Tag Archives: Young Hero

An Honors Course 
in Giving

July 24, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jenna Liakos has already learned the immense value of volunteerism in her community—having completed countless volunteer hours contributing her time to the Omaha Warriors (her little sister’s softball team), the Aksarben Ball, and the Bickford House (through All Saints Episcopal Church). 

In fact, one of her most valuable experiences, and lasting relationships, has come from working through the Munroe-Meyer Institute and volunteering with their Circle of Friends, a social club for people with autism. She started working with kids who have disabilities because, “my brother volunteered at Munroe-Meyer, then my sister did it and enjoyed it, so I did it and really enjoy it so far.” In this capacity, she works with preschool children all the way up to kids her age. “I like being with the smaller kids, it’s just hilarious. Some of the things that come out of their mouths is so funny.” One girl who she enjoyed volunteering with loved the Husker football team, so she makes the volunteers and other kids stack their hands in a team “huddle.” Liakos enjoys interacting with the kids and their imaginations while doing crafts, exercises, and cooking. 

It is Hayden Sommer, however, who has brought her the greatest joy over their four-year friendship. When he first arrived at middle school in fifth grade, he had trouble communicating with others. According to Liakos, since they started working together, “the amount of progress that we’ve seen is really amazing.” 

Hayden’s mother, Heidi Sommer, explains, “he’s pretty severe. Back-and-forth communication is quite difficult for him, but when he sees Jenna, you can just tell that he really likes her [by] his smile.” What is great about their relationship is that it has continued to grow outside of just the Circle of Friends, and Liakos continues greeting Hayden daily in the hallways at school. She continues in a gush, “I think what’s really genuine about Jenna is that…as kids get older, you see these relationships kind of derail, and she has not done that. She values everybody, she’s showing kids and adults in the community the way it should be done.” 

In fact, during Autism Awareness Month, Liakos and Sommer, along with the other members of the Circle of Friends, put together a public service announcement for PTI (Parent Training and Information) Nebraska, an awareness group for parents of children with disabilities or special health care needs.  

While it seems as though she keeps busy with all these volunteer activities, she also competes with a traveling softball team, sings in two show choirs, and participates in musicals. Yet Liakos truly enjoys the time she spends helping others. She says her parents taught her and her siblings, from a young age, to help out in the community and give back to people. 

And the tenacious student has it in mind to beat her older siblings’ immense numbers of volunteer hours served by the time she graduates from Westside High School. Her brother, Jonathan, accomplished 400 hours in his time, while sister Victoria completed 300 hours.

Liakos is extremely grateful for all that volunteering has taught her, particularly the lesson “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Having seen those who are struggling and going through difficult times, she has learned to not judge, but rather to listen to everyone’s story. “Some of the stories that I’ve heard from them,” Liakos says, “they’ve changed how I look at people and life.”


This article was printed in the Fall 2018 edition of Family Guide.

Lending Book and a Helping Hand

June 28, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

On a recent Monday evening, Omahan Kalli Pettit wheeled a squeaky book cart down a hospital hallway. A pair of teenagers jostled each other as they walked past.

Kalli, not much older at age 18, continued pushing the cart toward a family waiting area where she spotted a father busy on his cellphone and a preschooler bouncing from seat to seat.

“Book on a cart,” the young boy shouted with excitement.

“Would you like to pick out a book?” Kalli asked. 

The father placed the caller on hold to help his son.

“Look, Dad! Dinosaurs!”

Even though the interaction was brief, Kalli says seeing the young boy’s smile stretch from ear to ear was worth every bit of time she spends volunteering at Omaha Children’s Hospital & Medical Center.

The Marian High School senior started volunteering with the hospital in summer 2017. Teen volunteer services at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center typically increases in the summer months as young students are on break from school. Kalli started volunteering a few hours each week in June at the hospital’s Kids Camp, which is an area designated for siblings of family members attending routine clinic appointments to long-term care.

Friends and family say she’s always gravitated to helping kids. Perhaps it’s because not so long ago Kalli was in their shoes.

Kalli had a recent episode that forced her to spend a few nights at that very hospital’s sixth floor—the next area in which she planned to wheel the book cart. 

