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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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Last week, Operation Homefront hosted an activity-packed three-day celebration to honor our stellar Military Child of the Year Award® recipients.  And what an amazing three days it was!

The 10th annual Military Child of the Year festivities kicked off Tuesday with our BAH Innovation Award recipient, Shelby Barber from Hawaii, touring the Innovation Center at Booz Allen Hamilton. Her visit included a tour, a sampling of their state-of-the-art virtual reality experiences, and a brainstorming meeting with the Booz Allen Hamilton project team who will help Shelby bring to life her concept for a portable medical device for children with severe allergies.

On Wednesday, Brig. Gen. John I Pray, Jr., Air Force (Ret.), President and CEO of Operation Homefront, welcomed all seven recipients at a welcome lunch before the kids, their families, and OH staff departed for Capitol Hill to meet and greet their state congressional representatives.

Afterwards, the MCOY recipients came back to the hotel for dinner, where they received laptops from Booz Allen Hamilton and Microsoft, along with cash awards and some very special surprises from Kendra Scott and Cracker Barrel.

Thursday, our awardees had the opportunity to meet and mingle with OH staff, our National Board of Directors, and Region 1 Advisory Board member Danny Chung, from Microsoft, our breakfast sponsor, who presented each recipient with a brand new Surface laptop.

 

Then, it was off to the National Museum of American History. For the fifth year, OH worked with the Archives Center to give the MCOY recipients a behind-the-scene tour. When the MCOY recipients weren’t weaving through a maze of stacked artifacts, they were able to explore the exhibits, including the First Ladies display as well as the Star-Spangled Banner — the original stars and stripes that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 — providing the inspiration for the Star-Spangled Banner lyrics from Francis Scott Key.

Then, it was time for the main event — the gala! ESPN analyst and former MLB player Chris Singleton served as the emcee, and appropriately kicked off the evening with a rousing “play ball!” America’s Beloved Tenor, Daniel Rodriguez, sang the national anthem during the Presentation of Colors by JROTC cadets from T.C. Williams High School from Alexandria, Virginia.


 

John Pray started the program recognizing service members, veterans, and our military family members. Of the MCOY recipients, John said: “We recognize the extraordinary accomplishments of these seven recipients, who represent the collective excellence of military children everywhere. They personify resiliency, leadership, and strength of character. Their families and communities, as well as our corporate partners and the staff and volunteers at Operation Homefront, are very proud of them as individuals and all the other young people in the military families they represent.”

 

Two wonderful guests helped OH salute the MCOY recipients: Brennley Brown and Melissa Stockwell.

Brennley, an emerging country artist (you might recognize her from Season 12 of The Voice) spoke about how inspired she was that she was here with kids who were her own age and had already accomplished so much. She treated the crowd to a beautiful musical performance.

Melissa Stockwell, Army veteran, two-time Paralympian, and proud mom, spoke about her journey after losing her leg. In her remarks, Melissa spoke about resilience and her inspiration, telling the MCOY recipients, “your voices are so strong … stand up for what you believe in.”

Lt. Gen. Stephen Lyons, Director for Logistics, representing General Joseph Dunford and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered remarks that underscored the importance of the military family, particularly the children, in ensuring our nation has a ready force. “The decision of our service members to remain serving in our nation’s military is most often made at the dinner table,” said Gen. Lyons. “The way organizations like Operation Homefront care for our families and support children like these helps us keep our forces engaged and strong.”

 

Lt. Gen. Lyons then was joined by John Pray and Lieutenant General Brian Arnold, USAF, Ret., Chairman of the Operation Homefront Board of Directors, for the award presentations. Each presenter took a few moments to celebrate the military family behind the recipients, then they highlighted the amazing awardee accomplishments.

Several of our previous Military Child of the Year Award recipients were on hand to help present the awards to the new generation.

Military Child of the Year Alumni: (left to right) Alena Deveau (2012 Coast Guard Military Child of the Year), Nicole Goetz (2011 Air Force Military Child of the Year), Alex McGrath (2017 Navy Military Child of the Year), Christian Fagala (2016 Marine Corps Military Child of the Year), Henderson Heussner (2017 Army Military Child of the Year), Maggie Rochon (2011 Coast Guard Military Child of the Year)

But it was not over yet! For the second year, Carnival Cruise Line and Senior Vice President of Hotel Operations Richard Morse shocked, literally, the MCOY recipients and their families with a free family cruise.

