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Posts Tagged ‘month of the military child’

We are pleased to share with you today some words from our President and CEO, John I. Pray, Jr., Brig Gen, USAF (Ret.) on this year’s Military Child of the Year Awards recipients and why it so important to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of our military children and why we want to make this moment as special as possible for our 2020 recipients at this challenging time:

Although we, as a nation, are still struggling with the unprecedented challenges brought on by a global pandemic, it is important for all to look for bright spots to show the promise of a brighter future. At Operation Homefront, I don’t need to look any farther than this year’s honorees for our Military Child of the Year (MCOY) Awards.

These prestigious awards are designed to recognize the amazing achievements of seven of our nation’s military teenagers who have excelled at home, in school, and in their communities through their leadership, volunteerism, scholarship, and extracurricular involvement, all while working with parental deployments, relocations, and the many other challenges that often characterize military family life.

Normally, we would have had the opportunity to recognize our award winners at our “big event” – our annual gala – held every April, in Arlington, Virginia. However, because of COVID-19, and the need to do our part to ensure the safety of all our guests and to comply with the federal and state public health guidelines, I canceled this year’s celebration.

That said, I knew we couldn’t sit idly by and let an opportunity to showcase some exceptional young people pass so I am proud to say that the show will go on with our virtual celebration of these extraordinary representatives of the millions of military kids who serve our great nation alongside their parents.

All at Operation Homefront firmly believe taking time to celebrate our MCOY winners – no matter the venue or platform – is a “must do” type event. Having grown up in a military family, and after serving for over 27 years in the Air Force, I understand the challenges that our military families experience. Faced with the uncertainty of frequent short- or no-notice moves and deployments, it can be difficult for military kids to focus in school, to feel connected to their community, and to develop close friendships. That is why I believe it so important to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of our military children and why Operation Homefront wants to make this moment as special as possible for our recipients.

President and CEO, John I. Pray, at our MCOY gala in 2019. Normally, we would have had the opportunity to recognize our award winners at our “big event” – our annual gala – held every April, in Arlington, Virginia. However, because of COVID-19, and the need to do our part to ensure the safety of all our guests and to comply with the federal and state public health guidelines, we canceled this year’s in-person celebration. However, we believe taking time to celebrate our MCOY winners – no matter the venue or platform – is a “must do” type event.

The accomplishments of our 2020 group, like all our previous winners, is in a word – impressive. Our judges selected the seven honorees from a very competitive field of more than 400 nominees. The seven represent each branch of service and our Innovation Award recipient. I like to refer to them as the “Magnificent Seven.”

Our 2020 MCOY winners are:

Kainath Kamil – Innovation Award
Fionnuala “Finn” Mahoney – Army
Niklas Cooper – Marine Corps
Miryam Smith — Navy
Samantha Grab — Air Force
Pierce Corson — Coast Guard
Kristina Lee — National Guard

 

Kainath, Finn, Niklas, Miryam, Samantha, Pierce, and Kristina all exemplify the spirit of selfless service that that not only improves lives in their communities but also offers hope for our future. They have logged over 2,080 volunteer hours in the past 12 months. Five of them are National Honor Society members, all of them take AP or dual college credit classes in school. Four are competitive athletes (swimming, volleyball, cross country, cheer) and five speak at least one language other than English.

They are caregivers to family members and leaders in sports and academia. They are ambassadors for mental health awareness, global issues, and the need for greater understanding of differences. They have used science and innovation to find solutions to world problems. Finn is even working with a team at the National Institutes of Health that is searching for a solution to COVID-19.

As we soak in all their achievements, there is little doubt why we must celebrate this very special and deserving group of military teens who represent that brighter future I noted earlier. Congratulations to all of you and to your families.

I would also like to recognize and extend a heartfelt thanks to our partners and supporters who have made our MCOY program possible:

• Our 2020 presenting sponsor, United Technologies (Pratt & Whitney); our Innovation Award sponsor, Booz Allen Hamilton; and our other event sponsors, Procter & Gamble, LaQuinta by Wyndham Hotels, PNC Bank, Veterans United Home Loans, Carnival Cruise Line, and Military Times

• Our MCOY judges, board members, OH staff and volunteers, and our two wonderful leaders the Military Child of the Year Award program, Jenny Valderas and Emily Miller.

The celebration continues as more stories and videos are coming – including congratulatory videos from John Heald of Carnival Cruise Line, and the country music sensation Runaway June, who were scheduled to perform. Also, while you may not meet our great MCOY recipients in person, you will get to hear the Magnificent Seven in their own words. So please stay tuned.

