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Catholic schools graduate students who excel in academics, service

The following story appeared in the May 14 Idaho Catholic Register.

In a unique and beautiful tradition, the First Communion students at St. Agnes Parish in Weiser present prayer cards to the high school graduates who also receive a cross, a Catechism of the Catholic Church and a candle by teachers and others who worked with them. (Photo courtesy of Wendy Martell, St. Agnes Parish)

By Gene Fadness


One high school graduate helped found an organization that raises money for non-profit charitable organizations experiencing dramatically reduced giving during a pandemic. Another hopes to use her well-beyond 4.0 GPA in mathematics and science to design more appealing leg and foot prosthetics.

Still another would occasionally made lunch for his chemistry teachers, excelled in several sports and wrote haiku (a form of Japanese poetry) for his AP literature class.

A grade school graduate created “Paws for a Cause,” to bring therapy dogs into schools.

They are just a few of the hundreds of students who will graduate over the next two weeks from Idaho’s Catholic high schools and grade schools.

The Idaho Catholic Register asked all the schools to tell us about some of their more notable graduates. Not all the schools chose to participate, but here are some highlights about students from participating schools.


MARIELA CONTRERAS has had a busy few weeks. Her BK softball team, where she is a pitcher, just won district and state titles, capping a season where the team lost only three of 26 games. Then came final exams and graduation for Contreras – as well as 167 other BK grads – the culmination of a high school career impacted, but not deterred, by a worldwide pandemic.

Born of Mexican parents and raised in a single-parent household with Spanish as her first language, some might have overlooked or dismissed Contreras’ potential. But her determined mother, Maria Ramirez, and an even more deter-mined daughter made sure that was not the case.

Her hard work, spirit of service and determination made her as much a success in the classroom as on the pitcher’s mound. A member of the National Honor Society, she graduated with a near perfect 4.0 GPA with a course load that included several Advance Placement classes.

She was elected freshman class representative, then sophomore class president. She lost re-election as president her junior year, but did serve as a class representative.

She has earned enough in scholarships to pay for her first year at Boise State, with many of the scholarships renewable as she makes her way though university. She plans to major in criminal justice, with hopes of working in a behavioral analysis unit. Her interest in that field is inspired by her mother’s career as a presentence investigator during most of Contreras’ growing-up years and more recently for the Commission of Pardons and Parole.

As one who tutored young people to learn English, Mariela has a heart for immigrants and is considering a career as an immigration attorney. “A majority of my family are immigrants. There’s a lot of issues to consider when people are immigrating. They aren’t coming here because it’s easy. They come because they are running out of jobs and living in poverty.” She believes that immigration helps the United States in the long run. “The more people we can help, the better,” she said.

She has worked during summers at Zumiez, a clothing shop for skaters in the Town Square Mall. She volunteered her time as a youth minister at Risen Christ Parish and at the humane society, making dog treats for the animals there.

“She sticks up for people who can’t stick up for themselves,” says Maria Ramirez, her mother. While raising a child as a single parent has its unique set of challenges, Mariela never made it difficult. “From the time she was very little, she was always so easy-going, very understanding and very mature for her age. She gets lots of compliments about how polite and fun she is,” Ramirez said. “I don’t know what I did, other than to always tell and show her that she comes first, and she knows that.”


The same can be said for SKYLER KICHAK, also raised in a single-parent household, also by a mother who is amazed by her child’s disposition and abilities. “I can’t take credit for it (raising him),” says Mary Jo Kichak. “It was the Holy Spirit who did the heavy lifting. I continually ask God what I did to get such a good-hearted person.”

Kichak, a nurse for 32 years who has worked demanding shifts in emergency rooms and intensive care units, says her son has a natural empathy for others. “He approaches anyone, whether it is a homeless person or a kid alone at school.” Or the 85-year-old neighbor who needed help with his lawn. Or the neighbor lady who needed help after her husband, serving in the U.S. military, passed away. Or his Advanced Placement chemistry and science teachers for whom he made lunches, some prepared with Dutch-oven cooking. Or the families of friends whose parents were immigrants.