“This has been a remarkable evening,” said John as he closed out the evening. “To all our honorees tonight, I know your parents, families, and communities are so proud of you. We are proud of you too. You inspire every one of us.”

 

With the 10th annual Military Child of the Year in the books, we turn our focus to wrapping up the logistics and towards planning for the 11th MCOY Gala to be held on April 11, 2019.

Special thanks to United Technologies Corporation, our presenting sponsor for the 2018 Military Child of the Year Awards Gala. Other gala sponsors were Booz Allen Hamilton, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, Military Times, La Quinta Inns & Suites, MidAtlanticBroadband, Veterans United Home Loans, and Under Armour. #MCOY2018

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15-year-old Marine Corps Military Child of the Year® Award recipient Joshua Frawley likes to challenge himself, especially when doing so means others will benefit.

Joshua has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. People with Asperger’s often have difficulty with social interactions or need strict routines to thrive. All challenges that could have been overwhelming for Joshua due to the frequent deployments and moves that come with life as a military family. But despite these challenges, Joshua regularly pushes himself out of his comfort zone. Never more so than when his father and mother both needed him to be strong.

His father Gunnery Sgt. Daniel Frawley, deployed multiple times while serving in the Marine Corps, and was then medically retired as 100% disabled veteran. Throughout the time, Joshua’s Mom was the source of strength for the family especially Joshua. Two years ago, Joshua’s mom found out she had a sarcoma in her ankle, which led to her leg being amputated three weeks later. The tables turned and the family, once looked over by a strong mom, had to step up and help her in her time of need. Once again, Joshua stepped outside his comfort zone, in a big way.

“My Mom is my biggest supporter. She was there for my Dad when he was injured and gave up her job teaching college to be his caregiver. She also made sure I got the support and help I needed at school to help me learn how to redirect, avoid meltdowns, and handle the issues that kids with Autism face. She never set limits on me and always signed me up for activities that most kids do. It was not always easy, but I can say I am glad she did. She wanted me to have as “normal” of a childhood as possible and to not let my Autism define me. I played baseball, soccer, basketball, and was in scouts,” said Joshua.

“Our family is stronger than ever and I think we appreciate life more. My mom has been so strong and faced her cancer and treatments head on. She doesn’t let being an amputee slow her down. In a way, all of the stuff my family has been through (as a military family) has helped prepare us for my Mom’s cancer battle. Although she is still fighting her sarcoma, she has already shown me that she is way stronger than cancer!” said Joshua.

His younger sister, Amber, who is 12, looks up to Joshua, especially when their parents are out of town for their mother’s cancer treatments and he helps his grandmother keep things running smoothly.

But his sister isn’t the only one who sees him as a role model. An excellent student, Joshua serves as a tutor to students who need help with math, science, and other disciplines. For over four years, Josh has been a SAVE (Students Against Violence Everywhere) ambassador. SAVE student ambassadors provide positive peer influences and facilitate reporting bullying as a form of violence prevention, among other service projects. One unique factor Joshua brings to SAVE is that he can spread autism awareness, explaining to other students how children with autism might act differently in certain social situations. In this way, Joshua opens a window into the world of autism and helps build understanding and support for kids like himself.

This year, Joshua was nominated as an officer of his Students Against Violence Everywhere Program and has been serving as the treasurer. He will represent his program at a statewide conference to further the mission of SAVE in North Carolina Public Schools.

Joshua’s dream is to become an engineer “I am very proud of my Dad. His job was to disarm IEDs. He is so brave. I love electronics and robotics like my Dad and hope to someday find a way to contribute and give back to our country like he did,” said Joshua.

We have no doubt, Joshua, that the future has good things in store for you and your family.

See highlights from Joshua’s long list of achievements:

Meet all seven Military Child of the Year® Award recipients and be sure to join us on Facebook on Thursday, April 19 at 7 pm EST for a live feed of the very special awards gala honoring our outstanding Military Child of the Year recipients. Thank you to our presenting sponsor United Technologies for making it 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, and Military Times. #MCOY2018

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by Christy OFarrell.