It wasn’t her first trip to the hospital. In 2009, Kalli—daughter of Mark and Kristie Pettit—was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 9.

“I remember being so young when nurses and doctors explained what was happening to my body,” Kalli says. “I was worried all of the time, but remember how calm the nurses and doctors were. They really inspired me to give back. It’s why I’m here today volunteering.”

She wants to spread that support and positivity to other kids.

“Having been a patient there initiated the whole idea,” says Kristie of her daughter’s volunteer work. “She loves to work with kids. Always has.”

“These kids have so much going in their lives. They’re trying to stay strong,” Kalli says. “As a volunteer, you can’t show them you’re sad.”

Kalli volunteers in the Teen Connection at Children’s Volunteer Services with roughly 50 other students to help in various capacities from the book cart to kids camps and hospital greeters.

“She’s been a great volunteer,” says Angela Loyd, a spokeswoman who oversees the Volunteer Services department. “She’s so cheerful and nice when helping families.”

“I want to make kids feel welcome at the hospital. Just knowing their minds are at ease a little bit as we play is worth my time,” Kalli says. “Sometimes we would paint or draw or play house. Really whatever they wanted to do that day. I always felt bad when it was time to leave because I didn’t want to leave.”

Knowing she has the power to make a difference in someone’s life is rewarding, Kalli says. She encourages other young people to consider service opportunities in their areas.

“No matter what, always have a positive attitude,” she advises. “How you express yourself can affect the way other people view you and how they’ll react to you.”


Visit childrensomaha.org for more information.

This article was originally printed in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of Family Guide.

Giving to the Dogs

August 4, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

Ella Alberts has loved dogs since she could remember. That’s how the 5’4” girl ended up standing next to the 6’4” swimmer who has won more Olympic medals than any athlete.

Ella’s helpless at the sight of round puppy eyes, floppy ears, and wiggly tails. Squeal! The pitter-patter of tiny puppy paws wins her over—every time. In fact, they are the inspiration of her volunteer work.

The 12-year-old Westside Middle School student has dedicated the better part of her young life to raise money to help animals at local shelters.

Ella’s big heart for small animals became evident when she was a tot, and the thought of a homeless animal tugs at Ella’s heartstrings.

“She’s not allowed to go into the Humane Society alone because she leaves crying,” Mary says.

Ella, an only child, has three dachshund siblings at home: George, Dodge, and Dolly. Quite active little pups. Mary and husband Ron Alberts say there’s never a dull moment in the family’s home.

The Alberts have fostered animals on-again, off-again throughout the years, but exclusively began serving as a foster family for dogs in 2013. That’s when the Alberts visited a local animal shelter where Ella found a small, aging dachshund named Paris with no eyes, no teeth, and a tumor.

“I just have to take her home to love her,” Ella told her mother, who explained that the animal may not live long.

Caring for terminally ill dogs is not about wishing the pets back to better health, but more about finding a place for them to comfortably live out the last days of their lives.

Then, it happened. One of the foster pets didn’t make it. Ella was heartbroken.

“She was in the room as it drifted off,” Mom recalls. “Ella was very comforting and calm. You don’t want them to pass in the shelter after many of them have lived neglected lives. This dog in particular was in a puppy mill her whole life and then went to the shelter…poor thing.”

The experience moved Ella to help others. She was 8 when she came up with the idea to host a lemonade stand. Sales increased once word got out that she was raising funds to help homeless animals. Ella’s one-day lemonade stand is a now-annual fundraiser for Hearts United for Animals.

The first year, Ella raised $600. Now, four years later, she’s since raised more than $1,300 and given countless shelter supplies such as dog food, beds, laundry detergent, and other puppy goods. Ella is pleased that the money raised pays for surgeries for needy dogs.

Ella’s love for dogs, and unwavering dedication to service earned her a special recognition. She was named the Nebraska recipient of the 2017 Prudential Spirit of Community Award.

The national award program recognizes exemplary middle and high school students. Two students from each state and Washington, D.C., are chosen based on volunteer efforts.
The honorees received $1,000 and an engraved silver medal, which was presented by Olympic gold-medalist Michael Phelps.

