Last fall, I had the honor of emceeing the Lighthouse Leader and Hall of Fame Gala for Westside Community Schools. This biannual event recognizes alumni and supporters who have demonstrated exemplary leadership, success and dedication to their careers and communities. All ten of our inductees are extraordinary, but one in particular caught my attention as I prepared my remarks.
Dr. Suzanne Hutchinson Verma grew up in Omaha and attended Westside High School. She’s now one of the world’s leading experts in Anaplastology; she rebuilds FACES. Patients around the world, including children, come to Suzi to reconstruct their faces after cancer, birth defects and accidents. Multiple times in her career, she’s operated for free on patients who cannot afford help.
Dr. Verma and I are about the same age. I mean, we’re basically the same person… Faux Pelini RETWEETED me once. That’s a really big deal.
WHAT?!?!?! I shook my head in disbelief as I researched this incredible woman’s accomplishments. Once in awhile, we come across people in life that have just set the bar higher, their contributions to the world are exponentially greater. It may not be their intent, but they inspire the rest of us to DO MORE, to BE BETTER. Cue 12-year old Phoenix Stanford.
Miss Sarpy County’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Phoenix Stanford
She can’t get in to a rated R movie, yet this girl has already testified before the Nebraska Legislature, been a featured guest at several high profile events and spent countless hours volunteering across Sarpy County.
(Again.. we’re basically the same person. When I was 12, I set a new Tetris record on my Nintendo.)
“My parents have raised me since I was 5 years old to always be involved in giving back to the community,” Phoenix told me recently. “I believe helping out those who are less fortunate and donating your time to an event helps people to rise.”
Phoenix has touched communities around the world, literally, due to her military upbringing.
“I was raised in England and spent most of my childhood there. That was where I first started school,” said Phoenix. “All my friends were British and all the activities I was involved in were all done with the local nationals. Having to leave my childhood friends behind devastated me. It was a difficult transition when I moved. I missed my British food, I missed living in Europe and seeing medieval buildings around me. I was terrified to start school not knowing anyone around there. After having moving here, I met more military children. I’ve learned that the many who go through things like this soon give up the will to want to make new friends because they know that they are just going to move again.”
Phoenix took her own experiences and set out to help others facing the same challenges. When she became Miss Sarpy County’s Outstanding Teen 2017, she put a name on her mission: ‘Beyond The Yellow Ribbon: Support for Military Children.’
“Because this is something I can strongly touch base with and it is an issue that kids and teens have to go through, I wanted to make a difference,” said Phoenix. “The military has blessed my family and I with incredible opportunities that most people don’t get. I am forever grateful for it. This is why I want to give back to the men and women who serve and still continue to serve. ‘Beyond the Yellow Ribbon’ is about helping kids and teens go through these difficult moves, and also spread the word to civilians to let them know that not only do their parents serve, but us as the youth serve, too.”
Phoenix is engaging her peers, her school and community members both in and outside the military. Her most recent pictures show a glimpse of all of her hard work; from the Remembering The Fallen exhibit on display at her school, to her volunteer efforts to raise money for military families.
Got to help out at Offutt Air Force Base’s Thrift Store today! The revenue that is brought in goes toward many base organizations, off base community organizations, as well as scholarships for high-school seniors and military spouses.
Proud to be a young Filipina! Performing at this year’s Santo Niño Festival was an honor! I had the pleasure of meeting our Nebraska Governor, Pete Ricketts, and Bellevue city mayor, Rita Sanders. I truly enjoyed being a part of this religious and cultural celebration!
Just last week, Phoenix did something most adults never commit the time or dedication to; she went to Lincoln to testify before members of the Nebraska Legislature.
This brave 12-year old advocated for LB88, a bill that would prompt the state to issue temporary professional licenses to military spouses during the procedural wait time it takes to secure a permanent license. State Senator Carol Blood later posted on Facebook: “Thank you to Miss Sarpy County Outstanding Teen for her outstanding testimony on LB 88 this week. This military spouses bill is important to Nebraska, especially District 3 and 45.”
“I want civilians to be aware of what goes on behind their freedom and how military families make it happen,” said Phoenix. “I also want people to know how amazing this pageant system is and how much young women can learn from an opportunity like this.”
That’s why Phoenix decided to compete for Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen this spring, to share a message and grow as a person.
“I love how this pageant is scholarship based!” she said. “School and getting a good education is everything to me. [My goal] is to make it easier for my family to pay for my education. I love music and when I found out they have a talent portion in the pageant, I thought it would be a great way to express my love for performing and music. The Miss America’s Outstanding Teen Pageant system recognizes young women’s talent, promotes healthy living, emphasizes scholastic achievements and encourages community service.”
Ironically, the friendships that are so often part of Phoenix’s message about military children have become of one of the clearest benefits of her participation in this year’s program.
“Not only have I met some amazing people, but I get to help out the community as well,” said Phoenix. “[This organization] has taught me some great skills and how to put myself out there. I have been so blessed with this opportunity and I’m so thankful.”
What’s next for Phoenix Stanford? Turning 13 in April. Graduating from middle school and starting high school.. something she could be doing as Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen. And continuing to advocate for the cause and people she believes in.
“Winning state would be a win for Sarpy County, including Offutt Air Force Base,” said Phoenix. “Winning national would be a win for Nebraska, the military community, the Filipino and German community. While it would be fantastic to win at any level, my goal is to make a difference in my community and for the people around me.”
Beyond the impressive resumes, what ultimately sticks with me about people like Suzi Verma and Phoenix Stanford are who they are beyond their titles. Those who nominated Dr. Verma for the Westside Hall of Fame didn’t focus on her extensive academia or doctoral accolades, they raved about her love for children, her kindness, and the depth of her heart. Miss Sarpy County’s Outstanding Teen Phoenix Stanford, at just 12 years old, doesn’t brag about her service or eye-opening accomplishments, she stresses the qualities she hopes to be remembered by: compassionate, perseverant and unique.
“I don’t like to give up. I believe we are all put here to help one another,” said Phoenix. “There will never, ever be a person like me and that’s what makes me special.”
The Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Pageant takes place April 21-22 in Omaha, Nebraska.
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!