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Two military children who formed their own charity organizations are among the five teens receiving Operation Homefront’s 2014 Military Child of the Year awards.
Each will receive $5,000, a laptop and a trip to Washington, D.C., for a ceremony on Thursday where their awards will be presented by senior leaders of each service branch. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will speak at the ceremony.
Several of the students have struggled with their own health issues or those of a family member, but all are driven to help others in their military and civilian communities. Among them are athletes, an actress and three aspiring doctors. Collectively, they’ve had at least one parent deployed for 131 months, moved 30 times, and racked up 2,325 hours of volunteer work — and counting.
This is the sixth annual Military Child of the Year awards event held by the nonprofit Operation Homefront. The winners were chosen from a pool of nearly 1,000 nominees. The selection committee included active-duty and retired service members, spouses of senior military leaders, veterans service organization leaders, teachers and community members.
Each of the students note they are honored to have been chosen and know that they represent thousands of other military children with exemplary character and accomplishments.
Gage Dabin, 17
Gage Dabin’s outlook on life changed when his mother, Jennifer Adam, endured cancer treatments from 2008 to 2010. For quite some time, she was bedridden, and the family went from two incomes to one.
“Our church brought us meals for three months straight,” says Jennifer, a mortgage specialist. “Gage really stepped up as a big brother” for his younger brothers, helping out with them after school.
“I realized in my hour of greatest need people were there to help us,” Gage says. “It gave me strength to be a pillar for my family.” And the kindness of others has motivated him to give back.
“If I can be there in their hour of need to help them, I will gladly sacrifice my personal time to do that,” he says, adding that helping others “changes lives. It’s momentous.”
His volunteer activities include helping serve meals at a local soup kitchen and helping out at the local VA hospital, a homeless shelter and a food bank. But his favorite activity, he says, is helping at a local elementary school at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. He listens to the children read, helps them with writing, math, “whatever the teacher needs,” he says. With soccer season starting up, he hasn’t had as much time with the younger kids, but tries to visit them at least once a week.
He maintains a 4.0 grade-point average with a full load of Advanced Placement courses, is a member of the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at Bartlett High School in Anchorage, and was named the Boys & Girls Club’s Alaska military youth of the year in February.
Gage volunteers with Anchorage’s Promise Youth Advisory Board, where his team created a citywide campaign, Random Texts of Kindness, highlighting bullying awareness and suicide prevention.
“The moment Gage joined the committee, he showed his commitment to service, his leadership, and a level of character you don’t typically see in youth his age,” wrote Amey Armachain, who serves on the board of directors of Anchorage’s Promise.
Gage’s step-father, Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Tobias Adam, is deputy fire chief with the 673rd Civil Engineer Squadron at the base.
Gage says he was excited just to be nominated for Air Force Military Child of the Year and was “shocked” to find out he had won, considering the competition.
His advice for other military kids: “Be you. Always do your best no matter what. You go through tough times. I’ve struggled, but came out in the end learning something. Be aware of your surroundings, and be there for your community.”
Kenzie Hall, 16
After her parents gave her the opportunity to “live out a dream” for a year — to take her mind off her dad’s deployment to Afghanistan when she was 11 — Kenzie Hall started an organization to help other military kids live out their dreams.
She wanted to explore acting, so the family moved to Dallas, where Kenzie and her sister worked with acting coaches and traveled to Los Angeles for auditions and to sign with an agent. When her dad, Army Capt. Jason Hall, came home mid-deployment, she was touched when he told her about a soldier, the father of two little girls, who had died in Afghanistan. Kenzie decided to gather donations to send the soldier’s widow and daughters on a four-day trip to Disneyland.
That was the beginning of “Bratpack 11,” with Kenzie focusing on children of service members who had died or been wounded in combat.
“I thought other military kids should be able to live out a dream and do something fun and worthwhile,” she says.
Bratpack 11 didn’t immediately start out as a full-fledged organization. In an effort to expand its reach, Kenzie sent a message to a national charity, The Boot Campaign, asking if Bratpack 11 would fit under that broader umbrella.
“We took the idea and made it an element of The Boot Campaign ... it falls really nicely under our family support pillar,” says Myra Brandenburg, human resources director at the organization.
It was Brandenburg who nominated Kenzie for Army Military Child of the Year, “because of her compassion and tenderheartedness towards other children who have lost a family member or whose family member has been injured. She realized that change in the family dynamic meant change in the ability to go on a vacation.”
Kenzie hopes Bratpack 11 can grant three more wishes by the end of this year.
Kenzie, now in 10th grade — and attending her 10th school, says her mother, Aerica Hall — realized military children need a community of kids to relate to, with all the moving around, so she also started a school club that supports military families.
“She has a great group of friends excited to help out,” Aerica says.
Kenzie says it wasn’t easy to launch a charity as an 11-year-old. “I had a lot of people who doubted me. They thought I was crazy,” Kenzie says. “The one person who stood by my side was my mother. She believed in me, and for that I’m forever grateful.”
Her advice for other military kids: “Never let anyone tell you you can’t accomplish something. Believe you can do anything. Stay strong, and be there for others.”
Juanita Collins, 17
Juanita Collins maintains a 4.5 cumulative GPA and is ranked in the top 10 of her class of 305 seniors. She’s president of her senior class and was junior class president; was most valuable player of the varsity volleyball team for all four of her years at Largo High School; received the Ann Frank Humanitarian Award in 2013 for her community service; and was one of 10 students selected from Pinellas and Hillsborough county schools to travel with the Ryan Nece Foundation to the Dominican Republic for student service projects.
“She’s basically involved in every organization on campus,” says Courtney Ward, Juanita’s nominator and guidance counselor for the Exploring Careers and Education in Leadership magnet program at Largo High School. “She wants to serve our school and her fellow students. She’s someone with integrity and is service-minded. She always takes the high road, and is an extremely good example for other students. We absolutely adore her.”
