Oustanding Graduate: Sepora Makabeh — Using gift of gab for good

Sepora Makabeh is a social butterfly — outgoing, talkative, friendly and approachable. But rather than using this quality to just collect friends and speak her mind, the 18-year-old senior at Milken Community High School has employed it to assist people with special needs and desperate teens seeking help.

This year, she volunteered with The Help Group, a nonprofit serving children, adolescents and young adults with special needs. Always interested in psychology, she put both her ability to communicate and interest in mental health to work by teaching children who were socially challenged or diagnosed with autism how to interact in society. 

“We worked on how you respond in conversations and how you treat people,” Makabeh said. “The kids learned a lot.”

Since she was a freshman at Milken — where she is this year’s valedictorian — Makabeh also has been part of Teen Line, a confidential phone line for teenagers in need. For five hours a week, she’s on call, aiding teens dealing with abuse, suicide, depression and various mental health issues. Makabeh said she started volunteering with the organization because she’s always been a shoulder for friends to lean on. 

“You know how everyone has a friend they call in the middle of the night? It’s me. I thought that if I’m doing this for friends, I want to do it for other people, too. I wanted to understand how to do it more effectively.” 

Being part of the program has taught her valuable skills, Makabeh said.

[Next Grad: Rachel Arditi]

“Sometimes you don’t know what to say to people. It taught me how to react to those situations,” she said. “I feel like everyone should go through training like that. It taught me how to be an empathetic person.”

Makabeh said that she learned from her parents the importance of helping others. She applied this value yet again in high school when she became involved with Cover the Homeless Ministry, a nonprofit dedicated to getting the poor back on their feet. She and her classmates assisted the founder of the group, Rose Rios, with fundraising, setting up a business plan and delivering 4,000 toys to needy families in South Los Angeles. Through this, Makabeh said, she was able to bridge a gap between communities. 

“I was inspired by this idea of leaving our bubble and going outside of our small community. We used the toy drive as a launching pad for the program. It became so much more than a chance to help people.”

Ross Mankuta, associate director of college counseling at Milken, said that Makabeh is well rounded, passionate about what she does and a hard worker. 

“Everyone who knows her is better off for it. She’s a special human being,” he said.

When Makabeh goes to Washington University in St. Louis this fall, she’s going to continue to pursue psychology. One day, she wants to be a psychiatrist and change how mental health is dealt with in America.

“One of my big goals is to develop programs in school where you would have conversations about these things,” she said. “We try not to talk about suicide, bullying and cutting, but people are dealing with these issues all the time. We try to brush it off. We need to start talking about it.”

Valedictorian with menschlikayt overcame early challenges

In the course of becoming valedictorian this year at the boys division of Valley Torah High School in Valley Village, Michael Farnoosh faced many difficult tests, but the toughest came outside the classroom.

Diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 4, he had to undergo chemotherapy and was hospitalized 15 times before being declared cancer-free in 2001.

“At some point, I was going every day for shots, treatment and check-ups,” Farnoosh said.

Still, the 17-year-old from the Pico-Robertson neighborhood never let his health get in the way of a stellar academic career. He leaves his school at the top of his 24-member class with a grade-point average above 4.0. He has been accepted to the University of California, San Diego.

Farnoosh said his early difficulties didn’t just give him a greater appreciation for the love of those around him — family who made sacrifices and community members who donated blood — but they helped him in other ways, too.

“For most of at least three years, four years, of my childhood, I was around adults a lot — doctors, and not with my friends — so I think I matured a little bit more,” he said. “I think that helped me.”

Administrators at the Orthodox school noticed.

“I think he’s used that as a motivational factor in his life to really push himself and pursue excellence,” said Randy Rutschman, principal of secular studies. “Maybe he’s realized at a younger age than most people that we’re all mortal, and he’s really made the best use of the time that he has.”

Rutschman said Farnoosh has done more than just excel in his academics. The young man’s character and desire have made him a great role model and leader when it comes to Judaic practice, too.

“He’s the kid who, when it’s time to daven, he’s down there davening. When it’s time to do anything — and do it right, and do it properly — he’s one of the first ones there,” he said. “He leads others. … He kind of sets the tone, and kids follow him.”

Rabbi Dovid Felt, principal of the boys division, praised Farnoosh’s focus and his willingness to reach out to others.

“If a student needs some help, he’s there and he’s ready to do that,” he said.

In addition to the time Farnoosh spends studying at Valley Torah, he also takes classes at the Kabbalah Centre on South Robertson Boulevard.

Farnoosh, whose parents were born in Iran, can best be described in one word, according to Rutschman: mensch.

“He kind of uplifts the school,” he said.

Valedictorian to give taped speech to accommodate Shavuot observance [VIDEO]

The valedictorian at a northern California high school is planning to deliver her graduation address via a pre-recorded audio message in order to observe Shavuot.

Carolyn Fine worked out the arrangement with Vacaville High School officials, according to The Reporter, Vacaville’s local newspaper.

“They really took good care of me,” Fine told the paper, regarding her school’s administrators. “They’ve been very understanding.”

She decided to have her address recorded so as not to have to use a microphone. Fine intends to walk to the June 9 ceremony to avoid riding on the holiday.

Fine, who says she has gradually become more religiously observant, plans to attend Yeshiva University’s Stern College for women in New York in the fall and study math. This summer she plans to study at Machon Alte, a Chabad-run women’s seminary in Safed, Israel.

Video courtesy of CBS News.