by Linda L. Esterson

The old joke setup goes something like “Kids do the darnedest things …” Usually what follows is an anecdote about a funny experience or silly comment. But in this case, the “darndest things” describe the opposite: amazing children in Carroll County who have dedicated themselves to doing good. These four youths are on a path to success, and helping their communities along the way.

Ryan Miller, 17, Sykesville

Ryan Miller, 17, Sykesville

Ryan helped a fellow Boy Scout collect baseball equipment for needy children in the Caribbean. His friend wanted to help provide gloves, bats and balls so children could learn the game. During the collection drive at Freedom Park in Sykesville in 2017, he met Allen Brougham, a resident of Fairhaven retirement community.

Brougham approached Ryan and a group of the Scouts with an idea for an Eagle project, which is one of the requirements to reach Eagle, the highest rank in the Boy Scouts. Ryan eagerly took on the endeavor — to build a bridge at Fairhaven along a hiking trail that leads to Piney Run.

A senior at Century High School, Ryan chose the project partly as a tribute to his great-grandparents, Ken and Helen Smith, who lived at Fairhaven in the mid-2000s. With the help of Keith Ramsay, a civil engineer and family friend, plans were drawn from Ryan’s design vision to replace and enlarge a dilapidated bridge. The new structure would stand 16 feet in length and 4.5 feet in width and include synthetic wood hand rails.

Ryan assembled a group of 30 to help; many were fellow Scouts and others were county ice hockey co-op and Century lacrosse teammates. The project was completed in phases. First, in fall 2018, the area was cleared of debris and tree roots, and small bushes were moved to other locations. Digging and pouring concrete occurred on several other occasions over a two-week period, and the bridge was constructed in June 2019 with lumber from the John S. Wilson Lumber Co., provided at cost. Ryan raised the money he needed for the project during a restaurant night at J&P Pizza and through donations from family and friends. In total, the bridge cost $1,623 to build. Ryan donated the remainder from the $3,100 he raised to Fairhaven.

“He’s very dedicated, a good leader,” says Brougham. “He has a great future, whatever he does.”

Through his years in Scouting, since around age 6, Ryan has built sustainable biking trails in New Mexico, and participated in conservation efforts in the Florida Keys and preservation work on climbing trails in Summit, W.Va. More than 100 family members, friends and residents attended his Eagle Scout Court of Honor Ceremony at Fairhaven in December, and the Smith-Cooper Bridge was dedicated in memory of his great-grandparents and Brougham’s faithful canine companion, Cooper.

“I feel that I’ve actually made a difference,” he says. “Of all of the community service I’ve done, it never really felt satisfying and the fact that I got something done. It’s probably the most fulfilling service I have done.”

This spring, Ryan will learn where he will go after graduation. He hopes to become a pilot. He’s working on his private pilot’s license now, and submitted applications to the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, the University of Maryland and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Makenzie Greenwood, 12, Hampstead

Makenzie Greenwood, 12, Hampstead

Many Bible proverbs relate to feeding the hungry. And these lesson have not been lost on 12-year-old Makenzie Greenwood.

The generosity of the Shiloh Middle School eighth-grader dates back to when she was 9 years old and told her mom, Jen Greenwood, that she wanted to do a service project. They looked online and discovered a local food pantry through Facebook.

Makenzie met with the church council and the Rev. Melissa Rudolph, lead pastor of North Carroll Cooperative Parish, and presented a proposal to open Hampstead’s Little Free Pantry at St. John’s United Methodist Church. With the help of a church member, the pantry window was built in the back of the church, with a clipboard hung to help track the number of people taking food and leaving donations.

As of late November, 2,629 people have received about 8,000 pounds of food from the Little Food Pantry (more visits have gone undocumented). Donors leave canned goods at the pantry and also give funds, which enables Makenzie to help in other ways. She provides vouchers to people in need at the Hampstead Farmer’s Market in the summer, partners with a local grocery store to provide Thanksgiving meals, and provides grants to others around the country to start their own Little Food Pantries. To date, she’s provided funds to open pantries in Damascus and Manchester, and in Texas, Florida and Idaho. Total donations as of November exceeded $7,000.

In addition, Makenzie arranged for the Westminster Rescue Mission to provide perishable items to the community on a monthly basis in conjunction with the pantry beginning in May 2018. She estimates that she’s provided about 33,000 pounds of food to about 1,500 people through the partnership.

“The Little Food Pantry is 100 percent anonymous,” says Makenzie. “But at that time, I do get to interact and make friends with the users of the pantry. It’s really heartwarming because I actually get to see their reaction to the food and their faces and the little kids’ faces. It means a lot.”

