7 Chattanooga teenagers blazing the way to a brighter future

E.E. Cummings once said, "It takes courage to grow up and become who you are."

Although parents might look back on their teen years with fondness, they wouldn't want to repeat them. It's a decade filled with mood swings in extreme -- the best of friends, the worst of breakups -- all navigated today with the additional distractions and critiques of social media.

The seven teens featured here exemplify what is promising about the next generation. They display curious minds, are independent thinkers, find joy in service and are able to articulate their beliefs. These distinguished teens are shaping up to be leaders of Generation Z.

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Emily Patterson, 14, at Sweet Caroline Cheesecakes in Cleveland, Tenn.

Emily Caroline Patterson

School: Cleveland Middle School 

Age: 14

Parents: Brian and Laura Patterson

Career goal: To earn a business degree and franchise her cheesecake shops

With a lot of free time on her hands, while quarantining during the 2020 pandemic, Emily Patterson was a bored sixth-grader looking for something to do. A fan of Food Network shows, she started baking cakes as a hobby.

"We'd go to dinner every Sunday at Nana's with my cousins, and I would always bring a cake for dessert," Emily says.

Then her brother asked if she could make his favorite, a cheesecake. Up for the challenge, she researched recipes, made some tweaks and developed her own recipe.

And it was good!

After a family friend sampled one, he asked if he could buy one from her. Then he came back the next week for another. As word spread and orders began to come in, Emily thought maybe she could make enough to buy that $400 KitchenAid stand mixer she wanted.

In no time, Emily had surpassed $1,000. She and her mom baked and filled orders every night at home. During the pandemic, cheesecakes were delivered to customer doorsteps or could be picked up at the Patterson door.

Soon the Pattersons realized their cheesecake company had outgrown their home kitchen. They began looking for a kitchen that would meet public health requirements and found it in Bradley Square Mall. When they opened Sweet Caroline Cheesecakes in August 2021, more than 600 customers passed through their doors on opening day.

" It turned into organized chaos because we had never run a business before," laughs Brian Patterson.

The business was profitable enough that the Pattersons were able to quit their jobs (he was a middle school teacher, and she was a school nurse) to focus on the new company. Emily, then 13, helped out whenever possible.

The business has continued to grow and has moved into a larger location in Cleveland on Frontage Road, with 15 employees. Emily's original recipe is still used but has been expanded into 30 flavors. Her dad says they draw customers from around the area.

"We even had a woman drive down from Indianapolis to buy one."

Brian Patterson says the business sold 150,000 (plus or minus 5,000) cheesecakes in all sizes during 2022. That figure does not include individual sales at festivals in which they participated.

Emily, now an eighth-grader at Cleveland Middle School, no longer works in the store, although she is known as its founder. And she still bakes cheesecakes at home for friends.

The Cleveland athlete has traded batter for batting. Emily pitches on the school softball team and an AAU summer travel team. She also plays on the school volleyball and basketball teams as well as an AAU basketball team.

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Anya Parambath, who was elected governor of girls state, in the GPS library.

Anya Parambath

School: Girls Preparatory School

Age: 17

Parents: Riju Parambath and Sangeetha Chandran

Career goal: To go into medicine

Anya Parambath has a goal of becoming an oncological surgeon who works in medical legislation.

It's a career path for which the Girls Preparatory School senior began laying the groundwork in sixth grade.

For the past six years, Anya has entered the Chattanooga Regional Science Fair, always placing in the top three. In her last entry, she won first in the Biomedical and Health Sciences division and second in the overall fair.

That win caused her to advance to the Regeneron International Science Fair in Atlanta, where she competed with students from 68 countries.

Anya's entry was an artificial intelligence algorithm that would classify whether a mole or other skin anomaly was benign or malignant, an obvious benefit in the early detection of cancer.

Although she did not win, her work caught the attention of a judge who was an AI developer in the field of cancer research, who encouraged her studies.

Summer 2022 marked a milestone in another aspect of her career path as well.

Anya was one of six GPS students elected as delegates to Girls State.

Girls State is a weeklong civics lesson in how government operates with high school delegates across the state convening to learn to campaign, elect city and state officials, write bills and pass legislation in their mock legislature.

Anya was elected governor of Girls State, its highest office. As such, she read bills, signed or vetoed them and presented them to the body of delegates.

As governor, Anya and a Nashville Girls State delegate advanced to Girls Nation as senators representing Tennessee. There, Anya ran for U.S. president and lost by one vote.

"It was a learning experience," she says of her political practice. "We had quite controversial topics -- gun control, a lot of environmental policy, firearm policies in schools and reproductive rights."