Needless to say, the trip was life-changing for Ella. While in D.C. the Alberts visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, which touched Ella deeply. She has since read several books about those who sacrificed their lives in the Vietnam War.

Ella kept busy with dance lessons and track this summer, along with her continued effort in promoting her lemonade stand, collecting donations, and fostering dogs.

“Isn’t that wonderful,” says Carol Wheeler, founder of Hearts United for Animals shelter. “Ella has done the lemonade stand for several years. It’s simply charming.”

The 65-acre no-kill shelter just an hour outside of Omaha is grateful to see such a young, dedicated person believe in its mission of rehabilitating animals medically and socially.

“I think she is exceptional for having done this for many years,” Wheeler said. “We do see young people who have their birthday parties and they have guests bring gifts for the dogs instead of them.”

Ella’s dedication is striking, says Wheeler.

“She’s exceptional because she’s dedicated herself…not just one year or one event, but continues to give. It’s very touching to receive her gifts.”

This article was printed in the Fall 2017 edition of Family Guide.

Third Time’s A Charm

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There will be a time in Larry Mercier III’s life when he won’t be lacing his ice skates and pulling a hockey sweater over his head. Until that time comes, the Papillion-LaVista South High School senior is determined to enjoy—and give back to—the sport he has played since second grade.

It was not readily apparent on an unusually warm and sunny day this past January, but the clock was already ticking down on Mercier (pronounced Muhr-SEE-err) and his time as a competitive high school hockey player for the Omaha Jr. Lancers. At 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, he is a bit undersized by hockey standards. But talk with any of his teammates and coaches and you will find out the forward-playing right wing more than makes up for his diminutive stature with a give-it-everything-all-the-time attitude on and off the ice.

Even with the best work ethic, the numbers are not in his favor. Only 10 percent of the nearly 36,000 boys playing high school hockey will make it to the collegiate level, according to 2015 figures as provided by scholarshipstats.com. So Mercier is trying to make the most of his hockey experience by lending a hand to others who are pursuing that dream.

During a winter practice at Ralston Arena, Mercier was easy to spot in a forest green practice jersey that stands out amongst a midst of powder blue, black, and neon-green-colored jerseys worn by the other two dozen players on the ice. He led a drill that had each player sprint the length of the ice while guiding the puck, then taking his best shot to fire it past one of the team’s waiting goalies. Occasionally throughout the hour-long practice, a whistle sounded.

It is a signal to every player to sprint and skate several times around the center logo on the ice. It is one way to stay in top-flight condition built from a foundation of off-season training.

Offseason hockey camps are just as important as regular season practice or the approximately 40 games that the Omaha Jr. Lancers will play between October and March. Camp is a time to become a better skater, to improve on puck handling, or to work on shooting, passing, and individual skills. An hour on the ice in the summer and another hour of “dry land training” can often be the difference between making the roster of a team at the next level or ending up as a player who does not make the cut.

For the past two seasons, Mercier has been passing knowledge from his own regimented training routine to youngsters on the Jr. Lancers bantam program, a team made up of seventh and eighth graders who aspire to play high school hockey. His younger brother, Logan, took that path to Jr. Lancers’ junior varsity team.

“I liked to help out with their practices, whenever we don’t have games on the weekend and they did,” Larry says.”

Sometimes it was just fetching water bottles or pucks after drills. Other times, I would be in the locker room before games and give them a little pep talk or tell them what I was seeing between periods.”

While helping youngsters at camps is a possible career option after college, more realistic is Mercier’s path of progress in academics, not athletics. The past four semesters, the honor roll student has juggled a full load of advanced placement courses for college—government, history, honors calculus, statistics, and physics. His diligence off the ice is preparation for a career in engineering or aerospace engineering … possibly even an appointment to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“Maybe I can become a test pilot of some sort,” he says with a tinge of enthusiasm. “I have always liked math. It not only has come easy to me, but I also enjoy it. That’s why I am thinking engineering.”

