Jasmine Elliot, 17, of Santa Rosa High School volunteers at the Ceres Community Project. Press Democrat photo by Beth Schlanker

By CATHY BUSSEWITZ
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

When life handed Jasmine Elliott emotionally challenging circumstances, she turned them into an opportunity to give and to grow.
Elliott was in seventh grade when her mother was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer. Her mom since has recovered, but Elliott remembers those difficult months of radiation and chemotherapy and the toll the treatments took on her mother’s energy and appetite. A neighbor was very ill at the same time as Elliott’s mother and received meals from Ceres Community Project, a nonprofit group where teens prepare meals for families dealing with serious illness.
“The radiation was really rough. It was really hard on her,” Elliott said about her mother. “Eating health food is really important when you’re going through that treatment . . . It just knocks out your immune system.”
Once Elliott’s mom recovered, she suggested Jasmine volunteer at Ceres, in part because of her a passion for cooking.
“I was really nervous, but it was a great experience from my first week,” she said. “I could empathize with those families about how hard it can be, because my mom didn’t want to eat.”
Four years later, Elliott still volunteers at the kitchen, mentoring other teens who are learning the ropes. She has learned the nutritional and delectable virtues of kale chips, and she’s also learning about leadership as a “Teen Leader” chef.
“It’s up to us to take more initiative in the kitchen . . . to say, ‘That person looks like they need help with the string beans,’ or ‘Dishes are piling up, I should help,’” Elliott said.
When Ceres began a community garden and it needed a shed, Elliott volunteered to build it, using the opportunity as a way to learn about carpentry and to earn credit for a Girl Scout project. She made blueprints, dug a foundation and learned to use power tools. She also learned about fundraising, budgeting, scheduling and delegating tasks when they surpassed her abilities.
“In this economy, people are really trying to do it yourself,” Elliott said. “On a larger scale, maybe I could build my own house one day.”
Meanwhile, the Santa Rosa High School senior is balancing dance classes, cheerleading, math team, church youth group and dancing with the Redwood Empire Chinese Association, all while tutoring her peers in Spanish as a parttime job.
“I’m out late every night of the week,” she said.
Elliott also has served on Ceres’ board of directors, which helped her identify an interest in business and economics, either of which may become her major in college next year.
“Being there helps me to know that one person can really make a difference in the community,” Elliott said. “There have been families that said, if it wasn’t for Ceres, we would have been eating cereal out of boxes . . . They’re always saying, ‘I could taste the love that went into the food.’ ”

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@pressdemocrat.com.

Age: 17
Birthplace: Guangzhou, China
Lives with: Mother, Judy Elliott
In her iPod: Top-40 music and older tunes from bands like The Eagles and The Mamas & the Papas. Everything, except heavy metal and screamo.
Favorite hobbies: math and cheerleading
Dream job: Something involving business, economics, nonprofits or all three
Favorite TV show: “Make It or Break It,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Iron Chef,” shows on Food Network
Favorite food: Mexican
Quote: “Not all those who wander are lost.” — J.R.R. Tolkien