Never Forget

I’m having a hard time looking at social media today.

In the days, weeks, months and years after, we all used the phrase Never Forget. So today, 10 years removed from that overcast, frigid day in Omaha, of course countless media outlets and people are recounting where they were, what witnesses remember, and how we all feel about it now.

I guess I feel bad retweeting, sharing, posting because I was merely a storyteller that day, and not part of what happened. It’s like I don’t have the right to remind people of the anniversary. I remember the day after, Rob sitting in our story meeting and sharing what a first responder had told him… that in the hours after the massacre, standing inside of Von Maur, he could hear someone’s cell phone ringing, ringing, ringing, over and over… and he knew a victim’s loved one was on the other end. What I experienced that day was nothing.

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The shooter had been in and out of juvenile courtrooms since he was a toddler. Court files several inches thick shed light on a troubled child, talking about death and violence from an early age, threatening the very people who loved him. From all indications (noted in this article from ABC News), his father did everything he could to help him, turning to the state for more than a quarter of a million dollars in therapy and services.

We went to their home that day. I worked with legendary photojournalist Pete Soby, and together, we knocked on the shooter’s father’s door. He opened the door, he listened, he said no comment. We returned to the car, and watched one reporter after another do the same thing we had just done. I remember then seeing that father and someone else come outside to shovel snow. Every photographer got out and got video of them.. just shoveling silently.

Later that day or early the next, we returned to that house. So many questions.. what happened to this young man? WHY did he do this? There had to be reasons.. why would he unleash this terror on complete strangers?? WHY??? We went back to that house for answers. Once again, we pulled up along the curb and parked.. and I broke down. I could not force myself to get out of that car. That man had also lost a loved one in the shootings, his son, coupled with the unimaginable weight of what his child had done. I could not knock on his door again.

Soby was a journalist with a rare gift: throughout his career he found the perfect balance of aggression and compassion. He knew what our responsibility was as journalists and how to get a story, but he never forgot people are human beings first, not faceless subjects in our work. He got out of the car and knocked on that door. When Pete came back, he told me after the father told him no comment, Pete suggested he tape a sign to his door with those words.. that people would stop knocking. A simple act of kindness I hope provided maybe an ounce of respite during such a horrific nightmare.

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Every time my children and I see a firefighter or police officer, I try to make a point to encourage my boys to go up and tell them thank you, and to teach them these are people who go to work everyday to keep us safe. It deeply saddens me to say today’s current climate regarding mass shootings is more ‘common’ than it was ten years ago. Today, a mass shooting is a quick mention on CNN or nightly news, forgotten after a few days. In 2007, our city had never experienced anything like this before. When those calls started flooding 911, it was deputies, officers, and paramedics who moved in, risking their own lives and well being to help strangers. They saw the aftermath. They saw the nightmare. Once the adrenaline fades, once the threat is neutralized, how do you ever shake those images out of your memory?

I am grateful for every one of the heroes who moved in that day, not knowing what was in front of them. I am also grateful for every hero working right now in their cruiser, station or firehouse… because I know they’d move in to help me, too. And unfortunately, we all now know IT COULD HAPPEN.. to any of us.

***

To this day, I’m still surprised that Micky agreed to a TV interview about what happened to her inside of Von Maur that day, but honored she trusted us to share it. Now ‘retired’ photojournalist Justin Riviera and I arrived at her apartment, beautifully decorated with figurines and family pictures. It had only been a few months since the shootings.

Micky had almost died that day.. shot point blank inside Von Maur. I asked Micky if she made eye contact with the shooter; I guess I expected her to say no, it was all a blur. Chills went down my spine as she told us that he looked her straight in the eyes, then shot her in the abdomen.

Micky later wrote a book with author June Blair.

“The only thought that came to me in that surreal moment was to lie as still as I could. He was still shooting at every living, moving target. Suddenly, there was silence and then the helpless sounds of voices pleading for help. I mustered up every drop of strength left in my body as I, too, let out a garbled ‘help’.”

Micky’s book is entitled 35 Minutes and Counting (click here for details). She was on the floor for 35 minutes as first responders ensured the shooter was dead, evacuated the store, and found Micky lying on the floor of Von Maur, alive. For the rest of her life, Micky was in physical pain from her injuries, and emotional pain from what she had been through. She wrote Justin and I a letter after Fourth of July, noting how badly the fireworks affected her. She was such a kind, strong woman who had been through incredible challenges throughout her life.. she didn’t deserve this.

Micky passed away in 2016.

***

Von Maur

Photo courtesy Dailykos.com

We stood there huddled together outside Von Maur. First there was one.. then a few.. then hundreds of bouquets of flowers blanketing the steps leading up to the doors. I don’t remember why we had gathered there, but I know there were family members throughout the crowd. I remember someone speaking (or trying to speak) and softly, it began. Silent Night.

Within moments, the entire crowd… reporters, photographers, city officials and police officers, loved ones of those lost, strangers… we were all singing Silent Night together.

It was so beautiful, one of the clearest memories I have from those days. The unity of the human spirit, joined together to support one another and to hold our broken spirits together.

I’d see the snowflakes later… thousands of them, handmade and plastered all over the walls separating Von Maur from the mall itself. This would become a symbol of support for the victims’ families.. showing them they weren’t alone in this tragedy.

***

I debated writing this because I don’t want to seem like I’m exploiting this anniversary, or this terrible day. But by not writing or posting anything, I fear worse.. that those most touched by this day will think I, and others, have forgotten. We will NEVER FORGET.

I will never forget the courage and bravery of our first responders.

I will never forget the strength of survivors like Micky Oldham and Fred Wilson.

Throughout my career in journalism, I never forgot about the compassion and balance I learned from my colleagues the day after and in the days that followed.

I will never forget the love that exists in all of us, even in the darkest of times.

For all of you touched by that day, especially those still suffering and hurting, my thoughts and prayers are with you today.

 

Thinking Out Loud

“Why does God make it cold?”