Marine Corps Sgt. Ruben Barnett, a single dad, and his 3-year-old son, Ruben Jr. are planning to go to Dave & Buster’s arcade in Columbia, South Carolina, to celebrate Father’s Day. The two often play games, go on outings and take road trips together because Ruben arranged his schedule to allow him to spend more time with his son.

Ruben now works at the Naval Consolidated Brig at Naval Weapons Station, Charleston, South Carolina. He prefers the schedule — working 12-hour shifts, but only 14 or 15 days a month — to his old job before he was divorced, working nights often from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m., as an avionics technician on helicopters at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego. Having enlisted in June 2009, Ruben changed his career field and schedule when he re-enlisted in 2014, the year after Ruben Jr. was born. He became a correctional officer at Camp Pendleton, California, and they moved in 2015 to Charleston.

Ruben said it can be a rough job sometimes. “Every once in a while, you’ll have one prisoner that’s not having a good day, and kind of just wants to make everybody else’s day miserable too,” he said. But serving in the military has “definitely more ups than downs,” he said. “I love the Marine Corps,” including the structure and the fraternity. “I’m proud to represent it and be a part of it.”

Ruben Jr. is proud too. His dad said he used to have a children’s Marine Corps uniform that matched his own. Ruben Jr. “always says, ‘that’s cool dad,’” Ruben said. “He likes the badge and belt.”

But things changed the day before Thanksgiving 2016. When Ruben and his son left for work and daycare early that morning, all seemed normal. About 90 minutes later, the fire department called to notify Ruben at his workplace. “When I got there, I could see [the fire] from way down the street and it was terrible,” he said. “I was crushed at first but there were a lot of people there to help me. … Everyone just had words of encouragement and helped me through it.”

The fire is still under investigation, but apparently started with a faulty Bluetooth speaker, Ruben said. Right afterward, he and his son visited his hometown in Indiana to see his dad and stepmom. Then they moved into temporary housing, not far from the burned unit, and after about a month, into a more permanent location.

Photo by Airman 1st Class Kevin West.

The base housing office immediately secured a new place for the pair to live. But their new digs would have been empty since they also lost all their belongings, including furniture, clothing, household goods and food. “It was all just gone,” he said.

Operation Homefront arranged for BAE Systems in Summerville, South Carolina, to provide Ruben and his son $750 in gift cards to Lowe’s, Sears, Target and other stores, plus an additional $1,500 worth of goods, including a bed and mattress for Ruben Jr., a washer and dryer, many household items, and Christmas gifts and toys. “It was really nice,” Ruben recalls. “It was crazy like over time you build up so much stuff,” he said. “You buy stuff here; you buy stuff there. You don’t really think about how much you have or how much you’ve spent, or what you have until something like that happens.”

“I’d never heard of Operation Homefront until this fire,” Ruben said. “It was a huge relief. I was excited, I guess kind of at a loss for words.” Ruben said he was thankful that people who didn’t even know him would help. “I was grateful to be where I’m at and to receive the blessings. It’s not something that happens for everybody.”

“Hearing Ruben describe his ‘huge relief’ as a result of Operation Homefront’s support is precisely the impact we seek to deliver,” reflects John Pray, CEO and President of Operation Homefront. “We know that if we can help military families’ overcome their short-term financial challenges, we are able to ensure they stand a better chance for a brighter future — one where they thrive, not simply struggle to get by, in the communities they have worked so hard to protect.

“Thank you to Operation Homefront and BAE Systems,” Air Force Col. Robert Lyman, Joint Base Charleston commander, said in a base publication about the fire. “This was a nice and gracious touch from our community.”

Ruben Jr. never saw the burned house, his dad said. If there was a bright side, it is that Ruben Jr. has enjoyed the places they moved to after the fire. The temporary house they stayed in initially for about a month had something his old house didn’t: stairs. “He just wanted to play on the stairs the whole time,” Ruben said. And at the one-level home they’re in now, the park and playground are practically in their backyard. “He just wants to go out the back door, right to the park,” Ruben said. “It worked out perfectly.”