“He’s doing things for people all the time. He doesn’t see that as unusual; he thinks everyone is or should be like that,” Kichak said. Originally from Morgantown, W. Va., Skyler came to Boise as a boy, then back to West Virginia in 2014, only to return to Boise in 2016, attending public school in Meridian. But when was old enough for high school, his mom wanted him to attend Bishop Kelly. “She went to a Catholic high school in West Virginia and doesn’t have fond memories of her earlier years in public school,” he said. But, for Skyler, the move to BK was, at first, “atrociously hard; hard for me to make friends.”

However, friendships soon developed, due in part to his athletic prowess. He played basketball and ran track his first two years at BK, but then sidelined his basketball career. So, he pursued swimming his junior year, winning state championships in two events.

A Renaissance man, he was a member of the Economist Club, is into serious body-building, and into recording his emotions in prose, poetry and Haiku, a form of Japanese poetry. He was the Theology Department Student of the Year, not because he considers himself a theologian, but, he surmises, because of the animated discussions he would have with his theology and literature teachers. “It was nice to hear points of view that were profound and logical, perhaps more so than my peers had to offer.”

A parishioner at Holy Apostles, Skyler enjoyed helping with student retreats and working after school in the kitchen at Saint Alphonsus Hospital. “I like to lighten the load of others.”

His load, however, can hardly be termed light. In addition to a rigorous athletic and academic regimen, earning between a 4.2 and 4.5 GPA, Skyler did all he could to make sure the load didn’t lighten during the summer. “Before summer started, I would set myself up to make sure I worked 12 to 14 hours a day so I would have the money to do the things I wanted to do.” He worked for a computer manufacturing company, soldering cable wires and assembling motherboards. His lawn-mowing career spans at least 10 years.

He will attend Boise State this fall where he says he has received “substantial scholarships, that will come in handy, given a one-provider household,” he said. He plans on majoring in nursing or in biomedical engineering to study the cycles of the body and learning how to improve the body.


Not to be topped with unusual majors, his class-mate DANIEL KIM plans on studying Symbolic Systems at Stanford University which he describes as the interconnection of linguistics, philosophy, psychology, computer science and mathematics.

Daniel is the valedictorian for this year’s graduating class at Bishop Kelly. He is not Catholic, but his older sister attended Bishop Kelly, thus his family is happy with the quality of education offered there.

“The teachers and students are very welcoming and don’t judge you based on your religion,” said Daniel, who attends Eastwind Community Church.

In April of 2020, Daniel and other students created “For Boise” to support non-profit groups whose donations plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic. The students created fund-raising events such as a spikeball tournament, a golf tournament and a virtual track meet and then donated the proceeds to worthy causes.

For example, a 5K run raised money for “Wipe Every Tear,” an organization that operated in The Philippines to fight sex trafficking. Other organizations helped included CATCH, which provides housing for homeless families in Boise. For Boise raised $2,100 for the Idaho Network for Children’s Advocacy Center, which helps child abuse victims and $2,170 for an organization that provides housing and education to children in Uganda.

Because most of the founders of For Boise are graduating, Daniel and his colleagues are training students from Bishop Kelly, Timberline, Boise and other area high schools to take over the program.

A cellist since he was in the fifth grade, Daniel played for the Bishop Kelly orchestra and the Boise Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. He was on the track team all four years and on the varsity team since his sophomore year, competing primarily in the triple jump and hurdles.

When he was in the seventh grade, Daniel visited Stanford University and has dreamed of attending university there since. “The East Coast Ivy League schools didn’t seem like the right match for me. I really connected with Stanford, its campus and the culture.”

Because of the caliber of the students that are accepted into Stanford, the private California university does not offer merit-based scholarships.


The same is true for Columbia University in New York City, which is the future destination of LONDON MONTALBANO.