Please remember to share your congratulations and special messages with this year’s recipients at http://www.operationhomefront.org/mcoymessages.

View President and CEO, John I. Pray, Jr., Brig Gen, USAF (Ret.)’s message for the kick-off of virtual Military Child of the Year gala:

 

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Pierce Corson, our 2020 Military Child of the Year for the Coast Guard, is dedicated to spreading mental health awareness for young people. The 17-year-old senior at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, has conducted research published in a Harvard University-affiliated journal, and also donned a llama mascot costume for a parade while volunteering with a national nonprofit.

Coast Guard_Pierce Corson 1

That commitment, plus his leadership skills in academia and sports, were the top reasons that Pierce’s school counselor, volleyball coach and principal worked together to nominate him for the award. They are also traits found in the Corson family. He is the son of veteran Coast Guard Capt. Caleb Corson, who retired after 30 years of service, and Dr. Tyler Corson, a gerontologist. Pierce’s brother Roark was the 2018 MCOY recipient.

Pierce became interested in mental health issues due to his own struggles with stress from academic pressures, his father’s deployments, and nine family moves. He also saw stress in his friends at school.

He published a research project about mental health and stress among teens in the Journal of Emerging Investigators. Pierce also worked with the Virginia Department of Education committee to include mental health topics in the state standards of learning curriculum.

He has volunteered for more than three years with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Coastal Virginia affiliate, including serving as a panelist for NAMI’s Say it Out Loud program, which combats mental health stigma for teens.

Pierce loves learning languages. He is nearly fluent in Spanish and studied Mandarin at a local Chinese school where he met with his teacher for weekly tutoring and language exchange to help her learn English.

He was awarded a scholarship from the U.S. State Department and spent the summer studying Mandarin at Wenzao University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. He said the flexibility he learned as a military child helped him succeed in his experiences abroad.

“I had to juggle attending classes for eight hours daily, multiple hours of homework, maintaining physical fitness for the upcoming volleyball season, and adjusting to a culture and lifestyle that was completely different to what I was used to,” Pierce said. “My saving grace ended up being the adaptability that I had acquired as a result of so many military moves. I was able to quickly find a rhythm in daily life and form strong habits and a social network that took a lot of the pressure off of me and allowed me to flourish for the duration of the scholarship.” Coast Guard_Pierce Corson 2

Pierce is a talented athlete who helps develop younger players on his volleyball team. He enjoys weightlifting, Chinese calligraphy, customizing shoes, speed-solving Rubik’s Cubes, and streaming Spanish and Mandarin TV shows. He plans on attending the University of Virginia next year as an Echols Scholar and pursue Chinese and International Relations.

Favorite quote: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” -from a poem by Dylan Thomas

Service/Leadership Highlights: 

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness Volunteer
  • National Honor Society
  • STARTALK Volunteer
  • Tidewater Chinese School Volunteer
  • Andrew Food Bank Volunteer
  • Ocean Lakes HS Biology Club
  • Ocean Lakes HS Principal’s Student Advisory Board
  • Ocean Lakes HS Math and Science Academy Representative

Join us on our social channels below for more ways for you to join in the celebration. We also encourage you to submit messages of congratulations to our recipients.

Facebook
Twitter
Instagram
Linked In 

Thank you to our gala sponsors, who cannot be with us in person, but whose support has been invaluable: United Technologies Corporation, Booz Allen Hamilton, Carnival Cruise Line, LaQuinta by Wyndham, PNC Bank, Procter and Gamble, and Veterans United Home Loans.

Read previous 2020 recipient profiles:

Niklas Cooper, 2020 Military Child of the Year® for the U.S. Marine Corps

Miryam Smith, 2020 Military Child of the Year® for the U.S. Navy

Fionnuala Mahoney, 2020 Military Child of the Year® for the U.S. Army

Samantha Grab, 2020 Military Child of the Year® for the U.S. Air Force

Kristina Lee, 2020 Military Child of the Year® for the National Guard

Kainath Kamil, 2020 Military Child of the Year® for Innovation

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Kristina Lee, our 2020 Military Child of the Year for the National Guard, has worn the crown as Ohio’s Miss Teen Buckeye State, and she sported a different look when she campaigned for office at a SkillsUSA State Leadership Conference.

National Guard_Kristina Lee 1

The 18-year-old senior at Lee Preparatory High School and Tri-Rivers Career Center in Marion, Ohio, had two black eyes, caused by a basilar skull fracture received when sparring with pugil sticks in her school’s criminal justice lab. She rolled with the look – referring to herself in her campaign speech as the raccoon in the room – and was elected as a regional officer.