Now, life is getting back to normal. On Ruben’s work days, Ruben Jr. goes to daycare from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The facility is only about 15 minutes away from their home, but not on base because there was a wait list for the on-base center. On his days off, father and son have fun. “We go get haircuts every week,” Ruben said. “In the military, obviously, I have to have a haircut. I don’t feel like it would be right for me to have a haircut and he doesn’t.

“I’ll pick him up early from daycare,” he continued. “We’ll go to the park,” indoor trampolines at Velocity Air Sports or Chuck E. Cheese pizza, where they eat one of his son’s favorite foods, a list that also includes pasta and chicken nuggets. “When I’m going out, he goes with me.”

Ruben expects to be in Charleston for at least another four to five months. “Hopefully, I get selected for promotion,” he said. “I’d like to stay in for the full 20 years.”

Ruben Jr. regularly sees his mother, who also lives in Charleston, but his father is his primary caretaker.

Ruben’s father was in the Marines before Ruben was born, so he did not experience military life when he was young. But he believes it will benefit his son, maybe even giving him a chance to learn another language, if for example, they move to Japan.

“You get to experience different cultures and different walks of life,” he said. “You meet different people and see how they live. It should be a positive thing versus just growing up and you only know one thing or one way of living. It’s a huge world out there. You’ve got to get out and see it.”

 

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By John Pray, President & Chief Executive Officer
Brig. Gen. (ret.), USAF

It’s exciting to be able to see into the future. I had this rare opportunity when I had the privilege of spending time with seven exceptional military teens this week as we honored our Military Child of the Year ® recipients at our special gala in Washington DC.

Sophie, Henderson, Jamal, Jackson, Alexander, Mary and Molly – each one of these amazing young adults possesses a remarkable spirit: the spirit of selfless service that defines our great nation.

Their spirit shined as they dealt with parental deployments, relocations, and the many other uncertainties and challenges that often characterize military family life.

They have developed an inner compass that points them to give back, to lead, to volunteer, to advocate, and to serve others in their own communities.

They are extraordinary representatives of the nearly two million military children who serve all of us alongside their parents.

Our special guest for the evening, Ellyn Dunford, wife of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joe Dunford, expressed her admiration so well when she described our seven honorees:

“When you look at this year’s recipients, you’ll find an impressive example of what these kids have to offer. They volunteer extensively both in military and civilian communities, scouting and church groups, a variety of school programs and academic excellence clubs. They overcome adversity and then helped others through the same problems. They excel in sports and music. They mentor other kids. They advocate for military families and veterans’ groups. They feed their community. They provide clothing and comfort to others. Especially comfort to the parent (who remains behind). They have taken the phrase, ‘it’s in our power’ and they are living it out. They (might) just be the next greatest generation.”

I couldn’t agree more. When you are fortunate enough to interact with a special group of young people like this, you are confident that the future of our country is in good hands.

Our honorees this year are all in their late teens – they may have just been learning to walk or talk in 2002 when an informal network of military spouses first got together to support one another during post 9/11 deployments to create the organization we now know as Operation Homefront.

We’ve grown tremendously over the past 15 years, and while the world has changed significantly our mission, our promise – to build strong, stable and secure military families so they can thrive, not simply struggle to get by, in the communities they have worked so hard to protect – still drives us all.
I am proud to tell you that thanks to your support, we are making a real difference. You help us honor our military children, those who don’t have a voice in where their family will be transferred, but who certainly seize each new opportunity to focus on making a meaningful difference in whatever community they call “home.”

At Operation Homefront, one of our core values is gratitude so I need to thank those who made this year’s Military Child of the Year® celebration a huge success:

• Ellyn Dunford, our keynote speaker, who clearly articulated our collective admiration for the resiliency of our military families and the key role military children play as they serve all of us alongside their parents;
• Andre’ McMillian, representing our presenting sponsor United Technologies Corporation and all of our other sponsors who made this evening’s celebration possible;
• The one and only John Heald, Brand Ambassador for Carnival Cruise Lines, who cleverly orchestrated the night’s program as our emcee;
• The USO Show Troupe who provided an entertaining military salute;
• America’s Tenor, and my friend, Danny Rodriguez;
• And special thanks to the entire Operation Homefront family for all they have done and continue to do to build strong, stable and secure military families.