London turned down “lots of money,” she says, from schools such as the University of Southern California, Santa Clara University, Northwestern, Rice University and the University of Utah after being accepted at Columbia. She plans on majoring in engineering or human geography.

London attended Riverstone International School is Boise during her K-6 years and then St. Joseph’s Catholic School during her junior high years.

A campus minister at Bishop Kelly, London says her faith is “most strongly expressed through my service.” For example, while at BK, she helped found the Empow[HER] organization of up to 40 girls from area high schools. “We hear from inspiring female leaders in our area and sponsor mentorship lunches,” all with the aim of giving young women greater self-confidence and support for one another. “We want these girls to see the value of women in society and to know that, for them, the sky is the limit.”

London was president her senior year and vice president her junior year of Bishop Kelly’s Economist Club, which puts on events such as the Winter Formal, that raise money to allow the group to offer micro-loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. If the businesses succeed, they eventually pay back the loans to be included in a fund to provide even more loans to other start-ups.

She has also been on the board for the last three years of Wild Hearts Idaho, a youth leadership group that uses the outdoors to teach young women leadership skills.

Her dream job? Using her science and math skills to design more fashionable arm, leg and foot prosthetics.



by Emily Woodham

Staff Writer

The 2020-21 school year was a year of challenges like no other. The COVID-19 pandemic strained the resources of administrators, teachers and parents as they strived to continue education for students of all ages and backgrounds.


ELLA PLOTNICK, a student at St. Ignatius Catholic School in Meridian, refused to let the pandemic keep her down. She continued to pursue her studies with gusto and was awarded a full, four-year scholarship to Bishop Kelly High School for her academic excellence.

However, she was concerned about the impact of the pandemic on the overall well-being of people. As she witnessed the effect of social distancing and isolation on her friends and family, she wanted to do something to help. As part of her “Faith in Action” project for her religion class, she created the “Smiles for Miles” campaign.

Ella researched the impact of acts of kindness on communities and then implemented what she learned. She prayed a rosary with her grandparents each week through Zoom, shoveled snow for neighbors, and helped her mother, Vanessa Buccieri, prepare and deliver dinners to neighbors. A writer at heart, she also wrote countless notes of encouragement to family, friends and teachers.

“Through my community service this year, kind-ness became a habit and a lifestyle, not just a behavior,” she said.

“She not only models kindness and generosity, but she actively advocates for justice and goodness in her community,” said Andi Kane, principal of St. Ignatius.

Among her favorite projects for St. Ignatius is “Paws for a Cause,” which Ella helped start two years ago. After researching the positive impact of therapy dogs on schools, she and her sister, Grace (now in sixth grade) created the program to bring a professional handler and therapy dog to St. Ignatius twice a month. The therapy dog visits help to reduce stress for students, faculty and staff.

Ella also enjoys singing in the school Mass. “I feel strengthened by the Holy Spirit while I sing, and I can see and feel the beaming smile on God’s face. Singing connects me with our Heavenly Father, and it brings me an overwhelming sense of love and joy,” she said.

In addition to her love of writing and music, Ella finds science fascinating, especially biology and neurology. Because of her science classes at St. Ignatius, she has become more interested in the medical field. “This actually strengthens my Catholic faith even more because I reflect back on how God created me and all of humankind in His image and likeness,” she said.


DILLON LESLIE, also with St. Ignatius, chose homelessness as his focus for his “Faith in Action” project. To help the homeless community, he collected bags of food for the Idaho Food Bank.

“While I was on vacation to meet relatives, we walked around downtown San Diego, one of the worst places for homelessness in the United States,” Dillon said. “While walking, I saw the horrible conditions of the homeless population, and I knew I needed to do something about it. When I came back to Idaho, I did some research, and I found that homelessness here isn’t much better than California,” he said.

Dillon’s favorite subject is math. “Since the fourth grade, I have always loved math because of the connections numbers have with each other. The language of math is so interesting, and it doesn’t change,” he said. He plans to pursue a career that involves mathematics.

