By Todd Martin

Special to the Daily Herald

Building self-esteem in young teens, encouraging physical fitness and supporting autistic children are among the topics of the Ellison High School Leadership Academy senior projects.

Twenty-nine students presented their work in the academy's annual Senior Symposium Feb. 24.

The research, action and service cap the Ellison students' leadership courses, which also require community service and internships, as well as coursework on leadership.

Several of the Ellison seniors described lengthy processes in planning and working out logistics as their ideas changed and culminated with actual events. Many projects are ongoing.

Daniela Vazquez put together a six-day summer camp for children in conjunction with Harker Heights Parks and Recreation to stress the importance of nutrition and fitness.

Ten children took part in P.L.A.Y., or Physical Learning Awareness for Youth, learning the food groups and taking part in aerobic exercise.

Vazquez said she was overweight and pre-diabetic as a child before changing her lifestyle and she wanted to inspire others to live a more active life.

In addition to the summer camps, she took her lessons to Peebles Elementary School where she conducted four half-hour sessions in six first-grade classes to expose students to health and fitness.

Catarina Lopez combined her passion for animal and nature conservation and volunteering to help children to educate fifth-graders about conserving natural resources.

Lopez, who claims she wants to be the next Steve Irwin, made a mascot called Clay the fox and presented lessons about the food chain and flow of energy to East Ward Elementary School fifth-graders. CLAY, she said, stands for Conservation Leadership Among Youth.

She conducted activities and presented information at the school twice and organized a field trip to the Cameron Park Zoo in Waco, where students completed a scavenger hunt.

In addition, Lopez taught a five-day summer class for students that culminated with a tour and activities at Parrie Haynes Ranch to expose students to the aquifer and dangers of pollution.

"I wanted them to know they can do things as little kids to conserve nature," Lopez said.

Larissa Reichert adapted a curriculum on core values and presented lessons on self-control and respect to fifth-graders at Clifton Park Elementary School. She hopes to present additional lessons on confidence and diligence.

She said she wanted to provide the material to fifth-graders to prepare them to transition to middle school and a wider world of peer pressure and choices.

Moving around in a military family caused Reichert to grow interested in the value of coping skills and she said she hopes her work can serve as a transition tool for students.

Vanisha Weatherspoon planned and directed a makeover party for five girls dealing with chronic illness.

She adapted her original idea to provide makeovers to young patients to helping to start a continuous support group. "I found that these girls didn't really know each other," Weatherspoon said. "They go to the same clinic, but they were not familiar."

Miriam Rousseau observed a local psychologist working with children on the autism spectrum and put together activities that she conducted with second- through fifth-graders at Clifton Park Elementary School.

She planned activities, such as a group mural, to help students interact to practice social skills.

"I learned that it takes a long time," Rousseau said of the process of helping autistic children make adjustments. "You have to adjust to fit each child's need and it takes a lot of patience."

Donnie Williams, Leadership Academy teacher at Ellison, said his students are among the busiest on the campus and have to learn to balance their time and develop leadership skills to complete their projects.

He said the senior projects incorporate five classic managerial functions: planning, organizing, directing, coordinating and controlling.

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