To all our 2017 honorees – I know your parents, families, AND communities are so proud of you — WE are proud of you too.

We look forward to next year and our 10th annual Military Child of the Year® Awards ceremony!

Find out more about this year’s recipients, take a look at more pictures from this year’s event or watch the 2017 Facebook Live presentation of our awards ceremony!

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It is our honor to announce the recipients of the 2017 Military Child of the Year® Award.

“These seven award recipients are among the best of their generation in terms of scholarship and service to their communities.  What is even more remarkable is that they make a profound difference in the lives of others and perform spectacularly in the classroom all while demonstrating resiliency in the face of the challenges inherent in military life,” said Brig. Gen. (ret.) John I. Pray Jr., president and CEO of Operation Homefront. “We had nearly 400 nominees for the ninth annual Military Child of the Year® Awards who personified resiliency, leadership, achievement, and strength of character. Their families, their communities, and our staff, volunteers, and corporate partners at Operation Homefront are justifiably very proud of them.”

Without further ado, here are they are!

 

Henderson Heussner, Army Military Child of the Year® Award

for-website-army-henderson-heussner-225-x-281-pixelsHenderson’s family moved to Florida from Colorado as his father was deployed to Afghanistan and as the family was caring for Henderson’s terminally ill grandfather. Henderson, recipient of the 2017 Army Military Child of the Year® Award, shouldered the emotional burden and set a leadership-by-example standard for his peers. A student-athlete and member of the Estero High School varsity baseball team – who worked tirelessly to rebuild his strength after he suffered two broken vertebrae during his sophomore year – Henderson spent many hours alone in the batting cage in August 2016 in the sweltering Florida heat. He was not alone for long because he led one teammate after another to join him in putting forth the same spare-time voluntary pursuit of excellence. That is but one example of Henderson’s leadership and can-do spirit. Henderson also devoted 240 volunteer hours in the year leading up to his nomination as a tutor and mentor for at-risk children and teens at the nonprofit New Horizons of Southwest Florida. Henderson, a onetime American Legion Boys State delegate and West Point Summer Leadership Experience participant, also served multiple terms as class president and as Student Government president. He has spent hundreds of hours as a youth group leader, Sports Camp counselor and Sunday School teacher at Summit Church.

 

Alexander McGrath, Navy Military Child of the Year® Award

for-website-navy-alexander-mcgrath-225-x-281-pixelsAlexander McGrath, the 2017 Navy Military Child of the Year® Award recipient, in addition to spending time with his friends, spends some of his spare time reading U.S. Supreme Court opinions as well as books about the U.S. Constitution. It is a fitting activity for this 17-year-old Severna Park Senior High School senior, who has established a laudable track record of influencing public policy in the state of Maryland. As first vice president of the Chesapeake Regional Association of Student Councils, which represents more than 80,000 county students at all levels of government, Alexander organized 700 students to lobby in favor of three education reform bills that would come before the Maryland General Assembly, which is the name of Maryland’s state legislature. He instructed his peers on the legislative process and on the effective use of talking points. He also arranged meetings between the hundreds of public school students and state lawmakers. Ultimately, all three bills got to committee and two became law. Alexander has long advocated on behalf of students from military families as well, personally bringing the needs of military children, notably those needs protected under the Interstate Military Compact, to the forefront of the Maryland State Board of Education’s attention.

 

Jackson Beatty, Marine Corps Military Child of the Year® Award

for-website-marine-corps-jackson-beatty-225-x-281-pixelsJackson Beatty is an 18-year-old senior at Lejeune High School and recipient of the 2017 Marine Corps Military Child of the Year® Award. He began studying Kenpo karate at the age of 4 and achieved his black belt at 16. He has served as captain of the high school wrestling team. He competed at the 2017 North Carolina State Wrestling Championships and placed third in the 1A 106-pound weight class. He has qualified for the State Championship for the last three years and that was his best finish. He has been captain of the Marching Band drumline. He has a near-perfect GPA and has an outstanding track record of volunteerism, thusly giving back to the community, especially to children. Jackson has achieved these milestones through his skeletal dysplasia, a condition which hampers the growth and development of bones and joints. Working in conjunction with the Semper Fi Fund, which serves the children of wounded warriors, Jackson has been a mentor to other students participating in the Outdoor Odyssey Leadership Academy. Jackson is a Lejeune High School Band Booster, raising money for competition and band necessities. Jackson teaches karate to children in his spare time at Wright’s Mixed Martial Arts.

