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Military Child of the Year: Honoring young patriots

Awards recognize leadership, sacrifice and volunteerism

Apr. 5, 2012 - 12:17PM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 5, 2012 - 12:17PM  |  
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Chelsea Rutherford ()
Amelia McConnell ()
Erika Booth ()

The oldest recipient of this year's Operation Homefront Military Child of the Year was 7 on Sept. 11, 2001. James Nathaniel Richards, just named Navy Child of the Year at age 9, wasn't even born yet. "He was born and lived his whole life dealing with issues of a nation at war and a family that defends our values," wrote his mother, Lorraine Richards, in her nominating letter.

"The sons and daughters of America's service members learn what patriotism is at a very young age," said Jim Knotts, president and chief executive officer of Operation Homefront. "Children in military families demonstrate leadership within their families and communities. This is what the Military Child of the Year award honors."

The children were chosen from about 1,000 nominees by a committee of active-duty members, family readiness support assistants, teachers, military mothers and community members.

Each recipient gets $5,000 and will be flown with a parent to Washington, D.C., for a special recognition gala on April 5.

The awards will be presented by senior leaders of each service, and speakers will include Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Medal of Honor recipient Sammy Davis.

Meet the recipients:

ARMY

Amelia McConnell: Working for others

Amelia McConnell says her big brother was a major influence in her life — and he still is, 2½ years after his death.

After 24-year-old http://militarytimes.com/valor/army-sgt-andrew-h-mcconnell/4281975">Army Sgt. Andrew McConnell was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 14, 2009, Ameila began volunteering for the Wounded Warrior Project — the charity her brother had designated for donations in the event of his death.

"At his funeral, it was obvious he had inspired so many people," Amelia said. And that has given her more motivation to make a difference for other people.

While maintaining a 3.75 grade-point average as a senior at Carlisle High School in Pennsylvania, the 17-year-old varsity soccer player also plays acoustic guitar in her church band, volunteers as a soccer coach for other military kids on post at Carlisle Barracks, and helps raise money for cancer research by supporting events such as Ski For Life, which partners with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

That charity is important to her because of her father's illness. In 2006, Col. G. Scott McConnell was diagnosed with leukemia, which required six months of treatment, including chemotherapy. Amelia, then a preteen, was impressed by her dad's spirit.

"With his cancer, my dad went right back to work. He didn't miss a beat," she said. In fact, he deployed to Iraq in 2007. He is a professor at the Army War College.

In 2010, her father deployed to Afghanistan not long after the family moved from Germany to Pennsylvania. Amelia's mother, Kathryn, said Amelia and her four older sisters were extremely supportive of their father and his service, although the circumstances were difficult.

"It was tough to have Dad gone again," Amelia said. "Plus, he was going to the place where my brother was killed the year before."

Amelia vowed to make life as easy as possible for her mother during the deployment. "I tried not to overwhelm her with activities. I pushed myself to study harder and do well on my own," said the aspiring graphic artist.

A teacher at her high school nominated Amelia for Army Child of the Year, even though she had not personally taught Amelia. But in their few short meetings related to homecoming court, "I was able to see the mature nature of Amelia's character, her genuine concern for humankind, and her fun spirit," teacher Theresa Dixon wrote in an email.

MARINE CORPS

Erika Booth: Obstacles don't stand in her way

Until about two years ago, Erika Booth played center field or first base, and sometimes was designated hitter. She was a sturdy athlete who rarely got sick.

But when she was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease, she had to give up softball and baseball.

She takes seven medications, including a blood thinner that puts her at risk for severe bleeding if injured. If she were to get hit in the head, it could cause her brain to bleed. Her joints bother her, and she often gets headaches.

But none of that has stopped the 17-year-old junior at Southwest High School in Jacksonville, N.C., from pitching in wholeheartedly to help out at home and in her community. She is in three Advanced Placement classes and spends plenty of time studying — as is evidenced by her academic ranking: first in her class. She's junior class president and president of her local chapter of Health Occupations Students of America.

She first began volunteering as a mentor with the Drug Education for Youth program.

Erika also works with the children's LINKS program — helping children and adults cope with the challenges of military life — at Marine Corps Air Station New River, where her father, Sgt. Maj. Scott Booth, is stationed.

As a trusted primary caregiver for her 13-year-old autistic brother Dylan, she helps him out when needed, whether it's extra homework help or making sure he gets fed and does everything he needs to do when her parents are gone.

She also helps other families with special needs in the community — baby-sitting, for example. Her mother, Ginger, works at the Exceptional Family Member Program office on base.

"I try to make a difference," Erika said, whether it's helping her brother and her family, or others in the community.

When she learned she'd been named Marine Corps Child of the Year, she said, "I was amazed. Volunteering is what I do. I don't think of it as extraordinary.

"It's an honor that I'm recognized because I'm doing things for my community. I've always wanted to show people, especially when I was diagnosed with lupus, that one obstacle or a series of obstacles doesn't stop your life," she said.

"You can still do good things in your community even with these obstacles."

Air Force

Chelsea Rutherford: Sharing her strength with other kids

Chelsea Rutherford doesn't have time to sit still. The 17-year-old has volunteered her time cleaning up highways, washing cars for cancer fundraisers and talking to children at a home for runaway teens.

