Savannah's Heart Award
ALISO VIEJO – Paul Willis preferred to stand while telling his story.
The Aliso Niguel High student, 16, sometimes dislocates his knees or hips when sitting – the result of a rare syndrome that has worn down the connective tissue in his joints.
Back row, from left to right: Savannah's Organic Ranch
co-founder Joe Sachen, his wife Lisa and organization board member Bob Rieden. Front row, from left to right: Savannah's Heart Award finalists Kaylea Danielian, 11,
Paul Willis, 16, and Gabby Gregory, 15.
KYLE DALY, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Savannah's Organic Ranch received 22 nominations for the award this year. Students ages 10-18 may be nominated using an application at savannahsorganicranch.org. These students and groups received honorable mentions:
•ASB, St. Mary's School, Aliso Viejo
•Students from St. Anne School, Laguna Niguel: Trent Windes, Rex Pflueger, Nikki Aminpour and Cole Henriksen
•Spenser Apramian, Sage Hill School, Newport Coast
Outside a dining room at the Aliso Viejo Country Club recently, Willis made no mention of the syndrome while recounting how he helped two young boys in Kenya.
"He's been overly focused (on helping others) instead of concerned about his own health," said Paul's father, Derrick Willis.
Paul Willis is one of three students honored with a Savannah's Heart Award, which recognizes Orange County children or teens who perform selfless acts.
The award's namesake is Savannah Sachen, the 8-year-old daughter of Lisa and Joe Sachen. Savannah died of a rare form of heart cancer in 2007. Her parents started the nonprofit Savannah 's Organic Ranch, which works to educate the community, especially children, about the healthy benefits of organic foods, a passion of Savannah's, her parents said.
Lisa Fredette, a friend of the Sachen family, helped develop the award, which was first handed out in 2009.
"Savannah was all about giving, and her friends picked that up from her," Fredette said.
Aside from Willis, finalists this year were Kaylea Danielian, 11, and Gabby Gregory, 15.
The students were honored at the organization's fourth annual golf tournament and fundraiser, an event that drew in about $90,000 for the nonprofit group.
On her seventh birthday, Danielian decided instead of people giving her presents, she wanted to give to others. She has spent five birthdays collecting items to donate to charity.
Danielian has collected canned food for Families Forward, books for Children's Hospital Los Angeles and stuffed animals for the Child Abuse Prevention Center, according to her nomination form.
Gregory, a student at El Toro High School, created a club to honor the memory of an 8-year-old friend who died from a malignant tumor in June.
Gregory started the Team Thomas Club to spread awareness about pediatric cancer and raise funds for research. Since the start of the school year, the club has raised more than $15,000, she said.
Paul Willis traveled to Kenya in February with a youth church group that conducted a three-day camp for homeless children. While there, Willis met a homeless boy who couldn't afford to go to school and a teenager whose legs were paralyzed following a motorcycle accident.
Willis used his money he brought for souvenirs to cover the down payment for an ongoing sponsorship for the homeless boy, who now attends a boarding school.
When Willis returned home after 11 days in Kenya, he spearheaded a campaign to raise $3,000 for the surgery of the paralyzed teen. He made a PowerPoint presentation about the teen's story and began presenting it to friends, neighbors and others, who donated money toward the cause.
In about a week, the paralyzed teen will be transported to a hospital where surgery can be performed, Willis said.
Willis is expected to be going through his own surgery Friday on his right shoulder, which has been affected by Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic disorder that can weaken the body's connective tissue and cause severe pain.
Willis' parents said painkillers their son had taken made his stomach hurt during Thursday's awards ceremony, but the 16-year-old didn't want to leave.
"He never complains," Derrick Willis said.