 

Jamal Braxton, Air Force Military Child of the Year® Award

for-website-air-force-jamal-braxton-225-x-281-pixelsVarsity swimming. Varsity cross country. Varsity outdoor track and field.  Jamal Braxton, the 2017 Air Force Military Child of the Year® Award recipient and future United States Air Force Academy Class of 2021 cadet, has been an achiever in them all.  This 18-year-old senior at Northridge High School in Hill Air Force Base, Utah, is distinguished, above all, by his selfless service to others. Jamal fills numerous leadership positions at the Red Cross, including Northern Utah Youth Co-Chair for Services to Armed Forces, Northern Utah Youth Co-Chair for International Services, Student Staff for Red Cross Leadership Development Camp, Member for the American Red Cross of Northern Utah Board of Directors, and the Northern Utah Youth Co-President. In these capacities, Jamal oversees monthly veteran house visits, youth group and leadership group meetings, numerous activities related to the armed forces, the recruitment of future Red Cross Youth Services leaders, and numerous fundraisers, including the International Measles & Rubella initiative fundraiser. He also educates youth on International Humanitarian Law. Serving military families abroad as well as domestically, Jamal earned the Commander’s Leadership Award from the 52nd Fighter Wing Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, in 2013 and in 2014. Jamal in the U.S. and overseas has been a champion for the nonprofit New Eyes for the Needy.

 

Molly Frey, National Guard Military Child of the Year® Award

for-website-national-guard-molly-frey-225-x-281-pixelsAlthough only 16, Molly Frey is a senior at Pickerington High School North in Pickerington, Ohio, and recipient of the 2017 National Guard Military Child of the Year® Award. She has been accepted to Capital University, where she will major in biology, with an emphasis on pre-med, and will play golf for the Capital Crusaders. For her academic excellence, Molly received a letter from President Barack Obama that read, in part, “Students like you will chart the course of our country’s unwritten history…” As a figure skater, dedicated to causes that benefit the troops, Molly and her coach in 2012 created the inaugural and annual figure skating show Tribute to the Troops, a program to honor the military and to collect donated items to send to deployed service members. She also raised funds and participated for five years in Skate for Hope, accumulating more than $6,000 for Breast Cancer research. Beyond the arts, Molly has served in the leadership group Students Serving Students, which is designed to improve character, bolster school climate, and organize events.

 

Mary Kate Cooper, Coast Guard Military Child of the Year® Award

for-website-coast-guard-mary-kate-cooper-225-x-281-pixelsMary Kate Cooper, the 2017 Coast Guard Military Child of the Year® Award recipient, is a 17-year-old junior at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Va. A triple threat, Mary Kate is a scholar who is taking AP Calculus B/C as a junior and has a weighted 4.7 GPA. She is a star multi-sport athlete of national and international acclaim and a community activist who has devoted countless volunteer hours to the betterment of her peers and to strengthening a broader understanding of those with disabilities. That description does not even scratch the surface of Mary Kate’s life, which is practically the definition of resiliency. Mary Kate is a below-the-knee amputee from birth who has only known life with a prosthetic leg. She has transitioned from playing recreational soccer against able-bodied kids to competing at the highest level in Paralympic sports. In addition to earning All-American High School status in Track and Field from the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field Olympic Committee, Mary has become a top swimmer, competing on the international level in the Can-Am Swimming Open. Mary Kate was one of the few athletes to qualify for the U.S. Paralympic Trials in more than one sport. While Mary Kate did not earn a spot on Team USA last year, in her best swimming event, she ranked 36th in the world.