My boys and I have had a lot of talks about God lately. My eldest, Easton, started Religious Formation this fall, (formerly known as CCD for my 30-something Catholic friends..), and so God comes up a lot, either by me referencing Him or by them asking. We’ve discussed how God makes it rain to give the plants and animals a drink. The other night, Easton told his brother it was dark because God painted the sky black. When the temps dipped 40+ degrees in 4 days, it was only natural Evan would question why God would make it feel so chilly outside.

“So we appreciate when it’s beautiful outside,” I replied. “If it was nice and warm and sunny everyday, we would get used to it after awhile and it wouldn’t feel as nice.”

My husband and I had just had a similar conversation not a week beforehand.. spending a few days on the glorious beaches of Destin, Florida. Everyday, we saw the ‘chair protector’ move into position right in front of our condo. From 9-5, he sat in the sun and made sure people didn’t use the fancy chairs unless they paid to rent them. Brian commented, “after awhile, you wouldn’t even appreciate the beach. You’d be so used to it, just sitting there all day every day.”

But how could you not appreciate this?

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The constant, soothing roar of the waves coming in. The intoxicating aura of peace and happiness. Watching toddlers confusedly wobble on the sand, already trying to tackle walking without this new, strange squishiness under their toes. Seeing older couples, hand in hand, walking slowly past.. and wondering how many years they had been walking together just like that. No hurry. No to-do lists. Brian and I walked around in a daze for the weekend, grinning nonstop and almost drunk on life itself. Even Sunday night, when a thunderstorm blew through, it was beautiful and exciting. I was legitimately depressed when it was time to leave, almost tearful.

I knew why, too. Because all too easily, all too often, I let all of the other noise drown the good out. I am addicted to my phone. I can literally feel my blood pressure rising when my boys argue. I have probably 3 notepads with duplicating lists of things I need to do, would like to do, hope to do, should do. I think about bills, about projects, about people, about what people think.

Why.

Teri Donoho

Last month, Westside Community Schools lost a teacher who devoted herself to education and to the teenagers she worked with. Teri Donoho’s husband, Jay, told me about how hard the love of his life fought to beat cancer.. and they thought she had. The night before she was supposed to leave the hospital, Jay went home for the evening to take care of their dogs. She called him to say good night, I love you.. and she died a few hours later.

Kaelia, Kamie Stephen

Photo courtesy Kamie Stephen Photography

Over the weekend, we got news that one of the young women who competed for Miss Nebraska last year, Kaelia Nelson, died. I remember thinking two things when I met Kaelia: “dang! She’s TINY!” (Kaelia, a stunning woman, was MAYBE 5 feet tall), then later ‘wow.. this girl is the real deal.’ Poised, so striking, an amazing dancer, and CONFIDENT. Kaelia had several tattoos, and proudly showed them during Miss Nebraska week.. they were a part of her, and not something to hide. We need MORE strong, vibrant, positive leaders in our world today.. and losing ONE is a terrible tragedy. My heart is broken, especially when I think of Kaelia’s parents. They have been in my prayers for days.

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This weekend, we should be celebrating Cody’s birthday. We always did – his birthday and my husband Brian’s were within a few days of each other. A big party at Jack’s, a dinner with friends at Kobe, and moments we’ll never forget at the bar later on. One year, another wife and I were badmouthing one of the guys’ girlfriends. Cody, after a few moments of listening, looked at us and said ‘ya’ll are being bitches.’ …. Yup, he was right. I don’t know anything about that couple or their relationship.. I was being a bitch. And what I love about that memory is that it was classic Cody. He was CODY ‘WARDO’ WARDEN’.. and didn’t give a damn if you liked him or not. He was a big, loud, hugging, teddy bear of a man.. and if you were his friend, you never had to question if you had someone on your side.. because he was TRUE, honest and real. Cody beat all the odds, defeating brain cancer when first diagnosed several years ago. Exactly one year ago this month, the tumors came back. We celebrated Cody’s birthday at Jack’s again, knowing he had a tough road ahead. We lost him this summer.

Why? Why does this happen? What is the meaning of all of this? Why. Why. Why. Why. Why. Why.

Because if we lived everyday at the ocean, we would take it for granted. Because God makes it cold, so the sun and warmth feel even better on those perfect days. That’s the easy answer.. easy for all of us feeling grief and sadness indirectly. But for Jay Donoho, for Shardel Nelson, for Darbi Warden… it’s not enough. It doesn’t explain WHY them. Why did Teri and Cody get cancer – twice? Why won’t Kaelia be here to get married and have babies, to live a long, happy life? I don’t have the reasons. I don’t have any poetic, rationalizing theory WHY. For Jay, for Shardel, for Darbi… I am so, so sorry. I literally cannot imagine being in your place because it emotionally breaks me down to even think about it. I don’t know how I would continue through each day, each SECOND, if I lost my family. I pray that peace and strength surround you and help you every second of this terrible journey. Your loved ones MATTERED, they HAD PURPOSE. They were so very loved, and they each made this world a better place. Teri, Kaelia, Cody… their legacies will continue through their time here, and through their loved ones still here.

I tell myself that I will go home, and hug my amazing husband a few seconds longer. I will say a prayer of thanks I have a loyal, selfless, devoted partner in my life, a guy who still dips me back to kiss me on the beach, 12 years after our first date.

I tell myself I will watch my boys.. REALLY watch them and try to lock every moment into my memory, instead of looking at my phone. Their smiles. Their laughs. The things Evan says, and how they still want to snuggle and play. When they fight, I will close my eyes and thank God I have healthy, happy, smart boys who can talk, move, think for themselves, and yes, even argue with each other like brothers.

Still, I forget… I listen to all of the noise, I focus on the crap that’s not important, I let the less than perfect overshadow all of the good. How do I not appreciate what I have EVERY, SINGLE DAY??? How do I forget that my ocean IS my home.. and the second I walk into that door, nothing else should matter??? Please, God, let me remember this EVERY. SINGLE. MOMENT. that I have here.

Today, it’s dark and gloomy outside. It’s so very cold. The ocean seems far away right now. But I know I will see it again soon. I pray everyone else does, too.

