Virginia’s Youth in Action – Past Cohorts

Virginia’s Youth in Action

In our first year, we received over 60 applications for this inaugural cohort and spent a tremendous amount of time narrowing down the group to the 12 individuals below.

Meet our first VAYA Cohort, established in 2022:

Aaliyana CarrAaliyana | Richmond | Age 17

“I would like to expand my knowledge on the issues surrounding the foster care system. I know that the foster care system is extremely broken and it caters to younger children (although not in a good way), but I feel as though it would be beneficial to learn more about that. Don’t restrict or doubt yourself because of potential failure. Rather, persevere in your goals and aspirations with the knowledge that failure nurtures success.”- Aaliyana


Asher MaxeyAsher | Roanoke | Age 18

“I hope to add to my personal knowledge of mental health and developmental resources and the experience of seeking mental health and developmental aid in the state.” – Asher

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King Jr.


Ava HollowayAva | Richmond | Age 16

Co-Founder and CEO of Brown Ballerinas for Change.

“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” – Angela Y. Davis



Heciel Nieves-BonillaHeciel | Fredericksburg | Age 18

“I hope to add to my personal knowledge of mental health and developmental resources and the experience of seeking mental health and developmental aid in the state. As messy and overwhelming as life can be, I believe finding space within that to try and make it better for those around us is itself a good. In the face of both global and local change for the worse, this is how good change happens.” – Heciel


Ishika VijIshika | Fairfax | Age 16

“Dreams are the seeds of change. Nothing ever grows without a seed, and nothing ever changes without a dream” – Debby Boone



Jaynae Wright Jaynae | Lebanon | Age 21

Student, citizen, and daughter of Appalachia; Emory & Henry College student body president, data and organizational intern at United Way of SWVA, and Girl Scout troop leader; Biracial with strongest roots connecting me to my Black family and heritage; hoping to attend UVA for MPP and PhD in Education Policy with hopes of one day working for the state Department of Education or an Advocacy Group.

“We are the good news that we have been looking for, demonstrating that every dusk holds a dawn disguised within it. Today we don’t burst into a new world. We begin it.” – Amanda Gorman

Kayla BravoKayla | Richmond | Age 21

“I am a first-generation immigrant. I want to help make resources (e.g. educational or financial) more accessible for newly immigrated families so they may acclimate to American life and their communities easier. It is so important to have communities grounded in principles of logic, empathy, and mutual respect. These communal foundations are what create a world of inclusion, fairness, and dissent without degradation. So excited to join the VAYA Cohort and help communities make lasting, positive change for themselves and future generations!” – Kayla

Levi JamesLevi | Chesterfield | Age 16

Levi is a Junior at Thomas Dale High Schools Specialty center for the Arts. He is a flautist and avid book lover (especially science fiction). He is a Life Scout currently working towards his Eagle rank, a NSHSS Scholar, member of the African American Culture Club and plays Varsity Tennis for his school. Levi is currently taking up leadership positions in his community as the Wood Wind Captain for the Thomas Dale marching band and as Junior Assistant Scout Master of his Boy Scout troop. Levi is a lover of the outdoors, good food, and most importantly a lover of people. These three quotes have truly helped me through all stages of my life: “It is what it is,” “Where there’s a Will, there’s a Way,” and “If you strive for perfection, you will catch excellence.”

Saniya FieldsSaniya | Surry | Age 16

Saniya is an Ambassador in Girl Scouts and a Youth Mental Health advocate. “Everyone is different, which is what makes advocacy so important. Young people with stories and life experiences, good or bad, come together and act on real-world issues. Virginia’s youth are the leaders of tomorrow, which is why we work hard advocating today. Some problems today are impossible to fix without advocacy to bring issues into the light. Some believe that it is easier to ignore problems, rather than take the time to educate themselves on a situation and advocate for what is right.” – Saniya Fields

Vania TuckerVania | Galax | Age 19

“A child can never have too many people to love them.” – Leigh Anne Tuohy




Zachary HeltzelZachary | Warsaw | Age 15

I’m representing the queer kids who have been so wounded by society their will to continue on is fading. “If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.” – David Bowie


Zaneyah “Nya” BryantZaneyah | Charlottesville | Age 16

I am the founder of “Charlottesville’s The Voice,” a youth and community advocacy group focusing on the progression and excellence of Black youth and families, as well as mutual aid and community service. “We the youth are the future; we the youth are the Voice” – Charlottesville’s The Voice (my organization’s quote and motto).