, I became passionate about both helping those who are battling cancer and working in a healthcare setting. I transferred to Manhattan College to study Allied Health with a concentration in Health Care Administration (and continue to perform my research where I have expanded my work to include pediatric oncology). This scholarship has enabled me to help make a difference in the lives of others who need it most.

Thomas Whiting

Thomas Whiting

The Difference Maker Scholarship has allowed me to pursue a dual degree in economics and finance with a minor in Spanish within the University Honors Program at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. As a featured freshman for the Carlson School of Management as well as a member of the Introduction to Entrepreneurship program in Cuba, I have strengthened my local community and created opportunities for disadvantaged populations. I am excited to continue my work and am so grateful Alex Popeck’s Never Back Down Foundation could help me get here!

Ellie Wiersma

Ellie Wiersma

Receiving the Difference Maker Scholarship in 2014 meant more than the world to me. It pushed me to branch out and become confident in myself as I went across the country to the University of Arizona, knowing nobody. I am majoring in Criminal Justice and minoring in Psychology. I volunteer on campus as a student EMT, and I recently became a member of the Sonoita-Elgit Fire Department in Sonoita, Arizona. The Scholarship also paid for my EMT testing, and I am now a Nationally Certified EMT. I have truly bettered myself because of this award and I am so proud and honored to have received it. I cannot wait to see what the future has in store for me!

Adam Deutch

Adam Deutch

Diagnosed as a pre-teen with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, Adam underwent excruciating medical treatment for over three years. He was able to beat the cancer and is now ten years cancer-free. Adam has participated in the Leukemia Lymphoma Society’s “Light the Night Walk” every year since. His team has raised over $60,000 and Adam was chosen to speak in front of more than 2,000 people as a Mission Moment Speaker.

Becca Sussman

Becca Sussman

As President of Best Buddies in high school, I help promote the social inclusion and acceptance of people with disabilities by facilitating one-on-one friendships between students with and without special needs. We help members vie people with disabilities in a new way. We were awarded the Best Chapter Award from more than 50 chapters in Maryland.I also led our high school recycling team, helping to educate and motivate our school community in the importance of recycling and maintaining the environment. I view life as an opportunity to be involved, have empathy toward others, and life every day with optimism and hope.

Dana McFarlaneDana McFarlane

The daughter of immigrants, I was the first in our family to go to American schools. We considered education very valuable in our home. We were stunned, however, when my father was diagnosed with brain cancer and died in December 2012. As horrible emotionally as this was and as difficult financially as it became for our family, I knew I had to persevere and continue to do well in school. I decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to educating children. The Never Back Down Foundation Difference Maker Scholarship has helped me tremendously. I have been able to attend my dream university, the University of Maryland and major in computer science.

Paul Farrell

Paul Farrell

I am at Stevenson University studying Business Communication. The Difference Maker Scholarship has given me the opportunity to make a statement with my life. I am a survivor! Not only will I use this second opportunity to be a better person, but I will use it to touch the lives of the people I encounter. Thank you to the Never Back Down Foundation for giving me hope and a chance at a future! Honors Received.

Cole MargolCole Margol

I could not have been more honored to receive the Difference Maker Scholarship. My mission is to embody Alex’s philosophy toward life every day. Now at Emory University majoring in Political Science, I do just that. The “Never Back Down” philosophy has helped me through some rough patches at school. I have help two Congressional internships at the US Capitol and hope that these will lead to either a career in politics or law, and I know that Alex’s ideology will influence everything I do in the future.

Shannon BerkheimerShannon Berkheimer

I was overwhelmed to receive the Difference Maker Scholarship. I believed I contribute to Alex’s memory, am part of his legacy, and live life to the fullest. I am now at the University of Maryland, majoring in both Family Science and English and hope to work with an adoption agency after graduation. I can’t wait to see what the future holds!

Elana HarrisElana Harris

I was honored to receive the Difference Maker Scholarship in 2015. I am at Spelman College in Atlanta majoring in Political Science with a minor in Spanish. I have worn my “Never Back Down” shirt to encourage and inspire others as I have been inspired by Alex’s story. Spelman College’s theme is “A chance to change the world” and I was drawn to the school because of its mission to serve others. I look forward to continuing my education at Spelman and having my chance to change the world.

Our Mission & Vision

The Never Back Down Foundation is an organization established in the memory of Alex Popeck, a teen scholar-athlete, to influence teens to recognize that an individual can make a difference in their community. Specifically, the Foundation seeks to recognize teens who notice and act upon a challenge, injustice or need for change in their community, school or family.

The Foundation will raise funds via community-based events and other means to award scholarships to Montgomery County, Maryland high school students attending post-secondary educational institutions. The scholarship recipients will be recognized for demonstrating how they have made a difference in either their community, school, family, or an individual’s life by adopting Alex’s Never Back Down approach; to see and act. These Alex Popeck Difference Makers are recognized each spring.

Please consider donating to the Never Back Down Foundation. All donations are very much appreciated and go toward a great cause.

Scholarships Awarded

Dollars Awarded

Never Back Down

Awarding scholarships to local Montgomery County high school seniors who best embody Alex’s humanitarian values and are making a significant difference in their family, school or community.

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