***

For Teri Donoho

Please consider a donation to Crossroads Clinic or to the American Cancer Society

For Kaelia Nelson

Please consider a donation to a mental health awareness organization, to the Miss Nebraska Scholarship Program in Kaelia’s memory, or to the Peru State Dance team, of which she was a proud member.

For our dear friend, Cody Warden

Please consider a donation to Leap-For-A-Cure, the local organization fighting every day to help defeat brain cancer, of which Cody and Darbi were proud advocates.

 

Just Like Fire

Aleah Peters woke up this morning as Miss Nebraska for the last time.

This is the 36th blog post I’ve written this spring about the Miss Nebraska and Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen contestants. Out loud, that’s been my excuse for why it’s taken me so long to write an article about Aleah, her final send-off in blog form. Subconsciously, I think I’ve been avoiding writing this.. because I want her to stay Miss Nebraska forever.

Miss Nebraska 2016 Aleah Peters

As volunteers, we work so hard to make Miss Nebraska relevant, memorable, a woman with substance in our state. From Day 1, Aleah GOT IT. She used every single moment of her year to make a difference, to market herself, to positively represent the Miss Nebraska brand and to take our organization to the next level. She is kind, she is passionate, she is hardworking, she is dedicated, she is down-to-earth, she is smart, she is talented, she is powerful. And with tears in my eyes as I write this, I’m not ready to see her go.

She hugged every child who approached her, and signed every autograph. She accepted every media interview I threw at her, and nailed it with charisma, articulation and humor. She thanked, acknowledged and was truly grateful for every supporter and loved one who stood by her throughout her journey to Miss Nebraska three times and to Miss America. She crisscrossed the state, visiting 2-3 schools every week in addition to fundraisers, galas, and volunteer events. She awed students with her innate talent to twirl, but many remember her long after for the powerful, personal message about bullying she brought to thousands. We want a Miss Nebraska who makes a difference. Aleah Peters changed our part of the world, one visit at a time.

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“I can’t believe that my year is already over and pretty soon it will be someone else’s turn,” Aleah told me recently. “This year has been a huge blessing and an amazing opportunity. Truly a transformational year. Although I feel like I blinked and it was over, there were some weekends and days that felt like a long year of work. A few drives that seemed to take forever or weeks jam-packed with events and appearances I thought would never end. But I wouldn’t trade the long weeks or long drives for anything. Being Miss Nebraska is work. It is a full-time job, but luckily, it’s a fun job.”

When Aleah was crowned Miss Nebraska 2016, she had just graduated from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. She was a mature young woman who truly understood that this moment of sheer excitement was just the beginning of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one that she embraced and ran with from day one.

“I had a very clear idea of the job that I was applying for and what I was getting myself into,” said Aleah. “I knew what I wanted to accomplish as Miss Nebraska and I knew I wanted to share my message in schools. However, I didn’t realize what a voice I had or what an impact I could make until I did. I never knew how many kids needed to hear my message. I never knew how many eyes would light up when I walked into a room. I never knew I had the power to make every child in the room silent by telling my story. That is how this job became so much more than a job.”

Throughout her years just competing for the title of Miss Nebraska, Aleah spoke to thousands of students about Cyberbullying Awareness. As she told me throughout that journey (click here to read more!) her passion was based on her own experiences being bullied as a teenager by a group of girls from school. Her mission to #MakeKindnessViral is increasingly important in today’s climate of technology and anonymous assault; even Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson has made Cyber Safety a key platform based on ongoing problems affecting children, adults and businesses across our state and beyond. Schools across Nebraska asked Aleah to come in and talk to their students, and in October, DeMoine Adams and Teammates brought Aleah on board to visit even more.

Several principals within Westside Community Schools invited Aleah in after she was crowned Miss Nebraska, asking her to share her platform. Over and over, she told hundreds of students about those dark days when she was afraid to answer the phone, when she was afraid to leave her house, when ‘mean girls’ simply made her life hell. In every presentation, she found ways to connect with the students she spoke with, helping them understand her story and hopefully, sending them back out into the world more equipped to deal with bullies, and less likely to become one themselves. One of Westside’s Teacher Leaders told me months later, “our students still talk about her and what she said.” This same scenario played out at schools over and over again throughout this past year.

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“One little girl in a wheelchair asked her teacher if I would meet with her after the school assembly to help her with her project,” said Aleah. “She explained to me that she experienced bullying because she is different from the other students. Another powerful moment was when I spoke in a town that recently experienced a suicide. Many of the students raised their hands to ask what I thought of suicide. It was very clear that there were still some open wounds and a lot of healing for the town but the students were trying to learn more and understand why this happened. Any time a student approaches me and lets me know that they appreciated hearing my story, it makes it all worth it.”

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“One of the highlights of my year was meeting Dr. Mark Adler,” said Aleah. “[Dr. Adler is] the Superintendent of Ralston Public Schools who lost his son to suicide because of cyberbullying. Dr. Adler thanked me for the work I was doing, and that meant a lot to me.”

Aleah’s stories from each visit are varied and often, hilarious. To countless children, especially our youngest Nebraskans, Aleah was a princess personified.

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“I will never get over walking into an elementary school assembly and seeing their eyes light up,” said Aleah. “At one school, the principal was trying to get the students to quiet down and she said ‘obviously we have a very special guest with us here today’ and they all started applauding. Elementary school kids are so much fun and they asked the silliest questions. ‘Did you take a limo to get here?’ ‘Do you live in a castle?’ It was always fun to explain what Miss Nebraska is to them. In one 3rd grade class we lined up to take a picture and the teacher told a student to stop being goofy. With a grin from ear to ear he said ‘I’m so happy right now.’

Among Aleah’s favorite moments as Miss Nebraska was representing our state at the 2017 Miss America Pageant.