Dillon also enjoys the humanities and organizing school events. He also likes altar serving for Mass at school and at his home parish, Holy Apostles. Re-enacting the Stations of the Cross was one of his favorite activities this year at St. Ignatius.

Although this year he was not able to participate in extracurricular activities, he loves playing football and hopes to get back to football in high school at Bishop Kelly.

“Dillon is kind to all, generous, hardworking, and loving,” Principal Kane said.


Holy Rosary Catholic School in Idaho Falls commended KENDRA CAMPBELL for her strong work ethic and for being a servant leader.

“Kendra is a person of virtue and integrity. She lives her Catholic values daily, frequently practicing virtues of self-control, prudence, patience, and fortitude. Kendra’s actions and willingness to help her school community reflect her maturity and exceptional citizenship,” said Carina Van Pelt, principal of Holy Rosary.

Campbell’s favorite subjects are math and reading. Outside of school, she competes in soccer and swimming. She also recently joined the youth group of her parish, St. John Paul II. “I love Holy Rosary because they have amazing staff and you get such an amazing education. I’m so thankful that I have the opportunity to attend because you learn about your faith and lots of unique life lessons,” Kendra said.


DIEGO KOELSCH, also at Holy Rosary, enjoys science and Spanish (which his mom, Angelica Koelsch, teaches at Holy Rosary). His favorite subject, however, is math. “I love math because I understand it well and like having the feeling of a correct answer,” he said.

“From demonstrating exceptional achievement in math, to working assiduously on essays, to conceiving creative responses to open-ended assignments, Diego always strives for excellence,” Van Pelt said. In addition to scholastic ability, Diego is a quiet, patient leader, leading others by example, she said.

Diego keeps busy with swimming, tennis, skiing, art, and Boy Scouts. He is active in his parish as an altar server. He especially loved learning about the Corporal Works of Mercy at school. “I feel it is a good thing to have religion as a subject in school. It helped me understand more about my faith and how to live life as God intended,” he said.

Both Kendra and Diego were nominated by their teachers to receive the Hope of America Award given by the Kiwanis Club of Idaho Falls.


GIANNA NIEHENKE has served for two years as president of the Student Council of St. Mary’s Catholic School in Moscow. Sister Margaret John-son, interim principal at St. Mary’s, said Gianna is a confident young woman and leader.

Gianna’s favorite subjects are science and religion. “I like science because my teacher is very good at doing projects that are hands-on and interactive, making the class much more interesting and creating a better learning environment. I like religion class, because it is always good and interesting for me to learn new details and grow in my faith every day,” she said.

Gianna helps with Masses and events and is involved in choir and band. Outside of school, her interests include piano, volleyball, track, dancing, singing, and photography. Her love for the performing arts has led her to be in many school productions, including performances in major roles.

“I like my school because I always feel very welcome, involved, and loved. It is amazing being able to learn and grow in my faith, and express my faith freely. I love the small community at my school, and feel that it has made a great impact in my life!” she said.


WYATT THORNYCROFT also serves on the Student Council at St. Mary’s and won the school’s Spelling Bee this year. Sister Johnson said Wyatt is very active, hardworking and a wonderful person. Although he excels in all his academics and likes playing trumpet in band, his favorite subject is P.E.

“I take sports very seriously and hope to have a future in the sports business,” he said. He plays soccer, hockey, baseball, basketball, and competes in track.

He also loves being involved with his St. Mary’s parish as an altar server for six years.

“One thing I like about my school is the way that it is run. I believe everyone should go to a Catholic school,” Wyatt said.

“Catholic schools provide an exceptional education, and they teach us good qualities to carry on into life.”


JACOB SARKIS has been a part of Holy Family Catholic School in Coeur d’Alene since preschool. As Student Council president, he wanted to create a legacy for future students. With the need for more outdoor eating space during the pandemic, Jacob created a campaign to sell personalized bricks to raise money for a paver patio with three all-weather picnic tables. The ground breaking for the project was in mid-May, and a work-day party with parents is planned to begin the installation.