In 2011, she spent 179 hours volunteering for local humanitarian projects; her guidance counselor describes her as having a "philanthropic heart."

The aspiring teacher loves to volunteer in elementary schools, too, whether it's helping teachers with activities, painting kids' faces or making balloon animals. This year she's doing an internship in a first-grade classroom for high school credit while also working there after school. One class project involved writing letters to the Navy Child of the Year, third-grader Nathan Richards. "They thought he was cool," she said.

Her main focus this year is her work as vice president of the Student to Student Club, where she helps new students — mainly military children — get acclimated to the new school and feel welcome.

"It's great seeing these new students come in and making friends," said Chelsea, a senior at A. Crawford Mosley High School in Lynn Haven, Fla.

She knows how important those connections are, having moved five times and attended seven schools. She has also endured multiple deployments: Since 2001, Chelsea's mother, Tech. Sgt. Kelly Herndon, her father, Master Sgt. Eric Rutherford, and stepfather, Tech. Sgt. Charles Herndon Jr., have been deployed more than 1,700 days to Iraq, Qatar, South Korea and other places.

Despite her parents' absences, she has lettered in academics and maintained a 3.6 grade-point average. She's already earned 28 college credit hours.

In November 2001, while her mother was deployed, Chelsea fell off her bicycle and fractured most of the bones in her face. She has had several corrective surgeries since 2008.

"She was a strong girl and understood the importance of protecting America's freedom and why her mother had to be gone in her time of need," her mother wrote in her letter nominating Chelsea as Air Force Child of the Year.

"She is a kind, ambitious, positive and humble young lady. She displays traits of a true warrior, despite life's challenges of being a military child."

Navy

Nathan Richards: Young, compassionate and proud

He may be just a third-grader, but James Nathaniel Richards not only understands what "volunteering" means, he lives it.

The 9-year-old heads the anti-bullying committee at his school, which he helped found. "We help others empower themselves against bullying," Nathan said. Also at the top of this aspiring inventor's list of his activities are his work at the San Diego USO and his blog, which he started when his dad and three of his brothers were deployed.

Last Christmas, he and his one brother left at home, Robert Bannasch, 17, helped sort about 3,000 toys donated for military children. "Then I helped my brother watch the kids so the parents could pick out the toys," Nathan said.

He loves taking part in events for wounded warriors and in homecomings, too. He and younger sister Isabelle, 8, helped distribute 300 holiday stockings to Marines returning from Afghanistan — including his oldest brother, Cpl. Charles Bannasch, who calls Nathan "the professor."

Two Bannasch brothers are still deployed with the Navy — Gunner's Mate 3rd Class Maxwell and Logistics Specialist Seaman John.

Nathan's dad, Chief Gas Turbine Systems Technician (Mechanical) James R. Richards, is deployed on the frigate Elrod. While the Bannasch brothers are technically Chief Richards' stepsons, they have always simply been brothers to Nathan.

When they were gone, he said, "It was really sad. I only had one brother at home, and I didn't even have my dad to comfort me when they left."

He said he started his blog, natethegreatamilitarybrat.wordpress.com, "so my dad and brothers and other military kids could see everything I was doing."

For his deployed brothers, who often read his blog, "I try to put fun adventures so they don't get sad," he said.

"I'm really proud of my dad and my brothers," Nathan said. "And being a military kid is harder than you think."

When he found out he was named Navy Child of the Year, "I was really honored. I was really humbled," he said. "There are 1.2 million military kids in the U.S. We're all super great. We don't need to win the award to be the best of the best."

In his letter nominating Nathan for Navy Child of the Year, his brother Robert wrote: "Nathan is the baby boy of all of us, but there is nothing baby about him! I am proud that at such a young age he portrays what my military family needs, resilience."

COAST GUARD

Alena Deveau: Minding the home front

Shortly after the start of this school year, Alena Deveau's father, retired Capt. Paul Deveau, had to be hospitalized for surgery related to side effects of cancer treatment.

With her mother, Andrea, constantly at her father's bedside, 17-year-old Alena "took over the reins of running the household," Andrea said.

Alena, a senior at Chantilly High School in Virginia, does the lion's share of cooking, cleaning, laundry, running errands and taking care of her 15-year-old sister, Ciana, with the help of neighbors and Coast Guard spouses.

"I really wanted her to know what it meant to me and Paul for her to do this, without even being asked," said Andrea Deveau — who showed that appreciation by nominating her daughter for Coast Guard Child of the Year.

Besides playing field hockey for her high school and soccer for a local travel team, Alena is an officer in the school's National Honor Society and French Honor Society, and a leader for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

She also helps to organize the National Honor Society's Veterans Day dinner and its support for a charity that sends packages to deployed troops. And she works providing after-school care at a local school for gifted students.

Even with all that on her plate, she still gets Ciana to soccer practice and piano lessons and steps in to do whatever else is needed.

"My mom was with my dad the majority of the time," Alena said. "I wanted less stress on them. I love them and wanted them to focus on what matters."

Alena was in seventh grade when her father, a nonsmoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006 and medically retired.

He has faced a hip replacement after the cancer spread there and additional treatment and complications when the cancer spread to his brain. Since October, he's been in and out of the hospital, and is now in rehabilitation in a nursing center.

"My dad's a big inspiration, with his faith, his ethics. I learn from him and my mom," Alena said. "My parents were always really giving."

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