Juanita says she spends about eight to 10 hours a week volunteering and adds that the involvement with her school and community has been rewarding. She continues to volunteer for the Ryan Nece Foundation and also at a local hospice facility. She coaches a 13-year-old-girls’ volleyball team and teaches a preschool class at her church.
Her goal is to be a pediatrician. “I’ve always wanted to help people, and I love kids,” she says.
Her mother, Chief Yeoman Tafaoga Collins, is stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater; her father, Ricky Collins, is a security guard.
“I’m very grateful to be part of a military family,” Juanita says, noting that the family’s move from California to Florida in 2010 had a huge impact on her. “It changed my perspective. There were a lot of great opportunities for me here.”
Her advice for other military kids: “There’s always an opportunity for you somewhere else. Whatever change brings, there’s always a benefit from it.”
Michael-Logan Jordan, 15
When Marine Corps Master Sgt. Christopher Jordan returned home after being wounded in 2006, his son Logan had just been released from the hospital after a serious illness. “They rehabbed together,” says Logan’s mother, ReBecca Jordan.
“Chris understood what it’s like to be in chronic pain, and Logan understood what it’s like to put your life on the line. They rehabbed for a year, side by side. It was an amazing thing,” she says.
“It’s hard for our service members when they are gone a lot, and when they have a child with a significant illness, you don’t want to worry them a lot,” she says. “It wasn’t until they were both down and out that they lifted each other up.”
Logan is in pain every day from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which affects his entire body, even his eyes. Some days are worse than others. “When I get really achy and weak, I use a cane to support myself,” he says. But nothing stops him from giving to others. Last year alone, he clocked more than 1,200 volunteer hours.
He is president of his foundation, the Logan’s Heroes Foundation, which helps wounded warriors, first responders and disadvantaged children. He’s an ambassador for the Arthritis Foundation, and at age 13 spoke to lawmakers in Congress about arthritis and the need for board-certified pediatric rheumatologists with the Defense Department community.
He is in honors classes and is freshman class president. He volunteers for a number of organizations, including the USO, Armed Services YMCA, Blue Star Families’ MilKidz Club, and Hawaiian Foster Families, for which he just finished a yearlong project to provide more than 500 head-to-toe outfits for foster children. He also tutors science and math.
His goal is to promote arthritis awareness events in every state; to date, he’s hit 10, his mother said.
Logan says giving back to others helps him in many ways — including physically. “I believe that’s my only cure,” he says.
When he was 5, his parents took him to a Toys for Tots event where they were volunteering and explained that there were children who didn’t get many presents for Christmas. “It really touched me that some kids don’t get the same amount and don’t get to celebrate Christmas the way I did,” he said. “I vowed that instead of getting gifts, I’d give gifts. It all branched from that ... whether it’s helping my neighbor or the nonprofit.”
His medical condition won’t allow him to be a Marine like his father, but he wants to help the military community by becoming a pediatric rheumatologist, focusing his practice within military treatment facilities.
When Logan was younger, he was bullied a lot, his mother says. “They called him names and tried to kick his cane out from under him,” she says. Now Logan has kids coming to him all the time for advice.
“It’s an amazing transformation, from the kid being picked on to the kid who is looked up to,” he says.
His advice for other military kids: “Be grateful you have the chance to move and experience new places. Be proud of your parent, guardian, brother, sister — anyone that is serving in the military. If you feel your life is rough, find the positive side. It will make you stronger in the end.”
Ryan Curtin, 17
Corpus Christi, Texas
Ryan Curtin is an Eagle Scout, a high academic achiever and an avid soccer player for his high school team. But the personal accomplishment he likes to talk about is “being able to be happy where I am.”
“When you move every two years, you feel insecure. Sometimes it takes two years to make friends, and you’re just getting close” when it comes time for another move.
“I know what sadness moving can bring,” he said — having moved nine times in his lifetime.
He has learned to “live in the moment and not worry about moving in two years, and to be focused on the people you’re with now.”
Ryan has learned what a difference getting involved in his community can make, and advises other military kids to do the same. “It definitely makes you feel happy about your whole life — put a lot of time into organizations that make people feel better, that help out people,” he says.
Ryan’s father is Capt. Rex Curtin, commodore of Training Air Wing Four at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi; his mother, Lisa, was interim director of the local Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society chapter until she recently resigned to prepare for the family’s upcoming move. Ryan has volunteered at the relief society as well as for Blue Star Families and a local food bank.
His Eagle Scout project involved leading 57 Marine, Navy, Boy Scout and civilian volunteers to build a staircase and deck and do a major landscape upgrade for a Marine facility on base.
He said there is no single thing that motivates him to help others. “It’s the choice you make. I don’t like to sit still. Everybody likes to spend time with friends, but I split that with community service and other related things,” he says.
Some of his favorite volunteer activities are tied to helping other military children adjust after a move. He is a “plank owner” of the Navy youth sponsorship program on base, which connects with other military children and their families before they move to the state. “We made a video about everything there is to do in Corpus Christi so they’ll be more excited about coming to the new place,” he said.
He has also helped start the Student 2 Student program at Flour Bluff High School, welcoming new students and helping them adjust.
He said he was honored to be named Navy Military Child of the Year, especially given the competition among the 1,000 people who were nominated.
“Ryan knows this isn’t about Ryan,” says his father, who nominated him for the award. “It’s about the privilege of representing all the other Navy kids. He’ll be standing on stage, but he gets it — it’s not about him.”
His advice for other military kids: “Spend time with your family. They’re always going to be there for you. Often we move at the beginning of summer and there are three or four months where it’s just you and your family. It brings everybody closer.”