Meet 8 Extraordinary Valley Teenagers—VB’s Faces of the Future

They’ve got it all.

  • Category
  • Above
    Alina Voronina, a Senior at EF Academy in Pasadena

Eyes on the Goal

When it comes to scoring soccer goals, Theo Ottosson is one of the best in his league.
Photographed by Eric Dearborn

Theo Ottosson may have started playing soccer at the age of 4, but only recently started taking the sport seriously. “I thought, ‘I’ll never play in college. I’m just going to enjoy it.’ But in the last two years something clicked.”

Indeed, Theo, named the 2023–24 Mission League Most Valuable Player, is at the top of his league. This season, Theo scored 17 goals and had 15 assists helping his Harvard-Westlake School team win its second Mission League title in a row. Last year’s championship was the first for the school in 25 years, upsetting an eight-year streak by Loyola High School. “Loyola is a big rival of ours. It was great to be able to take that away,” the 16-year-old quips with a slight smile.

Also this season, the team was CIF Division 1 and made it to the CIF Southern Section Semifinal and the CIF State Quarterfinal—both for the first time in the school’s program history. 

Theo plays two positions: striker—essentially a goal maker—and left wing, which he describes as “more of a creative position. You’re supposed to get as wide as you can and as high as you can. So you have an opportunity to go at a guy one-on-one. Soccer is a team game, but in that particular position, it’s about: Are you better than your guy?”

As for what he loves about the sport, it comes down to finesse and competitiveness: “In soccer it can get very heated and tense. It’s enjoyable to be able to stick a tackle the same as in football. I can’t grab the guy and throw him to the ground, but I can put him on the ground in other ways.”

Theo’s performance has netted him a position on the elite club team LA Surf MLS Next—and put him on the radar for college recruiters. He has already accepted a verbal offer to attend the University of Pennsylvania in fall of 2025. 

Theo comes from a lineage of high achievers. His dad, Paul Ottosson, has won three Academy Awards for sound editing and sound design, including one for the 2008 movie The Hurt Locker. His mother, Karen Han-Ottosson, is one of the world’s most accomplished musicians playing the erhu, a Chinese two-stringed instrument. His parents are both immigrants: Paul is Swedish; Karen, Chinese.

“My mom and my dad are two of the hardest-working people I know,” says Theo. “They both came here with absolutely nothing and made all their dreams come true. They succeeded with hard work and they’re always pushing those values. I’m fortunate that they don’t want me to just be comfortable with what I have.” 

It’s Her Serve

Sydney Smith couples smarts with a strong work ethic to make a difference.
Photographed by Cara Harman

Straight-A student Sydney Smith is a starting player on Calabasas High School’s varsity tennis team. Last year, she had 23 wins and three losses, helping lead Calabasas to the CIF Southern Section Championships. 

Do her parents push her? “No, not at all. I push myself.”

She also pushes herself when it comes to philanthrophy. Sydney volunteers for the nonprofit ACEing Autism, and she cofounded Tennis For All, a school club aimed at bringing awareness to the organization.   

Five years ago she went to pick up her sister, who was volunteering at a camp run by the Harold Robinson Foundation.  

“It was closing ceremonies and the kids were expressing how happy they were to be at the camp. Some spoke about being grateful to have three meals a day. It’s kind of crazy to think that there are people my age focusing on just surviving.”   

That perspective inspired Sydney to found the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Lil Dreamers Big Dreams Club, which supports the Harold Robinson Foundation as well as United in Harmony. So far, Sydney has raised $6,000 for the two nonprofits.  

Sydney’s nonprofit work made her brain start ticking about the fact that healthy produce is not easily accessible in some of LA’s economically challenged communities. She was accepted by a pre-college program at UC Davis last summer to study sustainable food production.

Later, she examined 10 urban community gardens in LA, and cowrote a research paper about how cultural factors impact urban garden sustainment and food insecurity.

Sydney was invited to become a member of the American Anthropological Association, and last year she won its Junior Anthropologist Award. She says she doesn’t work for recognition, but rather “it helps remind me that all the work is worth it—it matters.” 

Moving Gracefully Through Life

Dance is the center of Katie Chen’s universe.
Photographed by Shane O’Donnell

With her long legs and lithe physique, 17-year-old Katie Chen is a vision of elegance and grace as she floats across the stage. You can see why she is considered one of the most accomplished dancers at Los Angeles Ballet Academy in Sherman Oaks. 

Her journey to become a premier ballerina started at the age of 4, when she was living in Shanghai, China. “Like most little girls, I found ballerinas to be very beautiful and inspirational,” she says. 

When her family moved from Shanghai to Arcadia, California, in 2018, her hub became LA Ballet Academy. Every day after school Katie heads to the studio, which follows the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) curriculum, originating from the Royal Ballet in England. Katie has taken RAD exams every year for the past eight years, passing with distinction each time.