It’s one example of how the student leader and honor student chooses perseverance in the face of adversity, including her brother’s death after a yearlong illness and overcoming PTSD after experiencing a violent crime in 2018.

At school, Kristina distinguishes herself in classwork and as a leader as she pursues dual tracks. She’s an honor student in academics at Lee Prep School, while at a career technical school, she excels in criminal justice and construction trades.

After high school, Kristina plans to continue on multiple tracks. She wants to serve an apprenticeship to become a heavy-equipment operator and join the Air National Guard to become a paramedic.

“I’ve always wanted to be a civil servant but realize that it’s hard to live on a civil servant’s salary. … With the help of a construction job, I will be able to afford to pursue a military/EMT/paramedic career as well,” she said. “Maybe further down the road, I would like to pursue political leadership, but I don’t want to do that until I have some real-life experience.”

Being a military child helped her develop a servant’s heart, she said.

“Military kids have the hearts and minds to serve others whether it be in their schools, communities, or even just their homes,” Kristina said. “This may be because they model after their military parents who have to both serve and sacrifice daily.”

Kristina amassed more than 500 volunteer hours in the past year, including organizing a Drug Free, Hire Me! rally that attracted over 600 students for a daylong event, which she also emceed. She also planned and executed a Walk a Mile in Her Shoes fundraiser to benefit survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Kristina is the sixth of the eight children of Tammy and Col. Andrew Lee, a physician and a medical group commander in the Ohio Air National Guard. During her father’s deployments and trainings, Kristina helps her mom with her two younger brothers, including one with developmental delays who is nonverbal.

She communicates with him using sign language, which she also uses in volunteer work with special-needs children at her church through a ministry called PB&J, Precious & Beloved by Jesus.National Guard_Kristina Lee 2

In her spare time, Kristina enjoys drawing and painting, reading, swimming, obstacle course 5Ks, and lawn work.

Favorite quote: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’ ” – Erma Bombeck

Service/Leadership Highlights:

  • Construction Trades Academy Foreman
  • Angel Tree
  • SkillsUSA State Leadership Conference Officer
  • National Technical Honor Society President
  • National American Miss (NAM) Heart of Service state champion
  • SkillsUSA President
  • Honor Flight
  • Wings & Wheels

Join us on our social channels below for more ways for you to join in the celebration. We also encourage you to submit messages of congratulations to our recipients.

Facebook
Twitter
Instagram
Linked In 

Thank you to our gala sponsors, who cannot be with us in person, but whose support has been invaluable: United Technologies Corporation, Booz Allen Hamilton, Carnival Cruise Line, LaQuinta by Wyndham, PNC Bank, Procter and Gamble, and Veterans United Home Loans.

Read previous 2020 recipient profiles:

Niklas Cooper, 2020 Military Child of the Year® for the U.S. Marine Corps

Miryam Smith, 2020 Military Child of the Year® for the U.S. Navy

Fionnuala Mahoney, 2020 Military Child of the Year® for the U.S. Army

Samantha Grab, 2020 Military Child of the Year® for the U.S. Air Force

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Samantha Grab, our 2020 Military Child of the Year® for the Air Force, has brought light and happiness to so many around her through her music and positive attitude, especially during tough times. Her family’s nickname for her is Sunshine.

Air Force_Samantha Grab 1

She is the daughter of retired Lt. Col. Richard “Andy” Grab and Michelle Grab. Samantha, 18, grew up as one of three siblings but four years ago a tragedy changed their family forever when her older brother Nick, then 17, died by suicide.

His death was a challenge for everyone. At only 14, Samantha became aware of her own depression and ADHD. She relied heavily on her mother, who she says is her role model. Her mom helped them all cope with her father’s 20 months of deployments and the eight moves throughout his career.

Samantha also finds solace in music. She began playing the alto saxophone in fifth grade and also plays the French horn, piano, ukulele, and drums. A senior at O’Fallon Township High School, she was hand-picked by her music teacher for the school’s mentorship program. She also assists the fifth-grade music teacher in the classroom and through private lessons for the students.

Samantha has performed at a variety of military events, including performing the national anthem and the official Air Force song during a promotion ceremony for her father and then again during his retirement ceremony at Busch Stadium.

“I felt the happiest and most proud (of being a military child) when my Dad came home from his deployments,” she said. “It was very hard when he was gone, and I was filled with so much joy and excitement each time he came home.”