One of Mercier’s instructors at Papillion-LaVista South, Dustin “Bubba” Penas, noticed his potential in the classroom immediately.

“Larry is an outstanding student who always came prepared for class,” Penas says. “His positivity and smile were great to have and he was very engaged and active every day. He is a go-getter who will be outstanding in anything he goes into. He is able to take on any project and will always see it through to the end.”

And that end, as far as hockey is concerned, is likely right around the corner.

“I have always loved hockey ever since I started playing it,” Mercier says. “But there is a point for every athlete that they have to pick what they really want to do with their life. I have gotten to the point where hockey has been my passion. But I don’t think I want to play anything that is too huge as far as a time commitment. In the end, my education is going to be what gets me far in life. So I am hoping to focus on that.”

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of Family Guide.

 

Elizabeth Byrnes

November 20, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Students come up to me in the halls and ask when the pantry is going to stock toothbrushes…Toothbrushes…What they’re coming in for, it’s not just food they need, but basic items to survive and help their family.”

-Elizabeth Byrnes

Tucked away in a discreet supply room at Ralston High School, beyond the steel lockers and crowded classrooms, Elizabeth Byrnes is stocking nonperishable goods.

While classmates hurry to first period at 7:30 a.m., Byrnes shuffles paperwork, counts inventory, coordinates volunteer shifts, and organizes pick-ups and drop-offs for the school’s food pantry.

Byrnes is not your typical teenager. Sure, she’s a 17-year-old cheerleader who gabs on a smartphone and loves to shop at American Eagle. But this 5-foot-6-inch brown-eyed beauty takes her community service seriously.

So when she saw a sign last year advertising the school’s free food pantry, titled the R-Pantry, Byrnes decided to check it out.

“I didn’t know it was needed,” she says.

On that particular day, she visited the small closet of a lecture room where teachers had been operating a makeshift pantry that allowed students in need to shop anonymously for food, toiletries, and other supplies inside the high school.

Roughly 60 percent of students at Ralston Public Schools receive free or reduced-rate meals.

To create a healthy pantry, teacher Dan Boster says the Ralston High staff noticed the need and donated nonperishable items and the seed money—roughly $800 worth—in exchange for casual dress days.

“Once the pantry was created, we handed it off to the students,” says Boster, who also serves as National Honor Society adviser and oversees the pantry project.

Byrnes acquired the larder responsibility and has helped it evolve from the small closet of a lecture hall into a spacious supply room with large tower shelves brimming with food as diverse as artichoke hearts, fruit snacks, and granola bars.

Byrnes has grown the one-person operation to having 70 volunteers on deck to assist when needed. She has presented before the Ralston Chamber of Commerce when soliciting for donations and has advocated and made Ralston High an official Food Bank of the Heartland donation site.

She describes the families who utilize the pantry as living break-even lifestyles, existing paycheck-to-paycheck, with little left over for simple luxuries such as lip balm or toilet paper. Students from such families experience a lot of stress and anxiety over where their next meal is coming from, she adds.

“I saw how education is extremely difficult to get, especially if there’s a need in the household,” Byrnes says. “Students come up to me in the halls and ask when the pantry is going to stock toothbrushes…toothbrushes…What they’re coming in for, it’s not just food they need, but basic items to survive and help their family.”

Food insecurity—which means that people lack access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle—can be invisible, she explains. “Not knowing if there will be dinner on Friday night or lunch on Saturday.”

The R-Pantry idea is a positive response to a really challenging situation: student hunger. It is not the ultimate solution, but it is a start.

“I have so much respect and admiration for these students who are asking for help to support their
families.”

Byrnes excels in calculus, biology, and creative writing. She serves on DECA, is a class officer, and participates in National Honors Society. She enjoys running, hiking, and playing with her two dogs—Sophia and Jack.

Byrnes credits her family for always influencing her to do what’s best and help those in need. Dad (Robert E. Byrnes) is a doctor. Mom (Mary Byrnes) is a mortgage banker. Brother (Kent Keller) is a police officer.

“Her empathy for people runs very deep,” her mother says.