Anya will return to Girls State this summer as presiding governor until new state officials are elected.

"Anya has wide-ranging passions and curiosities -- medical science and engineering, dance, mock trial, Spanish language and culture and more -- and she weaves them together both in and outside of her challenging course load," says GPS Head of Upper School Beth Wilson.

"Anya is curious and looks at problems from many angles in order to find a solution. She asks good questions and won't stop until she has an answer. A thoughtful, dynamic leader, Anya has earned the respect of peers and adults alike through her optimism, creativity and determination," Wilson says.

At GPS, Anya is president of Terpsichord dance ensemble, Mock Trial president, member of Cum Laude honor society and was elected by her peers to the May Court. She understands five languages, speaks three and is currently learning Malayalam.

It's no surprise then that such a wide-ranging resume would catch the attention of the selection committee for the 2023 class of Coca-Cola Scholars. More than 91,000 students around the country applied, and 1,557 were named semi-finalists.

Anya is the only Chattanoogan named a semi-finalist for the prestigious $20,000 scholarship, and one of 17 in the state. Coca-Cola will announce 150 winners this month.

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Trinity Williams, one of 12 girls in the country selected to the National Girls Inc. Advisory Board

Trinity Williams

School: Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences

Age: 17

Parent: Willia Williams

Career goal: To become a criminal defense attorney

Trinity Williams began participating in Girls Inc. of Chattanooga activities when she was 6 years old.

"It was just fun," she says of her elementary-age experiences.

But as she grew, she found that Girls Inc. "had somebody to listen and provide you with good advice."

Now the junior at CSAS has become an adviser to her peers. Trinity is one of six high school teens on Girls Inc.'s Impact council.

"[We] learn about issues affecting the community and teach our peers about them so they can advocate for others," she describes. Topics range from school funding and vaping to teen pregnancy and reproductive health.

"Trinity is patient, uplifting, fun, creative, selfless and caring. She helps others before she helps herself. She motivates other Girls Inc. girls to stand up for what is right and to stand up for themselves," says Toccora Johnson-Petersen, Girls Inc. of Chattanooga chief executive officer.

The CEO encouraged Trinity to apply for a seat on the Girls Inc. National Teen Advocacy Council. Trinity is one of 12 girls from all the Girls Inc. programs in the country selected for the prestigious group.

While the local council meets every Monday, the national one holds monthly Zoom meetings. Trinity says they will meet in person at this summer's Fly-in in Washington, D. C. In the capital, they will learn lobbying tips and meet with state and national officials.

"Having Trinity on the National Teen Advocacy Council provides our girls with access to a wider range of expertise, support and resources and a direct line to national advocates. It gives girls hands-on experience and the opportunity to explore advocacy and politics as well," says Johnson-Petersen.

Trinity is just as involved in her school as she is Girls Inc.

She is a Girl Scout and member of the volleyball team, Paideia, Model UN, Student Government Association, principal's advisory board, Urban League National Achiever's Society and Hamilton County Youth Court.

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Gavin Dempsey, 15, left, and Garrett, 18, of Ringgold, at the Ronald McDonald House

Garrett and Gavin Dempsey

School: Oakwood Christian Academy

Ages: Garrett, 18; Gavin, 15

Parents: Danny and Jana Dempsey

Career goals: Undecided

Garrett Dempsey was 5 years old when he spent his first volunteer shift at the Ronald McDonald House.

Actually, his parents were the volunteers, working a three-hour shift every third Sunday -- and where his parents went, so did he.

"I would go around the house doing chores with my mom," he recalls of those early visits. "But it didn't take me too long to figure out the house was important. By 7, I'd realized how it was needed."

Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Chattanooga offers a home away from home for families of hospitalized children. A place to grab a hot meal, a shower or sleep without being more than a few minutes away from their child.

Danny and Jana Dempsey stayed in the Ronald McDonald House for four weeks in 2010, when their third son, Garrison, was born nine weeks early.

"We realized it was a blessing. We vowed after we got home and got settled, we would help any way we could. We started volunteering before a year was out," Danny Dempsey says.

With the birth of sons Gavin and Garrison, then later the adoption of a daughter, the Dempsey volunteer shift was a family effort. Over 13 years of volunteering, Garrett says he came to know and love all the staff.

"Garrett and Gavin grew up in this house," says Tiffany Drew Commons, Ronald McDonald House vice president of development. "The Dempseys also worked as needed as weekend managers from 8 p.m. Friday ... to 3 p.m. Sunday. They have volunteered at Day of Change and our Run for Kids. The Dempseys have been very faithful to our organization."

