The annual D.J.’s Heroes award luncheon held by The Salvation Army’s Western Division in Omaha, Neb., is “all about young people, scholarships and fundraising,” said Susan Eustice, divisional director of public relations and communications. More than 1,100 people attended this year’s event which featured guest speaker Liz Murray, author of a bestselling book detailing her triumph over adversity on which the movie “From Homeless to Harvard” was based.
D.J.’s Heroes award recipients are high-school seniors who’ve overcome adversity with bravery and determination. Eight young Nebraskans were selected from 131 nominations from across the state to receive a $10,000 academic scholarship award: Jacob Beresh, David Brown, Samantha Garcia, Andrey Naidenoff, Colin Oakley, Sara Perez, Pray Reh and Kelley Schachenmeyer. The scholarships are enabling these recipients who may not have been able to attend college to pursue degrees in business, teaching, criminal justice, law, engineering, social work and more.
The annual award luncheon raises funds to support Salvation Army programs for youth and families throughout the year. According to Major Greg Thompson, Western divisional commander, the success of the D.J.’s Heroes luncheon is due to enthusiastic support from community leaders. This year Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts was honorary chair with Bob and Susi Dalrymple as chairs and Zack and Amy Wiegert as co-chairs.
The awards are named for D.J. Sokol, son of David and Peggy Sokol, who showed great courage in his struggle to battle cancer until his death at age 18.
Meet the 2015 D.J.’s Heroes award winners
Beating pediatric bone cancer at age 6, Jacob Beresh maintained a 3.8 GPA and attended advanced-placement classes while serving as an assistant coach for his brothers’ baseball and football teams and giving volunteer support to kids going through cancer treatment. President of his high school’s debate team, Jacob is a state champion and nationally ranked debater. He attends Nebraska Wesleyan University this fall with the goal of becoming a teacher.
David Brown’s parents died within 15 months of each other. At his high school, David leads the freshman and junior encounter retreats, speaks to students on living a life of service and integrity and volunteers at a leadership camp for kids. He is also a compassionate volunteer working with developmentally challenged students at another school. He’ll pursue a business degree at the College of Charleston in South Carolina this fall.
Samantha Garcia came from a home where her mother was the victim of domestic abuse. Violence built over time and boiled over in 2012 when her father held her mother hostage at gunpoint before shooting himself in the face. After multiple surgeries he remains in prison. Her injured mother moved the family to Nebraska without financial support. Samantha developed post-traumatic stress syndrome; even attending Spanish class would bring on a panic attack due to memories of her father. Samantha has moved on with her life and education, however, working 30 hours a week as a certified nursing/medical assistant.
Andrey Naidenoff lost 85 pounds to become an athlete participating in high-school wrestling, football and track. He mentors students and supports children in third-world countries, as well as nonprofit organizations; a portion of his part-time job paycheck goes to United Way. Andrey is an honor roll and academic all-state student. He’ll be the first in his immediate family to go to college when he attends Wayne State College to major in criminal justice.
Born with a congenital heart condition, Colin Oakley’s life has centered on surgeries since he was 7 years old. But, his health hasn’t stopped him from living a full life. He participates in American Legion baseball and helped establish an NSAA-recognized school golf team. From a farm family, Colin has been a Future Farmers of America officer and volunteered through the student council and National Honor Society. He plans to major in animal science at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln.
Despite a challenging start in life, Sara Perez is a success. She took dual-credit classes at her high school to earn 24 college credits and earned a certified nursing assistant certificate while holding a part-time job. Her volunteer work includes raising funds to revitalize a local theater, working at a food pantry, helping clean the church’s parish center and interning at Mid-Nebraska Community Action. She wants to major in women and gender studies and eventually attend law school specializing in human rights. She hopes to work some day in the Peace Corps.
Pray Reh grew up in inhumane conditions: a hut in a Thailand refugee camp with rice for meals and few academic supplies for school. He arrived in the United States at age 13 unable to speak English. Today, he has a cumulative GPA of 3.87 and ranks 57 out of 547 in his high school graduating class. Pray is a leader in his school’s JROTC program, and participates in a variety of activities, from volunteering at the Open Door Mission to athletics, such as the varsity wrestling team. He’s applied to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point and would like to serve in the military.
Kelley Schachenmeyer lost both parents to serious illnesses with the past four years. She found consolation in music and the arts and in helping others. She’s a member of the National Honor Society and participated in three mission trips to Kansas City and Oklahoma with her youth group. She plans to pursue a degree in social work with a dream of helping underprivileged children.