Volunteers in the community help her cause, including restocking the pantry when she’s unable — she goes to the church every other day to restock the shelves. “Her willingness to partner with others and involve people in the work and processes sets Makenzie apart,” says Rudolph. “There are lots of people who just go it alone, but Makenzie knows that for the mission to grow, she has to lean on the gifts of others.”

Makenzie also hosts educational tours and leads workshops at local libraries to inspire other youth volunteers to stock shelves, check food expiration dates and provide safe storage of collected items — and also to protect the privacy of those using the pantry. She’s helped organize food drives in the area and encouraged other students to start their own programs to make a difference in the community. She also presented as a distinguished lecturer at the Military Child Education Coalition’s National Conference in Washington, D.C., last summer.

The accolades pour in, as Makenzie has received many awards, including being named a Carson Scholar the last three years and an Oriole Birdland Hero in 2017. She’s also received political citations, and was featured on Ellen Degeneres’ website a year ago.

“I didn’t know how big this could turn out to be,” she says. “I just generally just wanted to help.”

Kai Weiner, 10, Hampstead

Kai Weiner, 10, Hampstead

Many little boys aspire to become Major League Baseball players. Kai has the same dream, but his path to stardom has followed a different route than most.

Kai, 10, was adopted by April and Dan Weiner seven years ago. He had a clubbed right foot and his right hand had just two fingers as a result of amniotic band syndrome, which occurs when the amniotic sac ruptures prior to birth and strands of the inner membrane entangle digits or limbs. The same occurred to their daughter, Emersyn, now 14, and between both kids, the Weiners have dealt with 16 surgeries.

“We wanted them to have each other,” says April. “I can’t really explain it, but from the moment I saw Kai’s picture, I knew he was our son.”

As Kai grew up, he discovered that he loved baseball. It was fun and good exercise, and something shared with Dan and his brother, Ryland, now 21.

Despite his challenges, Kai set out toward his goal, and his parents committed to help in every way possible. They solicited Wilson Sporting Goods to design (and donate) a custom glove with a special wrist strap for his catching hand, which cannot squeeze, and they found a manufacturer to construct a custom prosthetic for his leg. Previously, he had used duct tape to help keep the glove on his hand and the shoe on his foot, April says.

Kai plays for the Carroll Rebels, a travel team based in Manchester, and he was invited to play as part of Baseball Youth, a national baseball network for elite-level players.

Eric Deane, the Rebels coach, considers him a “top-notch player.” With his hustle and excellence in the field and at the plate, it’s not apparent that he has a prosthetic leg and is missing part of his hand. In the field, Deane calls him “fearless.”

“Even to play at the level that we do, we still see kids that are afraid of the ball,” he says, explaining that many sidestep the ball to avoid being hit. “Kai has none of that. I don’t know if it’s because of the challenges that he’s been through that have just made him tougher honestly or if that’s just the way he is. Kids will crush baseballs when Kai is over there playing third base and he will get right in front of that ball.” When the ball hits him in the chest or the face, he’s unaffected, knocking the ball down and making the play. He waves off any concern. He’s also known to make diving catches in the outfield, where he expects to play more next season. He also pitches.

He’s also not afraid to talk about his disability, especially when he gets hit by a pitch while at-bat. If hit on the prosthetic, it makes a sound. People are confused, and he just says, “It’s OK, I have a prosthetic” and runs to first base.

Deane says drills are not modified for Kai and certain catches may be more of a challenge, but he perseveres.

“He plays bigger than he is,” says Deane of the 52-inch tall, 66-pound boy whom he has coached for the last four years. “Other players, even if they don’t know … about his birth defects … he surprises people with how hard he can hit just because of his size.”

In one tournament last summer, Kai won the “hustle award.” When he approached the coaches, they were surprised to learn he had a prosthetic. This year, on the elite team, the heel of his prosthetic began to crack. It’s the second time he’s needed a replacement after playing so hard, April said.

His quest to be a professional means training five days each week, whether batting or pitching lessons, conditioning, weight training or baseball practice.

Excelling at baseball is not enough for Kai, who established the Instagram, where his more than 2,200 followers keep abreast of his baseball journey and his promotion of limb awareness. He gets daily messages from people all over the country, thanking him for his effort and encouraging him to persevere.

Everyday struggles include tying shoes, dressing or playing musical instruments like the recorder. “When these kids show up in a big way with positivity and perseverance, they’re setting an example and being role models in ways that are meaningful and truly touch other people,” April said.

Following surgery in November during which part of his foot was amputated to better fit the prosthetic, Kai updated his followers who offered encouragement. For a short time, he was the recipient of the reassurance.

“I want to inspire people that are different, to show them how to do things they might not be able to do,” he says. “When they love things they think they can’t do, to not give up.”

