by Michelle DeRusha
D.J. Sokol was the kind of young man who always kept his eye out for the kids who didn’t quite fit in. Even after he was diagnosed with cancer, D.J.’s passion for helping others only intensified, and he often reminded his parents to “look out for those who don’t have a voice.”
After D.J. passed away in 1999 at age 18, the Sokols took their son’s advice to heart. They partnered with The Salvation Army in Omaha, Neb., to establish the D.J.’s Hero Awards scholarship and recognition program, which over the past 20 years has funded $10,000 scholarships to 131 deserving high school seniors from across Nebraska. Award winners have gone on to become teachers, architects, airline pilots, lawyers, medical professionals and military personnel, to name just a few of the many successful career paths.
“I didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so the scholarship helped me financially,” said Jessica Harek, a 2011 recipient who earned a degree in athletic training from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It also changed my point of view of myself and helped me see my life more positively.”
On May 8 nearly 1,400 community leaders gathered for the annual luncheon event at CenturyLink Center in Omaha to celebrate 10 scholarship recipients this year and to enjoy a keynote presentation by legendary Broncos quarterback and Pro Football Hall of Famer John Elway. This year’s guests also included 20 D.J.’s Hero alumni.
Among the 2018 scholarship recipients were Abdinur Muqtar of Omaha, a Somalian refugee who spent most of his childhood in one of the most violent refugee camps in the world before immigrating to Nebraska in 2017, and Hope Weber of Lincoln, who was born with such significant physical challenges, doctors didn’t expect her to live beyond 10 days. Abdinur plans to major in economics at Saint Cloud State University in Minnesota, and Hope plans to pursue a degree in English or Journalism at Nebraska Wesleyan in Lincoln.
This year’s award recipients also will be the first to participate in a new mentoring program offered by The Salvation Army and TeamMates Mentoring, which was founded in 1991 by legendary University of Nebraska head football coach Tom Osborne.
The 2018 D.J.’s Hero Awards Luncheon raised a record $586,000 to support youth development programs in the Omaha metro area.
“The D.J.’s Hero event started small, but over the last 20 years has grown into one of the largest, most inspiring, most unique special events in all of Nebraska,” said Major Greg Thompson, Western divisional commander.