However, the driven teen doesn’t always communicate well with mom and dad, jokes her mother: “She was never one to seek glory. We didn’t know how involved she had been in the pantry until she was recognized. When she made homecoming court, we didn’t know about it until people began congratulating us.”

Mom adds, “She moves through life as if this is just a job. Helping others is just what she does.”

Byrnes plans to attend a four-year university next year and major in biology. She’d like to someday become a cosmetic dentist or dermatologist.

Byrnes encourages other young people: “If you see something you could change or help out, don’t be afraid to jump in there. You could change someone’s life with your one small action.”

The R-Pantry at Ralston High School (8969 Park Drive), is open on Fridays after school until 4 p.m. To volunteer, contact the school at 402-331-7373.

This article was printed in the Winter 2016 edition of Family Guide, an Omaha Publications magazine.

Nicole 
Carrillo

April 9, 2015 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Originally published in March 2015 HerFamily.

Nicole Carrillo says she can make friends anywhere. Even at the airport.

Case in point: On a chilly night in November, Nicole stood with her fellow Thrive Club members at Eppley Airfield holding colorful signs. Nicole’s read “WELCOME TO OMAHA!” with the O’s shaped like hearts. Moments later, wild applause, laughter, and some tears erupted from the relatives, students, and coaches gathered for this moment.

Nicole’s soon-to-be-new friends were a refugee family just arriving from Burma. Marisol, Nicole’s mother and one of the sponsors of Thrive, was overwhelmed as tears flooded her eyes. “It was life- changing,” Marisol recalls.

Members of the Thrive Club, along with Lutheran Family Services, provided a cozy home environment for the immigrant family in an apartment volunteer’s chocked full of groceries, clothes, and furniture.

Nicole, a junior at Northwest High School, had filled out a grant to present to her principal, Thomas Lee, to do something for a family that would be lost in a foreign world.

Emigrating is hard, scary, often emotionally draining. Nicole’s empathy stems from hearing the story of her parents. Marisol, a native of Mexico, left for the United States in her teens to pursue a cosmetics license. It was difficult, she says, but she argues she had it easier than her husband Joel, who she would later meet in English classes.

Joel started his first job in the “worst town you can think of”—Aguascalientes, Mexico. He loaded heavy bricks into trucks and, along with 15 or so other boys, sold them house-to-house. He was five at the time. Joel came to the United States when he was 15. Later, he worked 60 to 70 hours a week while attending college classes at night, sometimes even taking a course during his lunch hour.

Nicole sees what her parents had to go through—all their hard work. So she strives to be the best. As a 4.0 student, Nicole is currently right behind her best friend for the top spot on the GPA ladder. “It has been a long steady fight,” she says, “but it’s all in good fun.” However, like most high achievers, Nicole gets upset if she receives a B on a test or paper, but her parents do not.

“My parents are like ‘you are doing the best you can,’” Nicole says resting her hand on her cheek during a recent interview.. “Love them.”

Nicole says attending Northwest was one the best decisions she has ever made. “She is one of the best ambassadors for the school,” Lee says. Nicole is active in all aspects of the school, including student council, National Honor Society, and choir. She has won numerous community service awards and was one of five in the nation to be selected for the National Youth Advisory Council.

Nicole is now eager to show the Burmese family all the “simple things we take for granted” around Omaha—“like the mall and zoo,” she says.

“Nicole has the heart to help…to make a better world,” her mother says proudly.

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Young Hero

July 2, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It isn’t every day that you get a proclamation in your honor. It’s more uncommon still when the name on the proclamation is that of a 15-year-old. But there it was in black and white. After six uses of the word ‘Whereas,’ Sama Shah’s name was emblazoned on the official City of Bennington Proclamation.

Shah, who just completed her freshman year at Brownell-Talbot School, was recognized at a recent city council meeting for earmarking birthday gift money to purchase and donate books to the Bennington Public Library. She had noticed that the library had precious few titles with information on the subject of her faith and culture—Islam—and Shah worked with library director Lisa Flaxbeard to select a group of eight books appropriate for different interests and learning levels.