 

Sophie Bernstein, Military Child of the Year® Award for Innovation sponsored by Booz Allen Hamilton

for-website-innovation-sophie-bernstein-225-x-281-pixelsRecipient of the 2017 Military Child of the Year® Award for Innovation, Sophie Bernstein, a 17-year-old junior at Clayton High School in St. Louis, is passionate about food and about social justice. Sophie’s twin passions propelled her award-winning Innovation. Committed to improving the health of her community, Sophie has built, planted, maintained and harvested 22 raised vegetable gardens at low-income daycare centers and shelters in the St. Louis area. Sophie’s innovation has raised awareness of childhood hunger in the community, and it has increased the volume of fresh and healthy produce available at food banks and at child care facilities. Sophie had donated more than 13,570 pounds of produce to local food banks and to families in need by the time she was nominated for the award in the fall of 2016. Sophie’s project has been a hands-on learning lab for children as she has led 225 science technology engineering and math (STEM) botany and plant science workshops for young children throughout the year. In the process, students at low-income pre-schools are engaged in building, planting and maintaining produce gardens.

 

What’s next?

Each award recipient will receive $10,000 and will be flown with a parent or guardian to Washington, D.C., for a special recognition gala on April 6, during which senior military leaders will present the awards. In addition to the $10,000 cash award, the Military Child of the Year® Award for Innovation award recipient will receive a mentorship by Booz Allen Hamilton employees to scale or to advance the recipient’s project.

We would like to express our thanks to our presenting sponsor for the 2017 Military Child of the Year® Awards Gala, United Technologies Corporation, along with sponsors Booz Allen Hamilton, Murphy-Goode Winery, La Quinta Inns & Suites, MidAtlanticBroadband, and the Military Times.

Check back with us as we shine a spotlight on our recipients over the next few weeks and stay tuned for details on how you can join us LIVE from the April 6th gala on our Facebook page.

Find out more about our Military Child of the Year®  Award program at www.militarychildoftheyear.org

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Former Marine Sayku Dudley describes his childhood in Atlanta, Georgia, as rough. As a kid, Sayku was motivated to find a better life for himself.

Sayku started going to softball games and barbeques hosted by local military recruiters and became good friends with one of them.

“As things became worse in my environment,” said Sayku, “I decided to … join the military. As I was deciding which branch of service to go into, I thought the Marines looked the toughest and the fittest. I went into the Marines because I wanted to look like that guy who stood out from the rest.”

dudleyAfter basic training at Paris Island, South Carolina, Sayku was stationed at Twenty-nine Palms, the Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command in California.  He spent time in Japan and Mexico before returning to Atlanta to join the Marine Reserves.

After 9/11, Sayku deployed to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.  “I was almost killed,” said Sayku. “But I recovered.” Eventually he came back to Georgia. “My career was cut short at the end,” said Sayku. “I am fighting for medical retirement. I have had multiple personal problems. I have lost stripes. Since 2009, I have been going through the storm of my life.”

Sayku struggles with depression and post-traumatic stress. His financial situation was bleak and he faced having his lights and utilities shut off. He first turned to Wounded Warrior Project for help, and in turn, they referred him to Operation Homefront.  Operation Homefront was able to provide   the financial assistance he needed during a difficult financial time.

Sakyu request was just one of over 1,700 military families we’ve helped so far this year, and one of 11,000 since our inception in 2012.  89.4% of our 2016 clients surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that OH’s Emergency Assistance Program helps build strong, stable, and secure military families.

Sayku is thankful that things are better now than they were last year. “I was in a mental state that I didn’t know I was in or how to get out. After I left the military, I had problems and haven’t been able to do. This is not where I ever thought I would be.”

To those who donate to OH, Sayku said, “There are not a lot of words. I would rather do than say. I am so very thankful. I am glad that you (OH) was able to help me. Asking for help really checks your pride. I am very thankful for the help, and I am on a new path and thanks to you I can do for now. I definitely know what it’s like to not have. It’s very humbling to be where I am.”

Sayku recently began work at Home Depot part-time. “I haven’t been in the work world for a while,” said Sayku. “This is a new start. I have been on a rocky road filled with debts and family problems. But now I am in a different place and keep remembering how far I came. I am starting over new. This time I am going to succeed either by working multiple jobs or going back to school.”

Join in the conversation with us as we celebrate those veterans among us, by sharing stories of your own. Through Facebook or Twitter, please use the hashtag #11days11stories to share your own inspirational story of a veteran in your life.

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