“Miss America was a once in a lifetime experience,” said Aleah. “I am so happy for Savvy Shields, our Miss America 2016. She is an incredible Miss America and is doing a GREAT job. Regardless of how the competition went, I still won. I won 51 new friends. I won with the relationships I made. I walked away from the competition so fulfilled. I put my very best on the floor and that is exactly what I wanted to do regardless of what place I earned. Some of my favorite Miss America moments include: catching my somersault trick on stage and going crazy! I ran off stage with pure joy and excitement and jumped into Chris the security guard’s arms. I love twirling for an audience and that was one of the most adrenaline rushing performances I have ever done. Another Miss America moment that I look back on and appreciate now is filming our introductions in a hurricane warning. The wind was insane! We went from an amusement park to go out on a boat. I remember curling up in a ball because I was freezing, more than ready to get off, when the camera crew said ‘let’s do that again!'”

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“After we all got done with our swimsuit prelim competitions we crushed about 10 pizzas between 8 girls at our meeting that night,” said Aleah. “I also loved seeing my cheering section in the audience. I was able to spot them right away the second I walked out because there were huge N’s and pictures of my face.”

“Through all the dinners, rehearsals, and late night meetings, I just remember laughing for two weeks straight,” said Aleah. “I won so much more out of the Miss America competition than a crown and scholarship money. I made memories and friendships to last me a lifetime.”

In one of Aleah’s last school visits, she talked to a group of Kindergartners about success. She shared how she competed for Miss Nebraska three times.. winning 3rd place, and then 2nd place before winning our state title. She explained to these children that to her, success was more than just winning Miss Nebraska… it was about working hard, having a great attitude, and being the best version of herself she could be.

To Aleah Peters, this year has been so much more than a pretty crown. She has maintained an INCREDIBLE physique because she learned how to be healthier as part of this journey, and stuck with it. She continued to visit schools and schedule appearances even after her time at Miss America was done, because she wanted to make a difference with the time she had. She opened her heart to this year’s 16 Miss Nebraska contestants, constantly offering guidance and support. She talked about the $26,585 in cash scholarships she has won, and encouraged other young women to sign up for the same journey she’s had.

“I wanted people to know Miss Nebraska,” said Aleah. “I wanted people to relate to her, to be able to talk to her, to try on her crown, learn how to twirl baton, and to be inspired by her.”

As this journey ends, Aleah, true to form, is ready to begin another. She is getting married in September and moving to Florida, where she plans to work in communications.

“The Miss America Organization has given me so much,” said Aleah. “Not only scholarship money and best friends but it has helped me become the best version of myself. It has helped me find a passion in service. This organization has transformed me into the type of woman I want to be. It has given me confidence, shown me what commitment and dedication look like, and pushed me to accomplish more than I thought was possible. I am excited for the big changes ahead! Only God knows what is in store for me and I am so excited for him to show me.”

GIRLS WITH ME

I’m having a hard time perfectly explaining why this woman is such an incredible role model not just to countless children, but to ALL (myself included!) I am in complete awe of how she takes care of herself, eating healthy and getting to the gym everyday despite her crazy schedule. I am so impressed with her strategic business skills marketing herself to make the most out of every moment of this year. I am humbled and inspired by her sheer kindness and goodness, even towards the ‘mean girls’ who inspired the life changing messages she’s taken to so many.

“I think everyone should be proud of all they have accomplished, including those mean girls,” said Aleah. “So instead I say thank you for giving me a story to share. Thank you for allowing me to relate to so many children who have been bullied. To freshman year Aleah, [I would say] you will get through it and you still be stronger because of it. Appreciate the obstacles you’ve had to overcome because they shape who you are.”

We all wake up every morning with a choice.. to get through the day, or to use every day to our full advantage. The Miss Nebraska Class of 2017 has already accomplished so much in their communities, on their campuses and for so many others around them. They each have a spark; so did Aleah at this time last year. And look what she did with it… a young woman who became Miss Nebraska and simply put, was just like fire.

Just like fire, burning out the way
If I can light the world up for just one day
Watch this madness, colorful charade
No one can be just like me any way
Just like magic, I’ll be flying free
I’mma disappear when they come for me
I kick that ceiling, what you gonna say?
No one can be just like me any way..

No one will EVER be like Aleah Peters. Thank you for your smile. Thank you for your spirit. Thank you for your heart. Thank you for being YOU, our forever Miss Nebraska.

“Appreciate the little things, word hard and dream BIG! Build each other up instead of tearing each other down. Realize that you can always find a commonality with someone and you can always learn from someone. Be a friend and make kindness viral. Appreciate the journey every step of the way.”

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WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT ALEAH?

CLICK HERE * 2016 * The Year of the Phoenix

CLICK HERE * 2016 * Fighting For Hope

CLICK HERE * 2014 * How Do You Like Me Now?

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-10 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more detailsHERE to follow on TwitterHERE to follow on Facebook.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Harvest Moon Festival 2017 Lianna Prill

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014-2016 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Up For The Challenge

What is the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced?

The fact that nothing immediately comes to my mind as a forerunner tells me I have been extremely fortunate throughout my life. I think of breakups, hiccups throughout my career(s), how do I raise happy, healthy children, and simply time management. This is all just life, right?

How about this for a challenge.. battling a chronic disease, surviving a car accident, facing your parents’ divorce, all while double majoring in college and launching your own organization.

WHAT?

Miss Harvest Moon Festival 2017 Lianna Prill

“Although I’ve experienced plenty of life obstacles, I’ve used every experience as motivation to propel me to my goals,” Lianna told me recently. “I use my sassy and positive attitude to accomplish my dreams.”

Lianna doesn’t dwell on what’s happened to her. Instead, she focuses on what she’s doing NOW. For more than five years, she’s worked nonstop to make the world a better place and to make her aspirations become reality. For example… her mission to become Miss Nebraska.

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“There is nothing I want more,” said Lianna. “When I was eight, I promised myself that once I was qualified to compete, I would give it everything I had to become the role model that I looked up to back then. This organization continues to give me a stage to perform on, a voice to share my message, an opportunity to give back to Children’s Miracle Network and a scholarship opportunity to help me graduate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln debt free.”

Lianna was crowned Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2012, the first step in that journey to achieve her dream. It was a chance for her to sing and perform for thousands of people across the state and at the national Miss America’s Outstanding Teen competition that year.