On one occasion, her dad surprised Samantha and her family in what she calls “the most amazing way.” He was deployed to Korea and not expected home for several months. Samantha, along with her mom, her brother, and oldest sister Elizabeth, was visiting family in Illinois. When they went to their favorite bakery Samantha’s dad was waiting for them behind the counter.

“Our minds were so preoccupied by what to eat that we did not realize our dad was standing right in front of us taking our order!” She said. “My jaw dropped, and I immediately ran up to hug my dad.”

Samantha enjoys helping others. She has volunteered more than 300 hours in the past 12 months, including as one of a few select retreat leaders with the Helping Open People’s Eyes (HOPE) program, an organization that helps teens overcome challenges of bullying, stereotypes, depression and difficulties at school and home.

She plans on attending Illinois State University and studying psychology so she can help children and teens struggling with mental health issues. Air Force_Samantha Grab_3

When she’s not busy with color guard performances, marching band competitions or playing music, Samantha enjoys watching movies, reading, drawing, cooking, and spending time with friends and family, especially her baby sister Sarah and her niece Marcy.

Favorite quote: “All I can be is me, whoever that is.” -Bob Dylan.

Service/Leadership Highlights:

•Helping Open People’s Eyes (HOPE)

•OTHS Mentorship Program

•Christ Church Children’s Ministry

•Karla Smith Behavioral Health

•Scott Air Force Base Centennial

•OTHS Marching Band

•OTHS Jazz Ensemble

•Elk’s Organization

Join us on our social channels below for more ways for you to join in the celebration. We also encourage you to submit messages of congratulations to our recipients.

Facebook
Twitter
Instagram
Linked In 

Thank you to our gala sponsors, who cannot be with us in person, but whose support has been invaluable: United Technologies Corporation, Booz Allen Hamilton, Carnival Cruise Line, LaQuinta by Wyndham, PNC Bank, Procter and Gamble, and Veterans United Home Loans.

Read previous 2020 recipient profiles:

Niklas Cooper, 2020 Military Child of the Year® for the U.S. Marine Corps

Miryam Smith, 2020 Military Child of the Year® for the U.S. Navy

Fionnuala Mahoney, 2020 Military Child of the Year® for the U.S. Army

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Miryam Smith, our 2020 Military Child of the Year for the Navy, remembers her father telling her that hard work pays off and that she could achieve anything she put her mind to. Those words have been Miryam’s motivation since her father, retired Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Eduardo Smith, took his own life in 2016.

Navy_Miryam Smith 2

The tragedy, she said, taught her resilience. Two days after her father’s devastating death, Miryam returned to school to finish up final exams, committed to living a happy, fulfilling life and maintaining the excellent grades her dad appreciated.

Now a 17-year-old senior at Tallwood High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, she is seeing dividends from her hard work.

Miryam excels in her school’s Global Studies and World Languages Academy, and she looks forward to fall, when she will attend American University’s School of Foreign Service. She plans to study International Relations and possibly minor in Environmental Science.

Miryam, an only child, is the daughter of Macarena Smith, who works for the U.S. Marine Corps as a protocol officer.

Miryam’s three military moves with her family cultivated her fascination with other cultures and world travel.

“My favorite part of being a military child was the opportunities to travel to many places at a very young age,” she said. When stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, the family traveled throughout Europe. “One holiday weekend we decided to take a road trip to Prague in the Czech Republic, and I remember it as being one of my favorite ones.”

In all, Miryam has visited 23 countries, four of them on her own. On a trip to the Normandy region of France with her school, Miryam felt particular pride in being a military child.

As her group left a World War II museum close to one of the Normandy beaches, Miryam saw a cemetery filled with hundreds of perfectly aligned white tombstones that were decorated with American flags.

“I was overwhelmed with pride, for I had never seen so many American flags in my life. At that moment I realized how many brave soldiers had sacrificed their lives to help liberate France in the war,” she said. “Although my dad did not serve in World War II, I know he made several sacrifices for his country throughout his military career, and knowing that made me very proud to be his daughter.”

Miryam understands that military children might dread moving, with changing schools, making new friends, and adjusting to a new home in a new location. She urges them to keep an open mind. “It gives you the chance to meet new people, create new memories, and possibly learn more about other cultures.” Navy_Miryam Smith 1

Miryam invests time in her community, volunteering with the Be a Reader program to read to elementary school children and mentoring children at a shelter for the homeless.

She enjoys sailing small vessels and catamarans and finds stress relief in playing piano, frequently duplicating tunes she hears on the radio.

