Sarah Guller of Danville is not your typical 16-year-old.
Over the recent winter break, while many of her friends were lounging around, watching Netflix and enjoying time off school, the teen was volunteering in Mexico as a tutor. When she wasn’t doing that, she was creating artwork to deliver to local women’s shelters. And, when she wasn’t doing that, she was maintaining her stellar grades, playing the piano and writing book reviews online.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve loved doing volunteer work,” she told NBC Bay Area. “Specifically, projects that allow to me use art in a way that will inspire others.”
For Sarah, there really is no such thing as free time. So impressive is her CV that she was recently honored with a Presidential Volunteer Service Award — a medal given to those who devote time to meaningful work in their own communities or abroad.
Although she knew she would be receiving the award – one of the nonprofits she volunteered with put her name in the running and notified her about it – she was still taken aback when it landed in her mailbox.
“I read it a couple of times and it was almost unreal to receive such a great honor,, ” she said. “I held it in my hands and just stared at it for a while.”
Sarah’s extensive list of volunteer work spans the globe. She has taught art and English classes in Mumbai, has painted murals and spearheaded the creation of a basketball court in Costa Rica and has worked for various charitable causes in the Bay Area. Her goals for the New Year include traveling more (she’d like to visit Zimbabwe) and fine-tuning her aptitude for running nonprofits.
“I’d like to get out more, see other countries and see what I can do there,” she explained. “I’m hopeful that I can work more closely with specific organizations, so I can learn the basics of running a nonprofit. When I become an adult, I’d maybe like to start my own."
But the articulate teen, whose speech isn’t peppered with “uhms” and likes," doesn’t like to boast. She only rattles off her list of achievements after a fair amount of cajoling from her parents. The list includes: creating an iOS app, founding the Girls Who Code division at her school, and serving as a youth representative on the Danville’s Parks and Leisure Commission — a position that is handpicked by the mayor and gives her equal voting rights with other council members on some agenda items.
Yet, despite this exhaustive and diverse list of accomplishments, her true passion is using art to educate and connect with others.
“A couple of years ago, I decided to really make use of my talent and I wanted it to be a bigger part of what I do,” she explained. “I think the reason I love art so much is because you can use it to express your own emotions or to get your point across. When you put so much time into one image, it’s almost like a universal language because anyone can see your painting and understand (the message) you’re trying to convey.”
Sarah’s mother, Terannum Guller, who works as a physician, is understandably proud of her daughter. In the past, she's had to remind the teen to slow down and take it easy.
“Last year, we asked her to scale back a little bit just because I thought she was stretching herself, and she did give up one of her organizations," Guller said. "But even a few months ago, she was still following what (the organization was) doing. She came up to me and said, 'Mom, they’re doing such great stuff! I’m missing out!’”
Despite the protests of her parents, however, Sarah seems to have no plans to slow down. She will begin applying to colleges next year and is focusing on getting into a school on the East Coast. She hopes to major in international relations or a similar discipline that will allow for travel and charity work.
“I just love what I do,” Sarah said with a shrug and a smile when asked how she accommodates all her extracurricular activities. “It doesn’t feel like I’m that busy — I know I am, but it never feels like it!”
Gillian Edevane covers Contra Costa County for NBC Bay Area. Contact her at Gillian.Edevane@NBCuni.com.