On her long drives from Santa Cruz to York School in Monterey, Kendall Ronzano would see homeless people crawling out of dumpsters and makeshift shelters in the early morning hours.
It would give her an appreciation of disasters in faraway lands, images of families suddenly made destitute by a tsunami or an earthquake.
Ronzano, a 17-year-old at York student, decided it was time to couple a long held dream of building a house with her desire to help.
"When I was 10 years old, I set the goal to build a house before graduating from high school, in case something happened I could take care of myself," said Ronzano, who founded NerdGirlHomes in her junior year. "With that combined interest I said I can do something about it in my community."
Ronzano is almost done with building her first home, a 117-square foot house with an additional 50 square feet of loft space for sleeping. She's accomplished this feat with community donations and the sweat of her brow. No, her dad, a contractor, has not helped her, she insists.
Her efforts have earned her the Outstanding Youth Philanthropist of the Year for the Central Coast.
There are many caring and hard working youth doing awesome projects in the area — and thus, many worthy applicants, said Lauren Cohen, co-chair of the National Philanthropy Day for the Central Coast.
But Kendall rose to the top.
"She showed leadership, she identified and cared about a particular group, volunteered her time,
On Nov. 16, Ronzano was recognized at a luncheon at Spanish Bay, along with other award recipients: Perry Flicker, philanthropist of the year; Paul Newman Foundation, corporation of the year; five Salinas Rotary Clubs for their work at Closter Park, service clubs of the year; Monterey Peninsula Foundation, foundation of the year; and William Wiltschko, young adult philanthropist.
"I felt incredibly humbled and honored to received such a recognition," she said. "I was actually a bit nervous at the event, but after I experienced the warmth and encouragement from the audience during my acceptance speech, my nervouness went away."
It should not sound odd that a 10-year-old decided to build a house. At least not coming from Kendall Ronzano. The inquisitive girl was so encouraged by her parents to explore her possibilities that once they let her ruin an appliance so she could experiment making the best kind of popcorn balls.
"My parents knew (the experiment) would probably destroy the microwave," Ronzano said over the phone. "They talked about it. 'We've had a microwave for a long time, if she gains something inspirational or original do it, then she can ruin it.'"
Kendall tried marshmallows, glue, and syrup. The syrup did not work out so well. The microwave caught fire.
An only child, Kendall would frequently start her journeys into the land of curiosity with the sentence "I have an idea."
Her parents, Betsy and Paul, have rarely said no to her requests, Kendall said.
"They raised me to think anything is possible if I put my mind to it — and the hours," she said.
One day, when she was 10, Betsy and Paul made her write down all her ideas.
"They taught me if you have an idea don't just keep it in your head. Ponder it, write it down and see what happens. They had me write down two pages worth of ideas I wanted to do. Looking back, there were some crazy ones on them, but some I've been able to check off the list."
Like building an animal reserve on every continent — that's one of the crazy ones, she said.
Kendall's on her final fundraising push to complete the first NerdGirl home. She needs about $4,000 to purchase appliances and install them.
Once she completes the project, she plans to give it away to a needy person or have it raffled off and donate the proceeds to charity.
She already started to apply to college — she won't say to which ones — but wants to pursue a career in the science, technology engineering and math fields. She's about to complete the non-profit status for NerdGirlHomes so she can continue building houses and teach the skills she's learned along the way — building, designing her website, fundraising — to other girls around the globe.
"No matter where I end up in college I want to mentor and help (other girls) through the process," she said.
To learn more about Kendall Ronzano's project, see www.nerdgirlhomes.wordpress.com.
Claudia Meléndez Salinas can be reached at 753-6755 or