In March she will take the Solo Seal exam. Designed to assess whether a student is ready for a professional career, Solo Seal takes place in a theater before an audience and a panel of judges. Fewer than 10 dancers attempt this exam each year; even fewer pass.

“Passing the Solo Seal would be a great culmination of my dance career, but I ultimately value the journey more than the end result,” she says.

In addition to her RAD distinctions, Katie has earned honors in Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP), the biggest national ballet competition in America. Last year she won Top 24 Senior Category Classical Variation as well as Top 12 Big Group Contemporary and Ballet.  

Competing is one passion; performing is another. Katie has danced with LA Ballet Academy in shows such as The Nutcracker, Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty. She has also auditioned for and been accepted into such summer programs as New York’s Bolshoi Ballet and School of American Ballet. 

Katie says the rewards of dancing extend beyond the performance. “Dancing has helped me with my stage presence in real life—how I present myself to others. It has helped me build confidence as well. Plus it’s great to wind down at dance practice after a long day at school and to express myself through movement.”

When she’s not dancing, she is studying. The Harvard-Westlake senior has a 3.99 unweighted GPA. In college, she plans to study STEM and chemistry.

Star in the Making

Soulful singer-songwriter- guitarist Molly Sierra evokes comparisons to Fiona Apple and Joni Mitchell as she pursues a career as a folk-pop musician.
Written by Heather David | Photographed by Rodrigo Gaya

As far back as Molly Sierra can remember, she’s been obsessed with music.

“My earliest memory of music is listening to Adele’s Rolling in the Deep when I was about 5 and thinking, I have to be just like her. And I began taking voice and piano lessons.”

With her parents as her biggest fans, Molly played at such Valley venues as Republic of Pie and Vitello’s.

Now 18, Molly Sierra is intent on developing her passion into a career as a folk-pop musician. This past fall she traveled to Miami for National YoungArts Week, an invitation-only event of master classes, performances and showcases for the top 150 high school arts students in the country. She received the 2024 Winner With Distinction honor in the singer-songwriter category. 

“It was so inspiring to be around such talented, passionate creatives,” she beams. 

Molly attended Oakwood School through eighth grade, but then switched to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA). Artistically driven kids from all over the county compete for coveted spots. 

Over the last four years she’s been expanding her musical horizons, thanks to the diverse curriculum offered at the public school. “I’ve gotten to take gospel choir and vocal jazz songwriting classes. Then a few years ago, I started taking a music tech class that opened my world to something that I realized I really wanted to do, which is production.”

During the pandemic, Molly began sharing her original songs on a YouTube channel “because I was feeling isolated and in search of a community.” Turns out she discovered that community—and more. “I’ve reached people from Brazil to the Philippines. People have talked about music getting them through hard times, and that’s what it does for me. So it’s been amazing.”

After graduation, she’ll continue pursuing singing and songwriting, attending the elite Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University Tisch School of the Arts. Molly will be one of 60 students in the freshman class.

Best Foot Forward

Owen Sacchi has experienced the positive impact of playing sports. Now he wants to expand that opportunity to others.
Written by Heather David

Owen Sacchi was like a lot of kids during COVID. Isolated from his friends, he fell into a depression. What saved him during the 18-month lockdown was his love of basketball. The 5-foot, 10-inch junior, shortest player on the Oakwood team, has played varsity point guard since he was a freshman.

“Basketball was a safe space, like a stress-release valve. When I’m on the basketball court, it really clears my mind.”

Upon his return to campus in 2022, Owen started thinking about how he might support less-fortunate youth in their desire to play sports. He recognized that one hurdle for those kids is access to high-quality shoes. 

“I thought, there’s some kids who don’t have the proper footwear. I started Shoes to Use to give back to young athletes so they have the same opportunity to play.”

With Shoes to Use ( Owen collects new and gently used athletic shoes at Oakwood basketball games and sporting events. 

“Fast-forward seven months and we’ve donated over 300 pairs of shoes to the 109th Street Recreation Center in Watts,” Owen beams. “The most heartwarming thing about this experience is seeing the kids get the shoes and then immediately lacing them up and playing in them.” The nonprofit also donated than 200 pairs of shoes to the Ritchie Valens Recreation Center in Pacoima.

While appropriate footwear offers benefits like support and durability, Owen believes that it means even more.

“If you have the right pair of shoes on, you’ll be more confident, and you’ll have that kind of swagger, like, ‘Oh, man, I’m playing in LeBron James’ shoes or I’m playing in Kevin Durant’s shoes.’ You 100% feel the difference. My hope for young athletes is that they have confidence in themselves and a belief that hard work and commitment can level any obstacle.”

