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posted: 12/6/2012 5:30 AM

Arlington Heights teen helps others abroad, excels at home

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  • Hersey High School student Alex Baratta shows some of the works of art he brought back from his volunteer work in Ghana and other travels.

       Hersey High School student Alex Baratta shows some of the works of art he brought back from his volunteer work in Ghana and other travels.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Hersey High School student Alex Baratta shows some of the works of art he brought back from his volunteer work in Ghana, where he is at top right, and other travels.

       Hersey High School student Alex Baratta shows some of the works of art he brought back from his volunteer work in Ghana, where he is at top right, and other travels.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Hersey High School student Alex Baratta talks about his travels and working with kids overseas.

       Hersey High School student Alex Baratta talks about his travels and working with kids overseas.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Hersey High School student Alex Baratta, 17, goofs around with one of the children he taught during a volunteer trip to Ghana.

      Hersey High School student Alex Baratta, 17, goofs around with one of the children he taught during a volunteer trip to Ghana.
    courtesy of the Baratta family

  • Alex Baratta, far right, and some of his Hersey High School classmates stand with the high-mileage vehicle they designed and built.

      Alex Baratta, far right, and some of his Hersey High School classmates stand with the high-mileage vehicle they designed and built.
    courtesy of the Baratta family

  • Hersey High School student Alex Baratta, 17, takes part in a traditional drum ceremony during a volunteer trip to Ghana.

      Hersey High School student Alex Baratta, 17, takes part in a traditional drum ceremony during a volunteer trip to Ghana.
    courtesy of the Baratta family

  • Hersey High School student Alex Baratta, 17, taught in a classroom held up with sticks during a volunteer trip to Ghana.

      Hersey High School student Alex Baratta, 17, taught in a classroom held up with sticks during a volunteer trip to Ghana.
    courtesy of the Baratta family

  • Hersey High School student Alex Baratta, 17, got to experience life in Ghana during a volunteer trip.

      Hersey High School student Alex Baratta, 17, got to experience life in Ghana during a volunteer trip.
    courtesy of the Baratta family

  • Hersey High School student Alex Baratta, 17, plays with one of the children from Ghana during his volunteer trip.

      Hersey High School student Alex Baratta, 17, plays with one of the children from Ghana during his volunteer trip.
    courtesy of the Baratta family

 

Alex Baratta could be Nike's trademark slogan personified.

If the Hersey High School senior ever feels the weight of his full plate -- juggling three varsity sports, a perfect GPA, service trips abroad and robotic competitions at home can be a challenge -- the Arlington Heights teen tells himself to buckle down and "Just do it."

And do it well.

"Whenever I take something on, there's no backing out," Alex, 17, says. "It has to get done, and it's my best effort or nothing. There's no point in not giving something your all."

Putting forth that level of commitment typically results in minimal free time and few waking hours at his Arlington Heights home.

An athlete his entire life, the football defensive end and nose guard is used to walking through Hersey's doors at 5:50 a.m. to lift weights and spending nights and weekends at wrestling or gymnastics meets.

His lunch hours often are spent tutoring other student-athletes in math, physics and chemistry, and stretches of his summers are devoted to volunteering with children who are impoverished or have developmental disabilities.

"Alex has always been driven to a very exceptional degree," said his mom, Jennifer Baratta. "He's comfortable and confident doing what he wants to do, and there are a lot of things he wants to do."

With high school and his involvement in organized sports winding down, Alex is turning his attention toward a budding career in engineering.

After two years on the varsity wrestling team, he decided to give up the sport to make room in his schedule for robotics. He's working with his new teammates to design and build a remote-controlled, armed machine for a BattleBots competition.

Alex also took advantage of Hersey's Project Lead the Way pre-engineering program, including one class where he helped construct a high-mileage vehicle to compete in the Challenge Wisconsin Supermileage Vehicle Event. During his two laps around the Road America track, Alex, one of the team captains, clocked 400 miles per gallon, the best mark in Hersey's history.

"Alex is definitely a talented leader and his personality is second-to-none," said Dave Wietrzak, a technology education teacher at Hersey.

When he's not working with high-tech machinery, Alex maintains a 5.59 weighted GPA on a 5.0 scale. He recently helped box 42,000 canned good items as a member of Hersey's Service Over Self club, he assists with National Honor Society toy drives, and snowboards Colorado's slopes.

His dedication to a range of activities and causes has earned him the respect of peers and teachers alike.

"I cannot think of another student-athlete I have worked with in all of my years here who has balanced so many important roles, and continues to excel at them all," Hersey teacher Joseph Pardun said.

Alex hopes to one day bring his future engineering expertise to developing countries. He became passionate about the idea after spending parts of two summers volunteering in Costa Rica and Ghana through the international Cross-Cultural Solutions organization.

During his most recent trip in June and July to Hohoe, the capital of Ghana's mountainous Volta region, Alex developed lesson plans and taught math and English to young students. He also led a team in creating an educational mural at a community school and volunteered at an orphanage.

He was struck by conditions at the school, which had no indoor plumbing and wood sticks holding up the thin metal roof over his classroom.

"Someday, I hope to return to Ghana and perhaps other developing countries, not to teach simple math lessons, but to bring engineering knowledge that could both improve the quality of life and enhance the education of the children," Alex said. "I'm sure there's some engineering application that could help."

To pave his road back to Ghana, Alex is finishing up his last couple of applications to 15 top engineering schools including the University of Illinois, Stanford, Cornell and Johns Hopkins.

Given Alex's extensive travels -- other family vacations with his parents, younger brother and older sister include trips to France, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Spain and Switzerland -- chances are he won't end up in the Midwest.

"Most of my friends put a four-hour radius on their kids and say they need to stay within it, but I've put a 12-hour radius and said to stay outside it," Jennifer Baratta said. "It's so important to experience someplace new."

• Kimberly Pohl wrote today's column. She and Elena Ferrarin always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to standouts@dailyherald.com or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.

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