Washougal student honored for leadership, volunteer work

Amara Farah, a senior at Washougal High, earns state award for ‘excellence in youth leadership’

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Contributed photo courtesy Amara Farah Washougal High School student Amara Farah sits at a "Piano Push Play" in Portland on June 28, 2019.

In 2014, Washougal resident Gina Farah took a “Guiding Good Choices” class through Unite! Washougal, and quickly became a valued member and passionate supporter of the community coalition, which works to support youth and promote healthy choices.

Farah’s then 11-year-old daughter, Amara Farah, asked her mother questions about what the coalition members were doing and expressed a desire to help her peers. In response, Gina began to bring Amara along to events and volunteer opportunities.

Displaying compassion, thoughtfulness and inquisitiveness, Amara immediately fit in with the coalition, and was asked to join its leadership team.

“My mom was a great volunteer in the community, and from a young age saw her do a lot of great things,” Amara, now a Washougal High senior, said. “When I was in middle school, my mental health was not so great, and a lot of my friends were struggling with different things in their lives. I was introduced to Unite!, and I thought that it might help to make a difference.”

Since then, she’s been involved with virtually every one of the coalition’s minor and major projects, including its Drug Take Back Day, Red Ribbon Week, and Chalk The Walk events, and partnership with ReFuel Washougal, to help people overcome their challenges.

“If she was in charge of the world, we’d have no problems,” said Washougal High School band teacher Kelly Ritter, who has taught Amara for four years. “She’s once-in-a-generation. She has that ‘it’ factor — a combination of work ethic and understanding and maturity.”

But in May of 2018, she was presented with a monumental challenge of her own after Gina died unexpectedly. Amara was devastated, but chose to keep going with the volunteer work she and her mother had shared.

“When her mother died, she didn’t shrink back from anything,” said Unite! Washougal director Margaret McCarthy of Amara. “She reached out to the community, to the people who were supporting her, and dove in. She is always finding opportunities to reach out and help others. She’s a model for all of us, really. She’s an inspiration to all adults for how to get through tough times.”

In recognition of her efforts, Washington State Health Care Authority recently awarded Amara the 2020 Washington State Prevention Award of Excellence in Youth Leadership.

“I was excited and surprised,” Amara said. “I had no idea I was even nominated. The group of people I volunteer with are incredible, and I appreciate them so much. It’s because of them that I got this award.”

Amara currently leads Unite’s community beautification team, which is working to transform an alcohol advertisement sign into a positive community message, and communications team.

“She’s very much a leader, and not just a youth leader,” McCarthy said. “She’s not there just because we want to have a young person involved. She’s leading us. She embodies the spirit of what we hope to bring to the community for all youths.”

Amara said she is “proud to be a youth voice in the community.”

“I volunteer because I love to help others,” she said. “The notion of uniting a community and striving for a better tomorrow is one I strongly believe in. I love talking with people and learning new things, and volunteering provides me with those opportunities. I like the idea of doing what I personally can to, in the big picture, make the world a better place. I love watching people grow and change and challenge themselves and overcome (obstacles). If I’m a part of that journey — hopefully a positive part of that journey — that means so much to me.”

Several years ago, after learning that Washington state legislators were considering a proposal to increase the state’s minimum legal age of sale for tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21, Amara arranged to meet with Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, to share her stories about some of her fellow classmates who were struggling with tobacco addictions.

“She always kept in the forefront of our attention what youths really need,” McCarthy wrote in a nomination letter to the WSHCA. “Harris was moved by her compassion for her fellow youth and used her stories to go back and continue the ultimately successful fight to raise the legal age of tobacco sales to 21.”

And, in February 2018, after a teenager opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle at a Parkland, Florida high school, killing 17 people and injuring 17 others, Amara staged a “kindness campaign” encouraging students to commit acts of kindness, connect with others and encourage appreciation of their teachers and each other. Amara planned activities, including a hula-hoop celebration and lunchtime “compliment battle,” every day for two weeks.

“The students really responded to this active positivity and have made it a semi-annual event at the high school,” McCarthy stated in her nomination letter. “Amara was determined to take something negative and turn it into a positive inclusive celebration of the good in our school and in our community.”

Her volunteer work has helped expand her world, Amara said.

“I’ve learned to not be afraid to put myself out there, to take chances, and know that regardless of whether or not I fail at certain things, I’m going to have people who support me,” she explained. “So many times I was afraid of taking chances or opportunities. I was scared to put myself out there, scared of failing, scared of what people might think of me. I realized I have people that do support me, and as long as I stay true to what I believe in, then that’s the most important thing.”

And when she’s not volunteering, Amara will likely be found playing, listening to or writing music. A clarinet and piano player, Amara has been a member of Washougal High’s jazz, wind ensemble and pep bands; played piano for several high school theater productions; competed in state and regional events; and performed with the Clark College Orchestra, the Vancouver Youth Symphony Orchestra and several honor bands. She is currently the president of the Washougal High band club.

“Without a doubt, she’s the best musician I’ve ever had in 20 years of teaching,” Ritter said of Amara. “She has the perfect combination of passion, talent and work ethic. She plays with emotion, and that’s hard to teach. She does a great job of interpreting (complex) concepts and funneling them through her music. She’s OK with being sensitive and emotional, and putting those things out there and expressing them through her music. That’s a rare ability for a high-schooler.”

Amara said she has been influenced by music for as long as she can remember.

“My dad put headphones on mom’s belly when she was pregnant with me,” she said. “I have been so blessed to have parents that have introduced me to a little bit of everything growing up, but music stuck. I wasn’t pressured, but music was always present in the household.”

After graduating in 2021, Amara plans to attend a four-year university and major in music composition and music education. But no matter what she does or where she goes, she knows that she will likely continue to serve as a volunteer.

“I couldn’t imagine life without it,” she said. “Volunteering gives me such hope, and is such a positive part of my life. I would love to continue to pursue volunteering for as long as I can throughout the course of my life.”