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“I. Love. Talent.” said Lianna. “Standing on stage under bright lights and not seeing anyone in the audience allows me to truly perform for an audience of One. I believe everyone has a gift and belting out a song on the Miss Nebraska stage is how I give mine back to Him.”

But that exciting year wasn’t without challenges; around the same time Lianna finally found an answer to the crippling pain that had haunted her for years.

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“I unknowingly suffered from Celiac Disease for a decade,” said Lianna, who explains more about what that is HERE. “I needed to adhere to a strict gluten and dairy free lifestyle. It was then I realized the crucial link between diet and wellness.”

Lianna spread awareness of Celiac throughout high school, earning a D.J.’s Hero Award and a $10,000 scholarship for her efforts. She continued as a Miss Nebraska titleholder to advocate for others diagnosed or not yet diagnosed (approximately 1 in every 133 people).. but realized that her message applied to everyone, not just those facing this chronic disease.

“I wanted to make my message universal,” said Lianna. “‘Eat Well, Be Well’ focuses on healthy lifestyles full of whole foods designed for our bodies. Nutrition is a game changer and eating well makes you feel well and be well!”

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Lianna, a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, took her message even further, forming the Gluten Free Community on her campus. She’s also a busy sorority member on campus, a staff member at the Daily Nebraskan, and a student with two majors in her work towards a career in broadcast journalism.

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Her hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed; Lianna is now a finalist for the 2017 Miss Nebraska Community Service Awards, and earned the People’s Choice Award sponsored by Hirschfeld’s Prom Shoppe after earning more than 1,100 online votes from her friends, fellow students, and perhaps, strangers inspired by her story. A story and mission that once again, are all part of her lifelong dream.

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“Hey, I’m not a Barbie! I lead a healthy lifestyle, and I strive to be well-rounded,” said Lianna. “The Miss America Organization is a training ground for interviews, jobs and life. It has given me the opportunity to hone communication skills that I will use in the future and in my career, not to mention, it funded my college career and allowed me to not only attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but double major and graduate this year. I have become the best version of myself because of the four points of the Miss America crown.”

Service. Scholarship. Style. SUCCESS.

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How do you measure success? Only if you rise about those challenges and accomplish your goals? Or do you succeed through pushing yourself further than you ever thought possible in the attempt?

Lianna Prill looks at every challenge as more motivation.

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Appearances speaking about Celiac Disease aren’t work; they are opportunities to help more and more people Eat Well and Be Well. Every time she takes the stage to sing, Lianna doesn’t think ‘what if I mess up?’ She embraces each moment and revels in it. The countless hours spent visiting schools and groups across Nebraska don’t take away from her time, they add to her resume as a future reporter and anchor.. and possibly, a future Miss Nebraska. THAT may be the biggest challenge Lianna Prill has ever faced, and she says BRING IT ON.

“I want to give back in any way I can; the Miss America Organization makes that possible,” said Lianna. “I have worked incredibly hard on my journey to Miss Nebraska this year, and I am looking forward to seeing God’s plan unravel.”

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CLICK HERE to follow Miss Harvest Moon Festival 2017 Lianna Prill, CLICK HERE to follow her on Instagram, CLICK HERE to follow her on Twitter.

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT LIANNA?

CLICK HERE * 2016 * Wonder Woman

CLICK HERE * 2014 * Fueling The Journey

For more information about the Miss Alliance Pageant/Miss Harvest Moon Festival Pageant or for information about becoming a contestant, CLICK HERE to follow the organization on Facebook. You can also email Director Riki Cornish Hunter at riki.hunter@farmcoop.com or miss.alliance.pageant@gmail.com or call 308-430-4355.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-10 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more detailsHERE to follow on TwitterHERE to follow on Facebook.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Scotts Bluff County 2017 Nikki-Catrina Anderson

NEXT.. Miss Nebraska 2016 Aleah Peters

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014-2016 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Leading Through Reading

I have a gift for you: 800 hours.

What will you do?

I would take a nap. Then a run. Then maybe another nap while lying by a pool. I would take a trip with my kids and husband to watch baseball somewhere. Come home and take a nap. (Guys.. naps are GREAT.)

Perspective changes over time.. what you do with every hour as a working mom is vastly different than what you did with that time 10 years before. And 10 years before that, how many of us were at home around this time with 800+ hours of summer vacation ahead, whining to our parents ‘I’m bored!!’

You’re about to meet a young lady who is different, using every spare hour she has to serve others.

Miss Scotts Bluff County 2017 Nikki-Catrina Anderson

“I have volunteered over 800 hours since my Freshman year of high school, more than 300 hours the past two years, Nikki-Catrina told me recently. “Studying rigorously at college hasn’t slowed me down. BYU’s motto is ‘Enter to Learn—Go Forth to Serve’, so I have had several opportunities to continue to serve while at school.”

I’ve done the math; as a busy college student, Nikki-Catrina has volunteered, on average, 3 hours a week. EVERY WEEK. (She deserves a nap!) Much of that time has been devoted to a cause Nikki-Catrina has been passionate about most of her life: literacy.

Nikki books 2

“I have always loved reading, even when I was too young to read I loved having my parents read with me,” said Nikki-Catrina. “When I moved to Scottsbluff at the age of five I became involved at the Lied Scottsbluff Public Library participating in the annual summer reading program each year. When I became a teenager, I was asked to join the Teen Advisory Council (TAC). This group introduced me to upperclassmen who became my role models as I went through a tough time of bullying (to the extent of being told to kill myself one time) during my middle school years. Instead of focusing on the bullying going on at school, I turned to reading and volunteering at the library. I continue to volunteer at the library (more than 400 hours, the record for most hours volunteered by a young adult).”

Eventually, Nikki-Catrina found another opportunity to share that passion when she competed for, and won, the title of Miss Scotts Bluff County in her hometown.

