Perhaps the banner which was affixed to a window outside the Johnston High School Auditorium Sunday evening said it best: “Distinguished Youth Women: Scholarship, Leadership, Talent.”
For starters, there are few such youth groups that rival the national scholarship program which is co-chaired in Rhode Island by Susan Parillo, a health and physical education teacher at Winsor Hill Elementary School who doubles as the popular JHS cheerleading coach, and Katelynn Rei.
“This program’s foundation is built on scholarships,” Parillo said during Sunday night’s finals that were held for only the second time in Johnston that may soon become the group’s annual home. “This is the oldest and largest scholarship program for senior high school girls in the nation. It is centered on scholastics, talent and service.”
Judging from the credentials of the six finalists, and some of the headliners who have participated in previous years and been part of the group’s illustrious history, Sunday’s event read like a “Who’s Who among Rhode Island’s most achieving high school senior girls.”
“Remember Debra Messing of Will & Grace?” Parillo asked. She was Rhode Island’s representative in 1986. In recent years, we’ve also had two young Johnston women – Nisa Villareal in 2013 who is a JHS alum and Tara Principe in 2015 and a graduate of La Salle Academy.”
Parillo also told the Sun Rise that another Johnstonian – Dr. Erin Valenti Barnard who was the overall national scholarship winner in 2000 and a graduate of Harvard and Brown Medical Schools – once competed in the Rhode Island competition.
This year’s list of six finalists included Fallon Davis, a JHS senior who lists as her career goal becoming a human resource officer for a non-profit.
Perhaps even more impressive and a shining example of Davis’s personality was that, as Parillo wanted it known, “Fallon won the Spirit Award during Sunday’s grueling finals and that “was voted upon by her peers.”
Although Davis did not win the top prize – a scholarship and title of Distinguished Young Women of 2018 – her credentials impressed the panel of judges that included Eric and Pam Patterson of Alabama, Ryan Grant of Fall River, Shirley Picard of Woonsocket and Greg Chopoorian, a leader in the arts.
“I was thrilled when Fallon was announced as winner of the Spirit Award,” Parillo said of Davis, who serves as JHS cheerleading captain and president of SADD (Students Against Dangerous Decisions). “She did a great job all the categories and everyone from Johnston is proud of what she achieved during this unique competition.”
Like the other five finalists, Davis competed in five different categories – judges interview, fitness, talent, entertainment and self expression.
Davis lists Stonehill College in Massachusetts as her choice of post-secondary schools, however, because of her impressive resume she’s being offered academic scholarships from a number of other schools.
Among her activities and honors is serving as ATI President, School Improvement Team Representative, Class Secretary, Leadership Academy Coordinator, Panther Cubs, Select Choir, National Honor Society and Homecoming Float Committee.
In Sunday’s program, Davis listed singing as her talent and she sang the song Heaven during that portion of the finals.
Viansa Portesi, a senior at La Salle Academy and highly-accomplished violinist who doubles as a page at the Rhode Island State House in addition to mixing a busy schedule of music and athletics, was voted the overall Interview Winner and Distinguished Young Women of 2018.
She’s go on to the national finals in Mobile, Alabama just as 2017 winner Tiffany Brooks – who helped preside at Sunday’s state finals – did last year.
“There are a lot of people who helped make this year’s finals special,” said Parillo. “A huge thank you to the Johnston School Committee and Superintendent Dr. DiLullo for supporting this non-profit; Ed and Brenda Valenti for host the judges interviews and candidates luncheon at their Johnston home; and Rita Maron of Academy Players for use of their facility.”
Perhaps she said it best while emphasizing, “This program has changed the lives of so many women through the years. It gives them the confidence to dream big and the support to achieve those drams. It enriches the lives of those that compete and those that volunteer.”