Tag Archives: Eagle Scout

Tharein Potuhera

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jacopever. The exotic fish with bulging eyes and reddish color sank Tharein Potuhera’s hopes at the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee. But the 14-year-old Potuhera did not let the obscure misspelling dissuade his academic and literary ambitions.

“When I was at the bee, I really wanted to make Omaha and Nebraska proud. I still do, actually,” he says.

The local prodigy advanced from the St. Wenceslaus School spelling bee, to the Archdiocese bee, to his second appearance at regionals, then onward to the national contest in National Harbor, Maryland. He joined 285 elite spellers, culled from the countless nationwide contests last spring.

Potuhera was among the 45 finalists who made it to the finals of the National Spelling Bee, broadcast live on ESPN. Upon correctly spelling “propinquity,” the Omaha teen made national headlines with his dab, (a bow with one arm bent, one arm outstretched) imitating NFL quarterback Cam Newton’s popular touchdown celebration.

After missing Jacopever—the slippery lettered fish of Dutch/Afrikaans origin—Potuhera and his family made a circuitous journey back home to Omaha.

Tharein-Potuhera1“On the way back, we went to Princeton, Yale, Cornell, and also did a tour at Harvard,” says his father, Asthika Potuhera. “After the Harvard tour was done, the director of admissions came and sat down with Tharein away from everyone else and had a chat for about an hour and a half. We were in awe.”

The Harvard administrator was impressed by the young Potuhera’s resume. After all, the Omaha teen published his first book at the age of 12.

His book, Tome Riders: Mr. Custo’s Book, is a historical novel with heavy doses of time travel. Potuhera says he wants to challenge kids to learn history, and improve their vocabularies, while encouraging reading as a leisure pastime.

The family’s homeward trip provided an opportunity for sightseeing at important American history sites that Potuhera mentioned in Tome Riders (but had never himself visited).

With attention freed from spelling bee preparation, Potuhera dove headlong into writing his next book.

“It’s going pretty well; it’s almost done,” Potuhera says. “Both books have the same message to readers, but the second is more concerned with teachers than kids. It’s hard to say if the second book is a prequel or the sequel (because of all the time travel). It’s the teacher as a kid, so technically it’s a prequel.”

The trip home from the National Spelling Bee also featured a stop in Connecticut. Asthika and his wife, Durga, migrated to the U.S. from Sri Lanka in 1998 to study at Eastern Connecticut State University. They came to Omaha seeking a better life. Tharein and his younger brother have always lived here.

Potuhera enjoys the camaraderie of new friends gained from spelling bees. He also maintains social media correspondence with fellow spelling phenoms selected by Kindle for a promotional advertisement last spring.

His experience befriending other top students nationwide has inspired him to foster academic camaraderie among Omaha’s gifted students. In fact, he began working on such a project to obtain his Eagle Scout badge.

“I want to make a club for people who are gifted, and then help them get even better, to help them realize what they want to do, whether it’s a spelling bee, geography bee, or something else,” he says. FamilyGuide

Battling Boredom

December 3, 2014 by and
Photography by Tim and Pam Pepper

Doug Pepper was about to have a liver transplant, but all he wanted were nachos and a Dr. Pepper.

His mom, Pam Pepper, recalls with a laugh how the then 13-year-old Doug responded to the news that he would need a liver transplant due to a condition known as autoimmune hepatitis, which causes inflammation of the liver. Following the request for some of his favorite foods, Doug simply said, “I’m ready.”

“Maybe it’s just part of being a kid—he never once complained,” Pam says.  During the nearly seven weeks that the Indianola, Iowa, native was a ward of University of Nebraska Medical Center’s
Child Life Program, Doug endured countless blood tests, a nearly eight-hour-long transplant, and a bacterial infection that nearly took his life. Nonetheless, his mom says, he always kept an upbeat attitude. The now 15-year-old then decided to keep the positive vibes going and “pay it forward” through his Eagle Scout project, a toy drive for UNMC’s Child Life Program.

One of the issues that plagued Doug the most during his stay at UNMC wasn’t pain or depression, but boredom. The Child Life Program at UNMC has puzzles, games, and crafts to keep kids active and upbeat during their long stays, as well as events such as movie or bingo nights. And there’s Doug’s personal favorite, Monster Truck Night, where the Child Life staff brought in Monster Truck drivers and allowed kids to drive around miniature, remote control versions of the gigantic vehicles.

“The Child Life Program is really good there,” Doug says. “When you’re in the hospital it gets really boring really quickly, so it was just nice to get up and do something and have fun while
you were there.”

As a Boy Scout, community service has played a large role in Doug’s life for quite some time. Therefore, when Doug was looking for a way to say thank you to the Child Life Program, he knew that he wanted to do something big, and to help add to the number of resources the Child Life Program has. Thus, his Eagle Scout project was born.

Doug got to work almost immediately after leaving UNMC, and spent the next year-and-a-half managing his project, putting friends and family to work organizing, promoting, and running toy drives at Walmart stores in both Indianola and Omaha. Through his toy drives, Doug has collected over 2,600 toys, games, and supplies for the Child Life Program, and received over $1,000 in donations, smashing his expectations. “I thought the amount of donations was going to be really low. I thought not many people were going to donate, that they were just going to do their normal day shopping, but it turned out really well,” he says.

Even though Doug’s Eagle Scout Project is over, his gratitude towards the Child Life program hasn’t worn off. Doug and Pam still try to raise awareness about autoimmune hepatitis and the dedicated Child Life staff through public speaking.

“I think it’s really taught him about the power of giving back, and that anybody and everybody can do it,” his mom says.