Kai hopes his inspiration will extend beyond Instagram. He aspires to sell merchandise to raise money for children who can’t afford surgeries and prosthetics.

Caroline Cruickshank, 14, New Windsor

Caroline Cruickshank, 14, New Windsor

At a young age, Caroline Cruickshank was a competitive shot-putter and discus hurler, earning gold medals through AAU.

But these activities took a toll, causing hairline fractures in her spine. The injury ended her track and field career, but it opened the door to something greater: competitive boxing.

Now 14, the Francis Scott Key High School freshman recalls time spent with her father, Alex Cruickshank, watching Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fights, spurring an interest in the sport. At the age of 10, she put on gloves for the first time as a way to burn off her endless energy.

“I found out I was pretty good at it,” says Caroline. “So then we basically stuck to it. If you stick to boxing, you’ll get super good at it.”

Caroline spends four sessions a week at Madhouse Boxing in Eldersburg, with coach Valentino Mozzano, who participated in the Olympic trials in 2008 and rose as high as 14th in the country.

“I’ve never had a young lady in the sport of boxing who works as hard as she works,” says Mozzano, who has trained Caroline since 2014.

For more than two hours each day, she trains and spars with partner Nick Battaglia, a junior at Westminster High, and others from the area.

Caroline does not fear injury. “Once you get used to it, you’re not as afraid, and it’s really a mental thing,” she says. “It’s not painful; it’s about mentality. If you think, ‘I’m going to be OK’ and aren’t scared, it doesn’t hurt.”

Being female is not a factor, she says, although finding fights does get complicated. She’s had to travel to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina to find matches.

Once she was old enough, Caroline added competitions through USA Boxing to her training. In 2017, she was the Hometown Heroes National Champion and the Sugar Bert National champion, and in 2019, she was the Eastern Qualifying National Champion. With a 16-4 record, she’s currently ranked fourth in the region and eighth in the country in her weight class, and hopes to fight in the Junior Olympics in Philadelphia in June.

Caroline has added to her training recently. Since the fall, she’s been introducing kids as young as 8 to the sport. They work out at the gym, concentrating on throwing punches, moving their heads, hitting the bag, throwing combinations and conditioning. She also serves as a role model for the younger girls working out at the gym.

“I like to see kids improve and watch something you created get better,” says Caroline, who also volunteers at the Carroll Farm Museum’s Living History Camp, a week-long program that teaches children about the history of Carroll County.

As she trains for the Junior Olympics, she has her future sights set on the Naval Academy and the Olympics in 2024.

“She has all the potential to make that team,” says Mozzano, who cites her athletic ability, mental toughness and dedication as her key qualities to should lead her to success.

Other Noteworthy Youth

Derrick Day, 13, and Meredith Day, 11, Westminster — During a National Federation for the Blind Convention in Las Vegas in July, the Day children were among the few selected to be official testers of the Braille version of UNO by the Mattel Corp. The children and their mom, Christine, were videotaped as they tested the quality and playability of the game and its Braille markings. The children provided feedback prior to the game’s release in October.

Sara Hawley, 15, Finksburg — A Carson Scholar, Sara has devoted over 250 hours of serving her community through MedStar Health at Union Memorial and Good Samaritan hospitals. She has initiated and carried out a project to create policy binders and distribute them to hospital staff, participates in the Christmas Angels gift drive as well as food and clothing drives, and works with the hospitals to assist the Hampden community to bring healthcare opportunities to residents who do not have access to routine healthcare.  She helps facilitate completion and filing of paperwork from the patients so that follow-up information can be distributed after the clinic.

Maya Darby, 14, Manchester — Maya received first place in the Carroll County young authors writing contest and won first place in the Random House writing contest. She has served over 250 hours at North Carroll Library, helping with the summer reading program, preparing for story time and events throughout the year, and writes on the North Carroll Library’s writers blog. She also is a Carson Scholar.

Enya Sliwinski, 12, Sykesville — Enya supports One Warm Coat, a nonprofit charity that provides free coats to people in need. This is the third year that Enya has spearheaded the effort locally, and she collected 205 coats and blankets and $406 in donations. Coats and blankets were presented to The Shepherd’s Staff in Westminster and to a shelter in Baltimore in late 2019.

Jordan Costley, 17, Westminster — Named Distinguished Young Woman of Carroll County for 2020, Jordan was the Community Foundation of Carroll County’s 2018 youth philanthropist of the year for raising money to help youth members of her church go on a mission trip to Kansas City and a retreat in Ocean City. She is president of the Stand Up Club at Westminster High School, an anti-bullying organization, and also helped to form the school’s first Minority Student Union. She is also active in the NAACP.