Favorite quote: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, and catch the trade winds in your sails.” – Mark Twain

Service/Leadership Highlights:

  • Events organizer, Global Studies and World Languages Academy International Cafes
  • Volunteer, Be a Reader program for elementary school children
  • Mentor, Care by Community
  • President Spanish Honor Society
  • Vice President Global Studies Honor Society
  • Varsity Swim Team
  • Student Athlete Leadership Training
  • Academic letter, Global Studies and World Languages Academy, 9th-12th grades

Join us on our social channels below for more ways for you to join in the celebration. We also encourage you to submit messages of congratulations to our recipients.

Facebook
Twitter
Instagram
Linked In 

Thank you to our gala sponsors, who cannot be with us in person, but whose support has been invaluable: United Technologies Corporation, Booz Allen Hamilton, Carnival Cruise Line, LaQuinta by Wyndham, PNC Bank, Procter and Gamble, and Veterans United Home Loans.

Read previous 2020 recipient profiles:

Niklas Cooper, 2020 Military Child of the Year® for the U.S. Marine Corps

Fionnuala Mahoney, 2020 Military Child of the Year® for the U.S. Army

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When Niklas Cooper, our 2020 Military Child of the Year for the Marine Corps, shows up, he brings a big heart as a leader and volunteer in his community and as a student at Lejeune High School in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where he is a junior.

Marine Corps_Niklas Cooper 2

In the past year, the 16-year-old dedicated more than 300 hours to mentoring, tutoring, and community projects while remaining devoted to academic and athletic excellence.

Niklas is the son of Mary and David Cooper, a Marine Corps first sergeant. He credits their support for his determination.

His success on the varsity track and cross country teams underscores his dedication and perseverance. As a freshman, Niklas worked to improve his cross country time, but a heart condition curtailed his running. Niklas was ineligible to participate in athletics after being diagnosed with left ventricular hypertrophy, an enlargement of part of the heart that causes high blood pressure.

Disappointed yet determined, Niklas served as the track team manager while doctors worked for a year to bring the issue under control. During his sophomore year, he was cleared to participate, and he developed strength and speed that helped his team win first in the region and seventh in the state.

“After I was diagnosed and my mom explained to my dad what it was, he responded with, ‘I always knew my son had a big heart.’ After hearing this, I took it literally and figuratively and started being more grateful for everything in my life,” Niklas said.

He developed resilience while growing up in a military family.

“Moving over six times in my life has required me to step outside of my comfort zone and learn to deal with change by viewing it as an opportunity rather than a hardship,” he said.

On his family’s fifth permanent change of station, Niklas organized a community debris cleanup around base housing soon after moving to Camp Lejeune. He has dedicated about 100 hours of community service to getting clearance and volunteers for the Camp Lejeune Project Cleanup.

When volunteering at Outdoor Odyssey in Pennsylvania, a camp for children of injured Marines, Niklas forged a bond with a camper that he has maintained ever since. Niklas continues to mentor the boy. As military children, they do not take their close bond for granted.

Niklas tutors his peers in Spanish and mathematics, and has earned recognition for achievement in advanced placement courses and for leadership in the Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, where he is cadet staff sergeant.

During his father’s three deployments– a total of 30 months – Niklas helped with his three younger sisters. After the final deployment, Niklas became inspired as his father reintegrated back into the family and went back to school.Marine Corps_Niklas Cooper 1

Niklas hopes to attend the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and become a linguist or international diplomat.

Favorite Quote: “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit” – Napoleon Hill.

Service/Leadership Highlights:

  • Class President, freshman, sophomore, and junior years
  • Military Order of the World Wars, MCJROTC
  • Gold Presidential Service Award Medal, MCJROTC
  • National Honor Society
  • Founder, Camp Lejeune Cleanup Project
  • Volunteer and mentor at Outdoor Odyssey in Pennsylvania
  • Advanced Placement Scholar with Honor recognition
  • Varsity track team

Join us on our social channels below for more ways for you to join in the celebration. We also encourage you to submit messages of congratulations to our recipients.

Facebook
Twitter
Instagram
Linked In 

Thank you to our gala sponsors, who cannot be with us in person, but whose support has been invaluable: United Technologies Corporation, Booz Allen Hamilton, Carnival Cruise Line, LaQuinta by Wyndham, PNC Bank, Procter and Gamble, and Veterans United Home Loans.

Read previous 2020 recipient profiles:

Fionnuala Mahoney, 2020 Military Child of the Year® for the U.S. Army

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Fionnuala “Finn” Mahoney, our 2020 Military Child of the Year for the Army, is a resilient, adaptable teenager.  She proves that every day living with learning differences, being a caregiver for her grandmother, helping to rebuild her childhood home in New Hampshire, and being a military child who moved four times until her father was medically retired from the Army after being injured.

