Senior profile: Giving nature and passion for design drive Wheeler student

Wheeler High School senior Heather Sawyer works with a new ferret at the Westerly Animal Shelter where she volunteers.
Wheeler High School senior Heather Sawyer works with a new ferret at the Westerly Animal Shelter where she volunteers. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

North Stonington - Her interest started with stacking spice bottles into different formations as a child.

It progressed into classes like computer-aided design, physics and calculus.

That interest has turned into a passion that Heather Sawyer will pursue next year as a freshman architecture student at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston.

"I'm ready to start a new adventure," Heather said recently.

Passion for design is just one story of the talented 17-year-old Wheeler High School senior, who has already accomplished quite a bit.

Heather has participated in Oxfam, the international relief organization, student council and volunteered at food banks. She's a National Honors Society student and has volunteered at the Westerly Animal Shelter for three years. Heather's grades are the fourth-best in her class.

In her "spare" time, Heather works at the Country Store in Mystic.

Instead of spice bottles, Heather is now piecing together an impressive resume, especially for a not-quite-18-year-old.

She does it all without looking for the inevitable accolades, Lisa Sawyer, her mother, said.

"(Heather) does things because she wants to, not for recognition or attention," said Lisa, who works in the Griswold school district. "She's always had that personality: She's a sweet, outgoing, caring person. She's just a very happy-go-lucky kid that cares about people and always wants people happy."

When Heather's father, Steve Sawyer, had a stroke in January, Heather knew exactly what she would do.

Heather planned a volleyball tournament, which she and her older sister, Kaitlyn, have done for the past few years, and donated some of the proceeds to the American Stroke Association.

A star volleyball player herself, Heather was co-captain of this year's team.

"My family always talked about how we live in such a small town and that we need connections to bring it together," Heather said.

She just didn't tell her father about where the proceeds from the tournament were going.

"(Heather) took the bull by the horns and came up with the tournament," said Steve Sawyer, who has largely recovered. "It just speaks to her character. She didn't even tell me about it, and then I read that the funds would be donated to the stroke association."

Such is the way of quiet, unassuming Heather.

"Heather's someone we're very proud of, someone who will go off and do great things," Wheeler Principal Christopher Sandford said. "She makes us proud as a school."

Heather used her experience at the shelter for her senior project under the mentorship of Tom Gulluscio, the animal control officer in Westerly. She gave a presentation to her classmates on the importance of adopting animals rather than purchasing a pet from a breeder.

"Heather is quite unique: very quiet, reserved, but determined and extremely bright and very pleasant," Gulluscio said. "To see her come out of her shell is wonderful. She's a beautiful and bright young girl that works very hard."

Heather's passion influenced her grandfather, Bob Sawyer, to volunteer at the shelter as well. Bob has worked there for a year, Gulluscio said, and has turned into one of the more dedicated volunteers.

"Heather was brought up in a family that emphasizes community and volunteerism as important, and for her it's just part of life," Lisa Sawyer said. "She'll always reach out to someone just to make somebody's day a little bit brighter."

Lisa said Heather wrote an essay about how her father - who has been a volunteer firefighter in North Stonington since his teens - has inspired her.

The essay won Heather a partial college scholarship, one of many she has accumulated as she prepares to leave home for a five-year architecture program.

"The last comment (in the essay) said, 'My goal is to be like my father, someone who makes a difference in other people's lives by giving up themselves,'" Lisa said. "That's just who she is."

Heather will be among the Wheeler graduates during commencement at 6 p.m. on Friday, June 17.

s.goldstein@theday.com

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