“I watched the Miss Scotts Bluff County pageant for years, always wanting to try it, but never having the courage to do so,” said Nikki-Catrina. “I knew a handful of the past titleholders and after talking with some of them about it, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and give it a try. Being crowned Miss Scotts Bluff County was so humbling. This program has taught me how to think on my feet and how to be comfortable expressing who and what I am. With the title of Miss Scotts Bluff County, I have had the opportunity to touch thousands of people’s lives and make an impact on a very fast growing and diverse community.”

An opportunity Nikki-Catrina embraced whole-heartedly.

She gave her mission a name, ‘Ready, Set, Read!’ and began visiting schools all over western Nebraska to promote reading. She’s spearheaded several book drives, collecting hundreds of gently used books for a new generation of readers. She shares facts and figures about reading, solidifying the power of literacy.

 Most importantly, she’s helping hundreds of children form the same love of reading she’s felt since she was a little girl. Nikki-Catrina has also worked with after-school programs, helped raise money for a little girl with cancer, and recorded personal messages, in Spanish, to send with care packages for open-heart surgery patients in La Paz, Mexico.

“My goal is to push myself,” said Nikki-Catrina. “I no longer want to be timid of doing something big because it is out of my comfort zone. I have grown, felt the benefits, and seen the impact I can have on others if I am willing to be brave and go for big things.”

That’s the message Nikki-Catrina shares with the students she meets, and what she will share with a panel of judges next week as she competes to become Miss Nebraska 2017. It’s a journey that’s connected Nikki with new friends from several states.

Nikki Nebraska

“My favorite part of this competition and organization is meeting wonderful, kind and successful women,” said Nikki-Catrina. “I have met some of the most intelligent, polite, confident women in my life. I have also been able to work with Miss Utah girls while I’m at school. The Miss America Organization connects girls from around the country and together we can work to accomplish great things. Being a part of that has been truly life changing.”

Nikki school 2

When you open a book, you transport yourself to a different place and time. The benefits then extend beyond when you close that book and return to the ‘real world’;  research shows reading increases your intelligence and boosts your brain power. People who read are statistically more empathetic to others and more understanding of the world around them.

To Nikki-Catrina.. this journey is very similar. Next week, she’ll be part of what many consider a fairy-tale, competing to become a Queen representing our whole state. But no matter what happens during those final crowning moments next Saturday night, Nikki-Catrina says she will long see the benefits from this experience and her service.. all 800 hours and counting.

Nikki siste

“I have developed more self-confidence and self-understanding and I have learned skills to effectively communicate my beliefs and who I am,” said Nikki-Catrina. “I have met and become great friends with positive girls. I have had the opportunity to make great changes and positively impact my community. I have developed skills I will use in my future career as an elementary school teacher. I have been able to become a better, more well-rounded individual while earning scholarship money to take my education further.”

“One of my favorite things about being a titleholder is the ability to connect with people from all around and hopefully bring a light to their day,” said Nikki-Catrina. “God has a plan for each of us. I know that whoever is supposed to be crowned Miss Nebraska will be. I want to go in, give it my all, and learn and grow in whatever ways He has planned for me.”

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CLICK HERE to follow Miss Scotts Bluff County 2017 Nikki-Catrina Anderson on Facebook!

For more information about Miss Scotts Bluff County or for details about becoming a contestant, CLICK HERE.  You can also learn more about the Miss Scotts Bluff County Fair Pageant by visiting their Facebook page (CLICK HERE), or by contacting Director Cheryl Engelhaupt by email atcengelhaupt@fnbnp.com.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-10 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more details, HERE to follow on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Heartland 2017 Allison Tietjen

NEXT.. Miss Harvest Moon Festival 2017 Lianna Prill

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014-2016 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Memorial Day

Early 2003. I was a student at UNL, and planned to meet my good friend Adrian for lunch. Many of you know him as KETV’s award winning anchor & reporter Adrian Whitsett; I’ve called him ‘friend’ since our high school days at Papillion-La Vista.

1998

Then, Adrian was enlisted in the Marines and had spent time across the US and in Japan. I don’t remember where we were or what we were doing that day back in Papillion, but I remember at one point, him telling me that he would probably be leaving soon. He couldn’t tell me where he was going or when, but just wanted to let me know.

March 20, I was lying on the couch in my parents basement swollen like a chipmunk after having my wisdom teeth removed, when network news broke in; the United States was invading Iraq. I pointed to the TV and said ‘hey!!’ and realized that was what Adrian was talking about.. he was there.

While I attended candlelight vigils for our troops and wrote Adrian letters from the comfort of my Omaha apartment, my friend was on the front lines of a war-torn, unstable country thousands of miles away. He eventually lost hearing in one of his ears from firing high-power weapons; he cleaned himself in the 120-degree+ Iraqi heat with Wet Wipes; he saw and experienced terrible things most of us will never even think of. Adrian came home that August. Thousands of brave Americans did not.

Army Pvt. Kenny Nalley of Hamburg, Iowa. He was 19 and wanted to be police officer.

Marine Lance Cpl Shane E. Kielion of Omaha. He died the same day his son, Shane Jr., was born.

Army National Guardsman Spc. Joshua Ford of Pender, just 20. The same explosion that killed him claimed the leg of one of his fellow soldiers, a man who bravely stood to salute his fallen brother at their return ceremony.

A Nebraska woman has spent countless hours volunteering and uniting people across the state, ensuring we remember these brave men and women on Memorial Day and ever other day.

Miss Heartland 2017 Allison Tietjen

“My grandfather was a Marine during the Korean War, and was very proud of the years he served his country,” Allison told me recently. “When he passed away, I knew I wanted to do something to honor him and everything he stood for. That is when I first got involved with the Nebraska Honor Flights.”

Vietnam Honor Flight (2016)

The Honor Flights are massive cooperative efforts to fly veterans to Washington DC, at no charge to them, to see the monuments and tributes built for them and the friends they have lost in war or since conflict. They are organized by Patriotic Productions; founders Bill and Evonne Williams are literally angels on earth, devoting their lives to this cause and to their traveling Remembering Our Fallen exhibit, a tribute to every single man and woman who has died serving our country since 9/11.