Finn, 18, is the daughter of retired Army Capt. Howard K. Mahoney and Shari Boibeaux, an engineer and caregiver. She is the youngest of three. Her oldest brother, Howard K. Mahoney II, 21, attends the U.S.  Military Academy at West Point and her second brother, Cormac A. Mahoney, 19, attends Cornell University where he is in the Air Force ROTC.

Finn’s dad is her role model and inspiration to help other military families.

“My dad has been in the Army since I can remember,” she said. “The week after 9/11, when my dad received his white lab coat as part of his military medical school program in Boston, he held me in his arms on the stage.  I was only a week old.”

After being injured, he spent two years at Fort Belvoir in the hospital and Wounded Warrior Battalion.

“I know what it is like to see the military members in the hospital and in recovery,” Finn said. “I would not change being part of the military, I am proud that my dad chose to be a military service member and that I get to be a military family member.”

She volunteers at Lamb’s Center in Fairfax, Virginia, which serves the poor and homeless, including a large population of veterans. She assists grieving families at Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. Finn has also helped create an adaptive kayaking program with the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Walter Reed Military Medical Center.

A senior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, Finn is proud to have a dad who helps with her schoolwork. She emulates his ability to overcome physical and physiological challenges to help others. She has started a nonprofit to give voice to teenagers before they can vote and she has proven to be a leader as part of her cheerleading squad.

As an intern in the Laboratory of Metabolic Control at the National Institutes of Health she has learned about biology, ketogenic and food-based technology. She is assisting with university-level research which involves the development of therapeutic ketones as part of special diets that can treat symptoms of epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease in low-income populations around the world.

Finn has traveled to 30 countries and her love of learning about different cultures and seeing new places has made her consider how she can improve public health around the world. She hopes to continue studying biology, clinical laboratory science or forensic science.

Favorite quote: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” – Steve Jobs

Service/Leadership Highlights:

  • Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) volunteer
  • American Legion Auxiliary (ALA)volunteer/Girls State
  • Washington Hebrew Congregation Youth Group Leader (WHECTY)
  • Team River Runner Adaptive Kayaking for Wounded Warriors
  • National Institutes of Health (NIH)Intern
  • Walt Whitman Cheerleading and Stunt Team
  • Olympiada of Spoken Russian Medalist
  • Rye Beach Swim and Dive Team Captain

Join us on our social channels below for more ways for you to join in the celebration. We also encourage you to submit messages of congratulations to our recipients.

Facebook
Twitter
Instagram
Linked In 

Thank you to our gala sponsors, who cannot be with us in person, but whose support has been invaluable: United Technologies Corporation, Booz Allen Hamilton, Carnival Cruise Line, LaQuinta by Wyndham, PNC Bank, Procter and Gamble, and Veterans United Home Loans.

 

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Our virtual 2020 Military Child of the Year® award gala continues today with an introduction to this year’s recipients: Fionnuala Mahoney, U.S. Army, Samantha Grab, U.S. Air Force;  Pierce Corson, U.S. Coast Guard; Niklas Cooper, U.S. Marine Corps; Kristina Lee, National Guard; Miryam Smith, U.S. Navy; Kainath Kamil, Innovation Award presented by Booz Allen Hamilton.

Check back with us over the next week as we dedicate a day to each winner and honor their achievements by sharing their unique stories of courage, resiliency, service and success with you. We hope you will be as inspired as we have been.

Join us on our social channels below for more ways for you to join in the celebration. We also encourage you to submit messages of congratulations to our recipients.

Facebook
Twitter
Instagram
Linked In 

Thank you to our gala sponsors, who cannot be with us in person, but whose support has been invaluable: United Technologies Corporation, Booz Allen Hamilton, Carnival Cruise Line, LaQuinta by Wyndham, PNC Bank, Procter and Gamble, and Veterans United Home Loans.

 

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Christopher Rodriguez was our Military Child of the Year for the U.S. Marine Corps. Now a Marine himself, we had the chance to touch base with him to talk about his journey since we last saw him. (Read Christopher’s profile from 2015).

In the 2½ years since Christopher Rodriguez received Operation Homefront’s Marine Corps Military Child of the Year award, he has completed half his classes toward a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and become a private first class in the Marine Reserve.

While he has one graduation ahead of him — Christopher expects to finish his University of Nevada, Las Vegas degree in 2020 — he completed a big milestone Oct. 6, graduating from basic training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego and Camp Pendleton, California.