“We’re studying the origins of world religions in school and that reminded me that information on Islam was hard to find in the library’s collection,” says the young lady whose first name is pronounced like ‘summa.’ Islam in the news, as Shah knows, doesn’t always paint an accurate, let alone complete picture of her faith, her people, and their customs and culture.

“I want people to understand,” Shah says, “that Muslims cannot be defined by headlines. Too many people think ‘Islam’ and ‘terrorism.’ That is not who I am. There are so many good things that people also need to know about us.”

Sama’s parents, Rafia and Dr. Inaganti Shah, began the birthday gift model of philanthropy when Sama’s older brother, Saif (now 19), was faced with his first candle on a cake. Sama’s giving tradition has also included Locks of Love, a non-profit organization that provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children under age 18 suffering from long-term medical problems.

“Now that Sama is 15,” says Rafia, “she has had the chance to give to a number of charities. We hope that the spirit of giving continues for both Sama and Saif,” into adulthood.

Shah is involved in tennis, golf, and cheering at her school, and she plays the violin and piano. She is also is a member of the Omaha Area Youth Orchestra. Sama and Saif are familiar faces at the library, where they have volunteered in the library’s summer reading program.

“We are grateful for and inspired by Sama’s thoughtful generosity, which is helping the Bennington Public Library in its mission to welcome and support all people in their enjoyment of reading and pursuit of lifelong learning,” says Flaxbeard.

“Her generosity,” Bennington Mayor Gordon Mueller says in the proclamation, “is an important reminder that our library is a precious public resource which exists through the support of both public and private dollars.”

And what is Shah’s favorite pastime when there is so much as the smallest of breaks in her hectic schedule of school, sports, music, and volunteering?

Easy question, she replies. “I’m probably reading!”

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Young Hero:
 Leyna Hightshoe

November 16, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“No ten-year-old girl wants to have to wear a neck brace,” says Carla Podraza, whose daughter, Leyna Hightshoe, 12, was diagnosed with scoliosis at age 10.

Leyna, now a student at Norris Middle School in the Omaha Public Schools district, had an s-shaped spine (called double lateral curve) that made it hard for her to breathe. “When she was diagnosed, it was already severe enough that bracing couldn’t resolve the problem,” Podraza says. “But she was so young to have to undergo such a major surgery.”

Within a year of diagnosis, Leyna’s spine got worse. “The top was measured at 83 degrees while the bottom curve was around 79. A brace is recommended around 20-29 degrees, and surgery is considered to correct curvatures over 45 degrees,” explains Podraza.

But Podraza found an extremely skilled orthopedic surgeon at Shriners Hospital in Minneapolis, Minn., who seemed to be the right fit for Leyna’s case. “He took such care in considering all the details…nothing I told him seemed irrelevant. His staff was available to us all the time, answering questions, lending support.”

Podraza was told that Leyna’s condition needed to be addressed immediately. Unfortunately, other issues kept appearing. For example, the doctors discovered that Leyna also had a bleeding disorder called von Willebrand Disease, which affected her blood’s ability to clot. “That had to be taken into consideration and planned for before the surgery could be scheduled,” adds Podraza. “Because of all the impediments, plus trying to figure out how to pay for a surgery of this magnitude…our nerves were stretched pretty thin,” she says.

Despite everything, Leyna was brave. She decorated her neck brace with rhinestones and puffy paint. She accepted all of the frightening information from her doctors calmly—from the descriptions of how her muscles would be peeled away to expose the spine during surgery to the “and in worst case, death” disclaimers. And she dealt with the incredible pain after her surgery.

“She pushed herself to get through it, and to do whatever the doctors said was necessary,” Podraza says. “For her to sit up within a day of the surgery seemed impossible, and to walk the next day was even more unbelievable.”

Chromium rods attached with two-dozen screws now support Leyna’s spine. Since the surgery, it has corrected her curves to 23 and 16 degrees, respectively. “Her breathing is so much better,” Podraza adds, “and her back is so much straighter than it was.”

Podraza is glad to have her daughter looking and feeling better, but what still amazes her is how Leyna was able to handle everything with grace and courage.

“Everyone has it in them to be strong when they need to be, but sometimes they don’t know that. [Leyna] was able to get past fear, doubt, and self-pity to figure out how to cope with the situation.