“Jacob lives out his values with action,” said Bridgit Arkoosh, principal at Holy Family. “Under Jacob’s leadership, the students collected over one ton of food to donate to the local food bank,” Arkoosh said.

Jacob loves math, but he especially loves creating hypotheses and experimenting in science. He was active in robotics through the Lego League program. He also enjoys theater, choir, and public speaking.

“Holy Family is like a second family to me. It is a loving community of teachers, benefactors, students, priests, and a whole lot more,” Jacob said. “It’s a tight-knit group where I’m able to learn and just be myself. I know I’m getting excellence, academically and spiritually. It’s a community of love,” he said.


EMMA ANDERSON at Holy Family also lists math as a favorite subject.

“I absolutely love the way that you can find it (math) anywhere and everywhere. I love that math can solve almost every problem,” she said. She also loves to read, and prefers books to watching T.V. or scrolling through her phone.

Emma plays piano, sings in the choir, plays volleyball and cheerleads. She’s been a member of the Student Council for three years. She also enjoys being involved in her home parish, St. Pius X.

“Emma is always willing to volunteer and help wherever needed. She’s just an all-around example of living out our school pledge,” Arkoosh said. That pledge includes living and loving like Jesus, as well as being respectful and courageous.

“A wonderful thing about Holy Family is the way that I can share my faith, talk about my faith, and go to Mass at school,” Emma said. In addition to organizing the food drive, she raised money to buy Chromebooks for the elementary wing through “pig-zilla,” an annual school fundraiser.

“I am so grateful to have been prepared for the adventures to come after graduation,” she said.


CLAIRE FREI of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic School in Grangeville was applauded by Principal Rhett Mahoney for her resiliency and kindness despite the challenges in her life. In the third grade, her father died tragically in a car accident. In overcoming the loss through the last five years, Frei has been a constant source of joy for her whole family, her mother, Jayci Frei, said.

“She is an honor roll student, joyfully serves others by volunteering, and is active in her faith,” Principal Mahoney said.

Frei has attended Sts. Peter and Paul School from the time she was in kindergarten and has formed her closest friendships through the school. Her favorite subject is math, and she serves on the student council. Out-side of school activities, she loves to go flying with her older brother who has his pilot’s license. She also enjoys hanging out with friends and community service projects such as raking leaves for neighbors and spending time with animals.


Sacred Heart School’s GRIFFIN BRADY is noted for being an excellent student and a strong athlete, according to Stephanie Ballis, development director for the Boise Catholic school.

Griffin plays football, basketball and lacrosse. His favorite subject is history, but he also enjoys science and literature. For community service, he likes volunteering for Rake-Up Boise, raking the yards of elderly and disabled neighbors. He also participates in the Boise Bicycle Project, which donates bikes to kids in need.

“Griffin has a very calm, steady demeanor, but is never hesitant to participate in activities both in and outside the classroom,” Ballis said. “He is always looking out for others and goes out of his way to help students that struggle to make friends. He is a true gentleman.”


Sacred Heart student CARLEY CALOVICH is described by Ballis as “pure joy.”

“Carley always knows how to put a smile on your face and is so kind, compassionate, and has a heart for justice,” Ballis said.

Carley’s favorite subjects are literature, history and theology. She will graduate with a 4.0 GPA. She has been an altar server at Sacred Heart for five years. She helped her class this year with a food and clothing drive for St. Vincent de Paul.

“She is a natural leader with amazing school spirit,” Ballis said. “Her love for Sacred Heart is infectious and she is a great role model for our younger students.”

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it, please consider buying a subscription to the Idaho Catholic Register. Your $20 yearly subscription also supports the work of the Diocese of Boise Communications Department, which includes not only the newspaper, but this website, social media posts and videos. You can subscribe here, or through your parish, or send a check to 1501 S. Federal Way, Boise, ID, 83705: or call 208-350-7554 to leave a credit card payment. Thank you, and God bless you.

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