The grueling 13-week, three-phase program was tough, but worth it, Christopher said. “Earning the title of Marine, receiving the eagle, globe and anchor [emblem] at the top of the Reaper was a very rewarding and proud moment for myself,” he said, referring to the last obstacle at Camp Pendleton, California, a mountain that recruits must scale before becoming Marines. “Being a Marine was something I’ve always wanted to do.”

The last phase of the training, known as The Crucible, culminates at the Reaper, and is physically and mentally challenging, “pushing your limits that you wouldn’t have expected you could do in the very beginning of it,” Christopher said. Though he had to miss a semester for boot camp, he learned a lot of valuable lessons there, such as how best to achieve goals while working with other people’s flaws and strengths. “Being able to do that kind of gave me some more confidence,” he said.

Family support was key to finishing each day with a positive mindset, Christopher said. “The main motivation for me, getting through the whole process was definitely my family, said Christopher, adding that letters from his parents, grandparents and other family members comforted him.

Another incentive that drove him to finish: his appetite. “When I graduated, I wanted to eat real food. I missed a lot of the home cooking. The first thing I ate, we went to a Mexican restaurant, and I just ordered the fattest burrito that was on the menu.”

When Christopher graduated from Lejeune High School, North Carolina, he wasn’t sure he wanted to join the Marines right out of high school, so he took time to think about it while attending college. “Now I’m ready for it,” he said. “I was all for it.”

One factor that helped him make up his mind was spending time with family. He, his parents and two younger siblings moved to Las Vegas to be closer to grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Chris’ stepfather, retired Gunnery Sgt. Jermaine Smith, is now a Marine JROTC instructor at a local high school. “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” said Christopher’s mom, Griscelda Smith, who teaches toddlers at a child care center. Christopher’s 17-year-old sister, Jazzlyn, and 15-year-old brother, Kilyn, are in the Navy JROTC program at a different high school.

It was important to Chris to be involved in family members’ lives. Having done that, he felt content with his decision to join the Marine Corps, knowing, “If I do deploy, I got to spend my time with family.”

After two more months of training at Camp Pendleton, Chris will drill as a reservist on weekends and up to two weeks a month at the Armed Forces Reserve Center at Nellis AFB, Nevada. He plans to go through Officer Candidates School to become a commissioned Marine Corps officer, graduating as a second lieutenant.

“Our goal as a parent, he needs to finish school,” his mom said.

Chris said later in life, he might like to go back to school for environmental science, studying renewable and reusable energy. “I find that very interesting,” he said of the field, in which some of his family members work. “A cleaner environment for everyone to live in, to me is very important,” Chris said.

One of Christopher’s favorite memories from the Washington, D.C., trip for the Military Child of the Year gala was getting to know the other 2015 recipients, a memory later marred by the death of National Guard recipient Zachary Parsons, who was killed in a February 2016 car accident. “It was a tragic moment,” Christopher said. “It hit me hard. We all got close. He was a great guy.”

Seeing the Washington sights and memorials was a “big wow moment,” that gave him appreciation for our country’s history, and that he will always cherish, Christopher said.

Another highlight: Meeting the high-ranking officers who attended the MCOY gala and had a good influence on him, especially now-retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“Stay motivated, whatever you’re doing with your life,” Christopher advised future MCOY recipients. “Keep moving forward. Keep providing for your community.” He said he knows philanthropic people, such as MCOY recipients, like feeling proud for giving back and helping others, so he encouraged them to be “that leader, that role model in your family and for your friends, for your school.”

“Stay being yourself,” he advised. “Be humble.”

Thank you to our presenting sponsor United Technologies for making the Military Child of the Year Award program possible. We’re also grateful to the following additional sponsors: Booz Allen Hamilton, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, MidAtlantic Broadband, La Quinta Inn & Suites, Veterans United Home Loans, Under Armour, Tutor.com and Military Times.

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Nicole Goetz was our Military Child of the Year for the U.S. Air Force in 2011. We were honored to have Maggie with us this year in DC, helping to present this year’s MCOY award to our Air Force recipient. We also had the chance to touch base with her recently to learn where life has taken her since we last met, including working with her good friend, Maggie Rochon, MCOY for U.S. Coast Guard 2011. (Read Maggie’s update here)

In 2011, I had the honor of serving as the first Military Child of the Year for the Air Force. That Operation Homefront gala in Washington, D.C., was such a special time for me because not only did I meet one of my heroes, then first lady Michelle Obama, but I also got surprised by my forever hero, my father. My father was finishing up a year-long deployment in Afghanistan and it was his service overseas that inspired my community service on the homefront.*

A few short months after the gala, I was pursuing an international affairs degree at Emory University in Atlanta. Every class and every discussion brought me back to my father’s service. During my time at school, I realized just how bad the military-civilian disconnect had become. For the most part, students, staff, and faculty had never personally interacted with an active-duty member or their family member. Most of their understanding of the active-duty service members had stemmed from what they read about or saw on TV, and a vast majority of it was never good. That was when I decided to act. With help from now-retired Gen. Norton Schwartz, former Air Force Chief of Staff, and Moody Air Force Base, we were able to assemble a panel of active-duty service members to speak to students.