In 2014, Allison spearheaded efforts in her tiny hometown of Chester, Nebraska to raise $500, the cost to send one Korean veteran to DC on an Honor Flight. They raised $4,000.. and Patriotic Productions asked Allison to join them as a guardian, a trip she also talked about when I interviewed her in 2015.

Korean Honor Flight (2014)

“It was an amazing and humbling experience that truly set me on a lifelong path to honor and respect these men and women,” said Allison. “Since this first Honor Flight, I [have helped] with the Gold Star Kids Honor Flight. This was a weekend dedicated to families who have lost a loved one in combat. To hear these little kids talk about their heroes with such optimism, hope and love was something very special.”

This mission, which she dubs ‘United We Stand: Honoring Our Military’, was Allison’s personal platform of service when she held two local Miss Nebraska titles in 2014 and 2015. She didn’t compete in 2016, but never stopped focusing on this important cause.

“The year I took off I was able to raise over $14,000 for the Vietnam Honor Flight and serve as a guardian for the second time,” said Allison. “I made over 300 ‘Bracelets for the Brave’, used as a fundraiser for a Kindergarten class to raise money for our veterans.”

So why compete again for Miss Nebraska, when she was accomplishing so very much as Miss Allison Tietjen?

Miss Heartland

“This fall, I was looking through Facebook and noticed a message that was never opened,” said Allison. “It was sent May 2015. The message was from a mother who just sent her son off to the Marines. She had received one of my ‘Bracelets for the Brave’ and told me how much that meant to her. She thanked me for thinking of her and wished me well as I competed for Miss Nebraska. At that moment I realized that all of this isn’t about me. It is about those mothers who know that Miss Heartland cares about them and their sons/daughters who are going off to serve our country. It is about the veterans who smile when Miss Heartland shakes their hand and tells them they are appreciated by myself and students across Nebraska. What clicked for me is I finally understood what the ‘power of the crown’ really means, and it’s why I competed for Miss Heartland and I’m working towards Miss Nebraska.”

Allison, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, has reached out to schools across the state to spread her message of patriotism and appreciation.

“I have students write Thank You notes to our active military and veterans,” said Allison. “I sent them to a non-profit called A Million Thanks that will send them to US service members all over the world. I have collected 300 so far and my goal is 700 by June, and 20,000 as Miss Nebraska.”

Remember that last goal Allison set and crushed? She is on pace to raise 60-times that initial $500 she had hoped for.

“I sent an email out to as many elementary, middle and high school principals as I could, detailing what an Honor Flight is and how they can get involved,” said Allison. “I described what my school and community did, and with just emailing, I was able to help start eight school fundraisers that raised a total of over $14,000. This year, I sent out another mass email and have around six schools that I know of raising money. In total, schools across Nebraska have raised $30,000 for Honor Flights in the last two years!”

Allison credits the Miss Nebraska Organization for showing her another way to serve her country, as well as helping her find a purpose and passion. She also volunteers through her sorority, Alpha Phi, Girl Scouts, and her church, University Lutheran Chapel, where she plays piano.

Ihop

“I always tell students I’m speaking to, ‘find what you love, discover your talents and strengths, and ind how you can use those strengths and passions to serve others.’ Being Miss Nebraska is not alway a glamorous job. I want people to know that behind the makeup and beautiful gowns are just a bunch of strong-willed, determined women who are working to make this world a better place.”

Africa

For this woman, that won’t stop if she doesn’t win the Miss Nebraska crown. She’s proven that twice now. When the lights turned off and the crowds went home, Allison proved her power. She studied abroad in Africa. She went skydiving. She took care of her body and mind (“piano is my therapy”). She was motivated to make every day better than the last for herself and everyone around her.

Every time a man or woman signs that paper, puts on that uniform, and leaves all of our comforts to PROTECT everything we know, they are ensuring we have another beautiful day. Another opportunity to wake up in America and do anything we set our mind to.

JLLL8709

Adrian, an American hero, was home to sing at my wedding eight years ago. I cannot wait to watch him marry his best friend and love, Emily, this October.

We take so much for granted. We take every day for granted, we take our freedom for granted. We never say thank you enough to the men and women, and their families, who sacrifice so much to make that possible.. so we can say what we please, do as we please, and work to become whatever we want to be..

..even Miss Nebraska. And if she wins, Allison hopes to say thank you to as many service members and their families as she can.

“I am the small town farmer’s daughter, but I am able to walk into a room full of strangers, clearly speak, share my story and take control of the room,” said Allison. “I understand what it means to give back and serve others without hesitation. I know how to put your heart and soul into something and be a part of something so much bigger than yourself. I truly believe that we live in one of the greatest countries on earth and that is because of the men and women who have served for us.”

CLICK HERE to learn more about Patriotic Productions, the Remembering Our Fallen exhibit and the Nebraska Honor Flights.

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Click here to follow Miss Heartland 2017 Allison Tietjen on Facebook!

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT ALLISON?

CLICK HERE * 2015 * All-American Girl

CLICK HERE * 2014* Where The Heart Is

For more information about the Miss Nebraska State Fair/Miss Heartland Pageant or to become a contestant, email Directors Chelsey Jungck at cjungck@statefair.org or Shelley Penner at sa_penner@hotmail.com.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-10 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more details, HERE to follow on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Gering 2017 Alayna Wilson

NEXT.. Miss Scotts Bluff County 2017 Nikki-Catrina Anderson

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014-2016 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Finding Our Purpose

Westside Superintendent Dr. Blane McCann delivered a BRILLIANT speech at our District’s commencement ceremony last weekend. His theme: purpose. In front of thousands of graduates, parents, family members and educators, he said in part..

Purpose is the little flame that keeps you going. Your challenge after today is to find that flame: your purpose. It is something that your parents can’t find for you; you have to look for it. It’s not always easy to find. Every, single one of you has a unique purpose to fulfill.

Every single one of us is here for a reason.

Think about that.

My friend Lisa recently told me something that I have thought about off and on ever since. Her husband is Brian Duensing, a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs.