Alina Lifts Off

Alina Voronina has one eye focused Ukraine, the other eye focused on space.
Photographed by Cara Harman

Alina Voronina wrote her first scientific paper as a 12-year-old student in Ukraine. Her parents own an elevator company and the topic was an idea for storing and saving energy for elevators. She had no way of knowing it at the time, but soon her “energy accumulator” would become much needed.

“When there’s no power in the buildings, which we have consistently due to war, you don’t have power. An elevator stops and the person is stuck for hours. With the accumulator, when the power is off, the elevator has enough energy to come to the closest floor and open.”   

In another paper, she created a contactless signal system for elevators, which after COVID, her parents also started using. “Put your hand close to the button and it reacts. No contact. No bacteria.” That paper got the ninth grader invited to be a member of Ukraine’s prestigious Junior Academy of Sciences. 

At age 15, leaving her parents behind, she moved in with an older brother in Woodland Hills and attended public school. It was supposed to be for a year, but when the war started, Alina enrolled in EF Academy in Pasadena, a private day and boarding school where she is now a senior.

Last June Alina returned to Ukraine for the Inscience Conference 2023 in Kyiv, where she met some of the team at SpaceBox, a start-up that assists scientists with laboratory facilities for biomedical research in space. Intrigued, she reached out to try and get involved.

Today, as Chief Business Development Officer for Domestic Investment and Foreign Integration, Alina represents the company at conferences to secure partnerships and funding. 

“Our population is increasing, and we must find a new planet and resources to just continue humanity and evolution. We must do research; there are a lot of uncovered things. That is what drives me.”

Leading with Mind & Heart

For Brandon Warner, a leader on the campus of Viewpoint School, it all starts with thinking of others.
Photographed by Cara Harman

This year, with a 3.99 unweighted GPA, Brandon Warner made Cum Laude Society at Viewpoint School. That means he is in the top 1% of his class. But that is not what the senior—who is captain on the school’s varsity baseball team and who made the 2023 All Gold Coast League first team—is most proud of. 

“I’m prouder of the community outreach stuff I’ve done. This past fall I took my baseball team and we raised $6,000 for The Heroes Project. And over the summer I volunteered as a counselor for ETTA, which provides services for adults with disabilities. I’m proud of the impact that I’ve been able to make in my community.”

That community extends to Viewpoint. As senior class president, this past fall he launched a program to spotlight members of the janitorial and security staff in the school paper. 

“Of course teachers are great, but I also wanted to feature the security guards, the janitors, people like that—the cool people behind the scenes who make our beautiful school run.” 

Brandon also implemented the Letters of Gratitude program at Viewpoint in which students send cards of appreciation to teachers. 

“I think kindness and trying to make a positive impact on people’s lives is important. And that what you give out comes back to you.”

Brandon is also vice president of Viewpoint’s Jewish Student Union. After October 7, he and a friend who is JSU president at Harvard-Westlake School organized a Shabbat dinner between the two schools that 60 students attended.

“I think we all really needed it. Everyone was really down and sad. Even though there had been this big disruption, we were able to come together and support each other.”

As for where he gets his philanthropic bent, Brandon says, “I think my parents have done a good job instilling in me a good work ethic and being appreciative of all I have. I feel like the best way for me to take advantage of that is to give back, be involved, really strive to have the highest standard.” 

Mila’s Magic

Mila Mijailovic parlays athletic skill and academic drive into a future that looks bright.
Photographed by Tracy Gitnick

Mila Mijailovic may be soft-spoken, but when it comes to playing on Campbell Hall’s varsity girls volleyball team, she is anything but reserved. As an outside hitter, the team captain is responsible for “attacking from the front row,” as she puts it.

That fierce mindset, coupled with Mila’s athletic skills, helped the school win its first girls volleyball CIF State Division II championship last November. It was the culmination of a stellar year for the senior. Mila had 623 kills (an act that leads directly to a point) and 65 aces (a serve that results directly in a point). Also this past season, Mila made All-CIF Division 3 for the second time and was named all-league MVP.

Discussing her accolades, Mila is conversant and pleasant, but she really lights up when the topic turns to her passion.

“Volleyball is just a really fun sport to play. It’s fast-paced and entertaining. There is never a boring moment. You’re always doing something. Something is always happening.”

The state victory was something of a surprise, coming after a disappointing three-games-to-one loss in the CIF Southern Section Division championship match. Advancing to the state competition, the team came back with a vengeance. 

“It was crazy, especially knowing it was the last game of my high school career. It was a really trippy feeling, but it was a great game.”

Mila also excels academically. With an interest in math and science, she has a weighted GPA of 4.85. This fall she will attend Yale University, where she intends to major in the arena of physics, perhaps astrophysics. 

“I think space and the solar system are really cool.” 

Join the Valley Community

Receive the latest stories, event invitations, local deals and other curated content from Ventura Blvd.
By clicking the subscribe button, I agree to receive occasional updates from Ventura Blvd.