I remember the day of the panel like it was yesterday. I was scared that students wouldn’t show, because why would they? But with extra pleading from myself and extra credit offered from professors, the room was packed. The panel consisted of five active-duty service members: a colonel; an Army Ranger who was about our age; an explosive ordnance disposal technician who was 24 with four kids and a purple heart; a combat controller; and a young female airman who performed humanitarian missions overseas.

After I introduced each guest, I watched as students connected the material they were taught in their college classes to those on the panel. The only way I could describe what happened next was that it was magic. The air in the room was no longer cold and awkward, but warm and full of empathy.

The next moment would change my life forever. The colonel shared that he was not sure how the panel was going to be received by the students. He reflected on how the Vietnam veterans were spat on and shouted at by college students when they came home. Then he started to tear up and remarked that my generation would be dealing with 20-plus years of veterans due to our involvement in the global war on terror. Right then and there I decided that I’ll be damned if I let my generation treat my father and the rest of our veterans as they did back in the 1960s and 70s. The panel was a huge success and Emory continued to host military panels and reintegration projects ever since.

From that moment, I figured my best bet at helping the military community was to work in the political sector. It was an exciting, fast-paced world. My military upbringing helped me tackle the unpredictable, tumultuous environment. I worked for organizations and campaigns from the local to national levels. It all seemed like a natural fit, until it wasn’t.

I was exhausted from constantly trying to break through the glass ceiling in politics. Sexism was and is a real issue. Many of my colleagues assumed I was there to become a senator’s wife, not to positively change policy. It had become a major hindrance that set me off my original purpose of serving our military and veteran community. Rather than continuing to try to chip away at the obtuse obstacle in front of me, I searched for a new angle. That angle soon revealed itself through the STEM field.

After my departure from politics, I accepted a marketing and outreach position with the Curtis Laws Wilson Library at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. This past February, I spearheaded the university’s largest hackathon to date. A hackathon is a weekend-long event that brings hundreds of students from across the nation together to solve a current problem in society through the use of coding and technology. This year, we decided to focus our efforts on helping our transitioning military members, veterans, and their families. With over $20,000 from corporate sponsors and around 100 hackers, the event was a success as many new ideas and platforms were created to help assist the military and their families with reintegration. Our inaugural event set a strong precedent for next year’s hackathon.

I’ve also been working on another project with a fellow 2011 Military Child of the Year and close friend, Maggie Rochon — creating a platform that will better connect military spouses and dependents across the different military bases and posts around the country and world.

Aside from my transitioning career, I am also transitioning from the role of military brat to military spouse. In May 2017, I married my best friend, 1st Lt. Brian Kloiber. Brian is a West Point graduate, Army diver, and a great dog dad. His kindness, patience, support, and good humor have made the transition to being a spouse a fun and somewhat seamless one despite the curveballs of military life like moving, deployments, and career sacrifices. With every challenge we have faced so far, I was reminded of how great of a team we make and how we are both each other’s equals and strengths. I am excited to see what all the future has in store for us!

Obstacles and all, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I know I am blessed to be part of one of the best and strongest communities in the world. From growing up watching my mom be the strong and selfless super military spouse to now interacting with so many great, ambitious spouses, I am forever in awe of the service and support that spouses, dependents, and great organizations like Operation Homefront give to ensure our military members, veterans, and their families are well taken care of.

Moving forward, if I have to give advice to future winners, I’d say that it’s OK if things don’t work out as you plan. Things can change at the drop of a hat, dreams can shatter, and you will be thrown off course. But all that matters is how you react. If you stay true with what you are really passionate about, life has a funny way of getting you back on track.

By Nicole Goetz

*Editor’s note: Nicole’s father, now retired, was a chief master sergeant in the Air Force

Thank you to our presenting sponsor United Technologies for making the Military Child of the Year Award program possible. We’re also grateful to the following additional sponsors: Booz Allen Hamilton, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, MidAtlantic Broadband, La Quinta Inn & Suites, Veterans United Home Loans, Under Armour, Tutor.com and Military Times. #MCOY2018

 

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