Brian and Lisa

Brian was one of the best pitchers the University of Nebraska – Lincoln has ever produced. He’s an Olympian, representing the United States on the 2008 US Baseball team in Beijing. He was a starter for the Minnesota Twins for years, and now plays for the World Champions in Chicago. He and Lisa could do anything, enjoying his success and living a life few only dream of. Instead, these happily married parents of three devote every, waking hour to their passions: family and doing everything in their power to ensure happiness for other families.

As Brian’s fame grew, he and Lisa started receiving T-shirts in the mail, asking him to share support for pediatric cancer patients across his popular social media accounts. The Duensings embraced the challenge; every day of every September, Brian sports a new shirt and shares information about that child and their cause. He and Lisa started the Brian Duensing Foundation, a non-profit organization taking these fundraising efforts to an even higher level. Every game, as players wives sit in the stands, Lisa sits in the family lounge and works for hours on Foundation plans and ideas, like their now annual fundraiser bringing baseball’s biggest names to Omaha to raise money for pediatric cancer-related causes.

baseball

The Brian Duensing Foundation Event in 2015 at Ralston Arena. I was honored to emcee the fundraiser and VIP Q&A session with World Series Champion Alex Gordon, Duensing, future Hall of Famer Joe Mauer and the MLB’s first ambidextrous pitcher Pat Venditte.

The Duensings have raised HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS for Nebraska based causes that help families battling cancer. That text I mentioned that Lisa sent me?

“These are the reasons God made Brian a baseball player. I know it.”

This year, Brian and Lisa Duensing will focus their purpose on a little boy named Sammy.

Sammy

At four years old, Sammy Nahorny was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma, a solid tumor that begins on immature nerve cells, and is very difficult to treat. Many cases of Neuroblastoma begin in the abdomen, and commonly affect the adrenal glands. Within days of his diagnosis, Sammy had surgery; doctors told his parents his cancer was Stage 4 and high risk. His mom, Erin and dad, Chris, immediately started researching options.. and found few. Their quest for hope was far-reaching and relentless, not just for Sammy, but for every other child facing this terrible disease. Their community in Columbus rallied, drawing the support of not only the Duensings, but of Miss Nebraska USA 2014 Amanda Soltero, Olympic Gold Medalist Curt Tomasevicz, music superstar Jason Derulo and more. They all united to become Sammy’s Superheroes… and have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and counting for research, assistance and more. Just as importantly, they have become a voice, loud and clear, for all children and families regarding legislation, funding and awareness.

This superhero squad has grown yet again in recent months.

Miss Gering 2017 Alayna Wilson

“This is a great organization that started in my hometown!” Alayna told me recently. “Sammy’s Superheroes raises awareness to pediatric cancer and has helped many families who are affected by this. I’ve had many family members fight this hard battle and I’m happy that I am able to help this cause.”

Alayna Wilson is a recent graduate of Scotus Central Catholic, a cheerleader for both her school and her entire hometown of Columbus, Nebraska. A girl with a constant smile and self-described ‘bubbly and happy’ personality, she was looking for a way to make a bigger difference advocating for causes like Sammy’s Superheroes.

awi miss gering

She found it when crowned Miss Gering 2017 in February.

“I love the stage and helping others,” Alayna said. “I wanted to spread my platform and this was the best way possible. I perfected my paperwork, platform and talent and drove to North Platte for one of the best weekends of my life.”

And a BUSY one at that, much like every other weekend in Alayna’s jam-packed senior year. She’s a competitive dancer, and a member of the All-American team by the National Cheer Association. The same day she met her fellow titleholders at Miss Nebraska Orientation, she immediately left to head back to Columbus for a major competition.

Still, to Alayna, this new title meant responsibility; to serve others. She’s volunteered for fundraisers in Columbus, Lincoln and Omaha, even using her Senior Skip Day to travel to Children’s Hospital and Medical Center to deliver care packages for the Miss Nebraska Serves project.

“My favorite part of this organization is the volunteer work!” said Alayna. “I love how each contestant has multiple hours of volunteer work under their belt. It’s so humbling to be among the amazing Miss Nebraska Class of 2017! There’s nothing that makes me happier than helping others.”

awi little sister

And meeting others is part of what has made this journey so memorable for Alayna.

“It is an honor to be part of this organization. I love every minute of it,” said Alayna. “I have 15 new sisters, a sister queen and a little sister. This is a family. We are a family that supports and encourages each other. This gives me motivation when I need that extra push.”

I’m guessing the Nahorny’s would say the same thing about their network of superheroes. The strangers and neighbors, the celebrities and friends, the Duensings and Alayna Wilson… they are all part of a supportive and encouraging squad of strength who love Sammy like family.

AWI with Sammy

Sammy IS a superhero. This fall, just months after passing the 5th anniversary of his diagnosis, he’ll join us own personal Justice League to fight the evil that threatens so many innocent children just like him. We will find a way to beat cancer, allowing Sammy to find his purpose, just like his Superheroes Brian and Lisa Duensing have.

Alayna Wilson hopes to follow in their footsteps.

awi europe

“Each day is a new day for laughter and spreading happiness,” said Alayna. “I obviously hope to be Miss Nebraska whether that time is this year, or the next, or the next. I know that that is somewhere along my path. Overall, I hope to do my best and meet and influence people along the journey. My mission is to spread the name of Sammy’s Superheroes and spread love, happiness and encouragement as well.”

CLICK HERE to learn more about Sammy’s Superheroes

CLICK HERE to learn more about the Brian Duensing Foundation

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Click here to follow Miss Gering 2017 Alayna Wilson on Facebook!

Alayna was crowned at Crowns & Gowns 2017, Nebraska’s largest annual prom/pageant showcase.  CLICK HERE for more details about the 2018 pageant and event! You can also email Director of the Miss Gering/Miss Western Nebraska Pageant, Heather Hayes, by emailing Heather.Hayes@charter.com.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-10 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more detailsHERE to follow on TwitterHERE to follow on Facebook.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Douglas County 2017 Kogan Murphy

NEXT.. Miss Heartland 2017 Allison Tietjen

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014-2016 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!