As the boys grew older, they could have opted out, but didn't. Volunteering had been instilled in them.

Garrett organized his first fundraiser in fifth grade -- a service project with the student council to collect items on the house pantry wish list and deliver them to the house where students were given a tour.

Garrett and Gavin have volunteered at three Day of Change events, standing for three hours in the drive-thru of the Chickamauga, Georgia, McDonald's to collect spare change from customers in a bucket. The Dempseys have twice led runners in the Run for Kids race. The Dempseys have spoken to groups about the house, organized pantry drives and dependably worked volunteer shifts. The only break they've taken in more than a decade was during COVID quarantine.

At their school, Garrett and Gavin are involved in soccer, basketball, golf, chorus and the fine arts programs. Garrett is a spiritual leadership small group leader, and the brothers work together in a lawn care business.

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Maggi Creel in the sensory garden she made at Cleveland Middle School in Cleveland, Tenn.

Maggi Creel

School: Cleveland High School

Age: 14

Parents: Ali and John Paul Creel

Career goal: To become a teacher

Maggi Creel was working toward becoming the newest Eagle Scout in Boy Scout Troop 1444 when a former teacher asked her help in building a specific garden for her special education students at Cleveland Middle School.

Maggi had volunteered as a peer tutor for students in Karen Bunch's extended resources special education class. She explained to Maggi that a sensory garden would teach her students job skills, life skills and better nutrition.

The idea took root with Maggi and she wrote a proposal for the garden for her Eagle Scout community service project, which is required of any Scout before earning Eagle rank.

Maggi researched and designed five beds to match the five senses. She bought vegetables for taste, vibrant sunflowers for sight, sage and other aromatic plants for smell, plants with glossy leaves and other textures for touch and wind chimes for sound. Each raised bed contained a self-watering system so plants wouldn't die over school breaks.

Then Maggi set her plan into motion with donations of materials and $800 cash. Home Depot in Fort Oglethorpe donated all needed wood, Jackie Evans donated a load of mulch and a Scout leader donated a load of manure. Lowes gave her a discount on plants. And three Scouts helped her cut the wood and build the garden beds. They were installed on Cleveland Middle School grounds between the seventh- and eighth-grade halls.

The feedback was immediate and positive.

"Some students were very particular about what they would eat. One wouldn't eat salad inside school, but he would eat kale from the garden. It taught him to wash plants before eating them," says Maggi.

"The students learn to plant seeds during winter and replant the seedlings into the garden in spring," she describes, teaching life skills in gardening and sense of responsibility for the garden's ongoing use.

Maggi is the sixth female to earn Eagle in the Cherokee Area Council of Boy Scouts. She has 45 Merit Badges, four Eagle Palms, is a member of the ceremonies team in Order of the Arrow and a member of Venturing Crew 2125.

At Cleveland High, the freshman plays clarinet in marching and concert band. She played "Miss Hannigan" in last year's production of "Annie" and is a member of Beta Club.

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Aaron Williams, a volunteer for Tennessee Aquarium summer camps, inside of the aquarium

Aaron Williams

School: Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences

Age: 15

Parents: Tonya and Roosevelt Williams

Career goal: To become a computer engineer

Parents of youth ages 11 to 14 know the challenge of scheduling interesting summer activities. The kids declare themselves too old for camps, but they aren't old enough to go to work.

Teenager Aaron Williams solved this dilemma last summer by volunteering. He logged 148 hours volunteering in summer camps and a winter break camp at the Tennessee Aquarium. And in the process of being of service to others, he discovered a new passion of his own.

Aaron was one of 15 teens working as a camp counselor. He describes his job as "an extra set of eyes and hands" for the adult counselors.

"I helped set up activities, build crafts. We had different themes the kids learned about. We had animal encounters where we learned about animal environments, what they ate and got to touch some of them.

"I loved it. I want to do it again next summer."

"Aaron was a friend to all campers," says Jen Collier, Tennessee Aquarium manager of learning and engagement. "He has contagious energy and is always smiling. He was willing to help with whatever we needed and the campers were drawn to him. He is an absolutely amazing youth in our community."

Not only did Aaron's camp stint develop his interest in volunteer work, but it will make a nice addition to his college resume -- another in a growing list of school extracurriculars.

Aaron is third baseman and an outfielder for the CSAS baseball team. He plays trombone in the band, is an advisory rep in the Student Government Association, member of Technological Student Association and the ACE Program (architectural, construction and engineering interest club).