Catholic teen heralded an international hero

  • December 17, 2007

{mosimage}Kayla Cornale has gone from being her younger cousin Lorena’s hero to hero in the eyes of the global community. The 17-year-old was featured on CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute aired live globally on Dec. 6 from the American Museum of Natural History in New York for creating a learning program using music to help autistic children communicate called Sounds into Syllables

This is the first CNN heroes’ award show to recognize unsung heroes.

Between May and September viewers in 80 countries sent in more than 7,000 nominations highlighting ordinary people from 90 nations who had accomplished extraordinary things. Cornale’s former Grade 7 and 8 science teacher at St. Paul Catholic Elementary School in Burlington, Ont., nominated her. 

“She’s an incredible student doing an incredible job opening up the communication for autistic children,” said Kathy Perino.

Perino acted as project supervisor for Sounds into Syllables since Cornale started the project in Grade 8 until she graduated high school last spring. 

It’s been an amazing experience to watch Cornale grow, said the science teacher, who was named the 2007 Educator of the Year by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association’s Halton Elementary Unit.

“ ‘God saw that it was good’ is the theme for the (Halton) board and Kayla sees that,” said Perino. “I guess you can’t get more holier than that.” 

Eighteen finalists in six categories received $10,000 and Cornale, the only Canadian nominated, was one of six finalists selected by a panel including Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, singers Peter Gabriel and Jewel, among others, to receive an additional $25,000.

Singer Harry Connick Jr. presented Cornale with her award. During her acceptance speech Cornale said “the very generous award” would come in handy to computerize the programming she has already developed, reported the Burlington Post. 

Cornale graduated from Assumption Catholic Secondary School in Burlington before starting her first year of undergraduate studies at Stanford University in California this fall. There she is also working with a linguistics professor who studies early childhood language development. 

Cornale came up with Sounds into Syllables because she wanted to communicate better with her autistic cousin, Lorena. After noticing her cousin’s ability to memorize songs, Cornale assigned each letter of the alphabet to a different key on the piano, linking language to sound. They worked together for a year until Lorena had mastered the alphabet, then they moved to the computer keyboard where Cornale had now added pictures on the screen along with the sounds. Sounds into Syllables is currently being piloted with three Ontario school boards.

Awards are nothing new for this teen. In the past Cornale has won the 2006 Youth in Motion Top 20 under 20 award, a national award honouring young Canadians who have shown a high level of innovation, leadership and achievement before the age of 20. She was also one of 19 students invited to represent Canada at the 2005 and 2006 Intel International Science and Engineering fairs in Arizona and India.

During the award ceremony Cornale struck up a friendship with another Catholic among the top six finalists, Sr. Rosemary Nyirumbe from Uganda. 

“She really got to know all these people, but especially the nun,” said Perino. “She was really entranced with her. She thought she was a hoot.”

Nyirumbe was recognized for starting St. Monica’s Girls Tailoring School in Gulu, Uganda. She helps rehabilitate girls who have been abducted and turned into concubines by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army. The school provides the girls with room and board and gives them an education, teaching vocational skills. The school helps about 300 girls and their babies each year.    

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