“She found it in herself though to find a way to get through each of those moments that were so emotionally tough…It showed me a new side of her—this fiercely strong person—[and] impressed me when I watched her push through the toughest parts, physically and mentally.”

Young Hero: Ashley Dubas

September 24, 2013 by

Ashley Dubas, 12, is a sixth grader at Beadle Middle School. She has a younger sister, Nicole, whom she is very close to, and a dog named Benny, who’s been her pal since she was 1. While Ashley might sound like your average sixth grader, she is anything but. In fact, she’s a brave and compassionate “Young Hero.”

Born with a congenital heart defect, Ashley has already had two open-heart surgeries and gone through countless rehabilitations and procedures that most adults don’t experience until they’re much older.

“During the course of her last surgery,” says mom Sondra, “she experienced a stroke and had to go through intensive rehabilitation to learn to do everything all over again from sitting, talking, and eating to walking, writing, and playing with her friends. She’s been through a lot.” Nevertheless, Sondra has seen her daughter overcome the struggles of her heart defect with a positive attitude.

Because of that, Sondra was inspired to create a nonprofit organization based in Omaha called Heart Heroes, Inc. Together, Sondra and Ashley have worked with other moms of children with heart defects to provide superhero capes to thousands of children in nine countries and nearly every state in the U.S.

“Ashley proudly wears her cape and has been a spokesperson for the organization by appearing on such TV programs, as KMTV’s The Morning Blend and most recently NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams,” adds Sondra.

Throughout all of this, Ashley has become a role model for other children, especially those who are also heart kids. “She shows them that, even though they may have special medical needs and go through hard times, they can overcome their obstacles,” says Sondra. “She is an example of willpower and strength.” That’s why Sondra wrote a book called Miracle of Belief: The Story of a Six-Year-Old Heart Hero, detailing Ashley’s stroke and the family’s healing journey (the proceeds of which benefit Heart Heroes, Inc.).

“Ashley has been through more than I could ever imagine a person having to endure. There have been many times that I wished I could have traded places with her, [but] she has inspired me, as her mother, to use her experience to help others.”

For more information about Heart Heroes, Inc., visit heartheroes.org

Do you have a Young Hero in your life? Tell us their story. They might be featured right here on our Young Hero page! Contact Bailey Hemphill at bailey@omahapublications.com.

Young Hero: Jack Kacin

August 16, 2013 by

Seven-year-old Jack Kacin is the bravest child his mom, Kristi, has ever known.

Jack suffers from a rare disease called CANDLE Syndrome, which is Chronic Atypical Neutrophilic Dermatosis with Lipodystrophy and Elevated Temperature. This means he has daily fevers, rashes, delayed growth and development, liver enlargement, arthritis, and more to deal with on a daily basis. He also has to take his medications twice daily. Although he has this disease, Kristi says he acts like he doesn’t have one.

“Jack travels to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Maryland monthly and endures many medical procedures,” she says. “But he never worries about them and is very cooperative.” She believes that one of the reasons why Jack is such a good sport with these procedures is because he just likes to have fun in every situation, even if it’s a difficult one. “He likes to make people laugh…He remembers people’s names, and he always asks how their day is going.”

One of her favorite things about him, though, is just how lovable he is. She explains that there is a playroom at the NIH facility where Jack always plays with the other kids. After one visit where Jack had to stay for a month, Kristi says everyone in the playroom knew who he was. “He gives hugs to everyone. He loves to snuggle…He loves his doctors that care for him in Omaha…[He just] cares about everyone and is very social.”

Above all, Jack is a hero for other children, as well as Kristi, because he loves life no matter what. “He is truly an extraordinary boy with a big heart,” she says.

There will be a spaghetti feed, silent auction, and raffle event on September 22 at the Firefighters Union Hall (6005 Grover St.) from 12-6pm to benefit Jack and his parents. If you would like to donate to Jack, visit gofundme.com/JackKacin.

Do you have a Young Hero in your life? Tell us their story. They might be featured right here on our Young Hero page! Contact Bailey Hemphill.