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What an exciting week it has been for ThanksUSA!

On Tuesday, March 6, ThanksUSA founders Kelsi and Rachel Okun were honored as recipients of the 2012 Jefferson Awards for Public Service. What began as the idea of two young schoolchildren has blossomed into the national non-profit that has provided 2,500 scholarships to the children and spouses of military personnel. To date, ThanksUSA scholarship recipients have received nearly $7.5 million in financial aid. We extends our gratitude to the ThanksUSA friends and supporters who joined Rachel and Kelsi for the awards ceremony in New York…Congratulations Ladies!

2012 Jefferson Awards Recipients Rachel Okun and Kelsi Okun

Later in the week (Thursday, March 8) ThanksUSA recognized distinguished Irish Americans at a public service awards ceremony presented by Blavatnik Family Foundation. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, Congressman Jerry Lewis, and Governor Martin O’Malley were recognized for their continued dedication to our military service members. Dominick Murray, Deputy Secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development accepted the award on behalf of Governor O’Malley and Irish Tenor Anthony Kearns provided the musical entertainment with accompanist Patrick Healy.

(from left) Rachel Okun, Deputy Secretary Murray, Congressman Lewis, Governor McDonnell, Kelsi Okun

Additional photos from both events can be found on our Facebook page and we encourage you to remind friends, family, and co-workers that 2012 ThanksUSA scholarship applications will be accepted from April 1 through May 15, 2012. Prospective applicants can register for an email reminder here.

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Since graduating from High School, Jennifer Benecke knew that she wanted to pursue an undergraduate degree. Though her academic journey may have been delayed, Jennifer is currently in her final year of studies at the University of Maryland. This busy mother, military spouse, full-time student, and volunteer has been awarded a $3000 Sam V. Suplizio/ThanksUSA Scholarship to complete her BS in Psychology.

Jennifer and Dominick Benecke

When Jennifer was setting academic and career goals, she really wanted to be a Physician’s Assistant. At the time, she and husband, Chief Petty Officer George Benecke, U.S. Navy, were stationed in Hawaii and there were no PA programs of study. Jennifer decided to take the pre-requisite coursework that could later be applied to a PA degree. One of those courses, psychology, immediately piqued her interest and observations in her daily life inspired her to pursue psychology as a major.

Jennifer and her son, Dominick, would ride the city bus and one of the designated stops was the VA hospital. Instead of seeing proud men and women who should be treated with honor and respect, Jennifer witnessed ill-treatment and disregard.

Both she and George have very clear values and always try to give back to their community and help others. She realized that if she shifted her educational focus to psychology, she could pursue a career that would specifically allow her to assist military veterans.

Jennifer lost her father earlier this year and knows that he would be especially proud of the career path she has set for herself. “Earning this degree and giving back to the military community honors my father’s own service to the US Navy…some of the happiest times in his life,” she adds.

If you congratulate Jennifer on her academic accomplishments, she will be quick to credit the loving support of her husband. She says that he “really stepped up” with encouragement and extra household chores. They both learned to prioritize and not over-schedule. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed if you try to do everything. Time management is critical”

The family honed their time management skills to ensure that she could attend school full-time. She’s careful to match her academic schedule with her son’s elementary school schedule and makes sure that he sees her completing homework. “It’s so important to set educational standards and seeing my planning and dedication makes him strive to be the best.”

The ThanksUSA team wishes Jennifer continued academic success. We’re comforted knowing that our deserving American Veterans will have such a caring counselor.

“This scholarship is so special to me because it is the final piece to completing a dream I have had since graduating high school. Without this scholarship I would not have had the means to finish the last year of my bachelors degree.”  – Jennifer Benecke

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Victoria Whitmore

ThanksUSA Scholars are awesome! They excel academically, give back to their communities, and inspire others. This week’s featured scholar, Victoria Whitmore, represents all of these qualities and more. Tori received a $3000 ESA Foundation/ThanksUSA Scholarship for her Nursing studies at Hardin-Simmons University. Tori has always excelled academically, but when she sought guidance about college and career choices, she was given the standard, “anything you put your mind to” advice. She considered poli-sci, but soon discovered that it wasn’t a good fit . Tori explains, “I wanted to do something hands-on, something that maximized my desire to restore, something that almost always resolved, and something that gave me the autonomy to make some of my own decisions. Nursing provided these opportunities.”

As she completes her junior year of studies, Tori considers her first career move. “As it stands, I hope to begin my career with the Veterans Affairs, or VA, hospital system. Although my Dad (CPT Eric Whitmore, USAF) was in and out of the service throughout my elementary and junior high years, I was immersed into the military community when mid-high school he was stationed in the Far East. Not just an island, but an island off of the island (that is, Okinawa). The sense of isolation soldiers and their families’ experience there can swallow a person and drive them to obsessive and intense workouts, substance abuse, or one another. As the chaplain’s daughter, I really only had one option. I found comfort by befriending those who suffered as I did and who, on an island 70×7 miles, would be those I saw daily at school, church, and in our neighborhood.

I’ve learned that our geriatric population also falls prey to isolation as their senses deteriorate and they spend more time in solitude. Those soldiers who returned home post-Vietnam and were met with resistance are particularly at risk and often don’t access their due benefits because of their distrust of the feds or the colossal amounts of so-called red tape. Who can reach them? Those who have suffered as they have.

I can’t pretend to have experienced the same events that veterans have undergone. But a community unlike any other I’ve encountered exists between those who have lost or feared loss in association with the US military; multiple times in complete strangers I have discovered old friends. As a nurse, I have the opportunity to stay connected with this community, while reducing suffering in all its expressions.”

Katie & Tori Whitmore

Though she didn’t realize it at the time, growing up in a military family prepared Tori for many aspects of college life. “I was very fortunate to have a father whose specialties in the USAF allowed him to be transferred to very diverse locations. Because he began his career as an enlisted broadcaster, he had a late start to the chaplaincy, which slowed his ranking as an officer. He was less “valuable” in terms of assignment placements so was more apt for getting those he was interested in. Thus, I spent roughly half of my life in overseas assignments in Portugal, Holland, and Japan.

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Although I enjoyed the opportunities to explore the world through my father’s military career, I found that moving became more difficult as I grew older and tried to develop more meaningful relationships. Entering junior high in southwestern Oklahoma was no easy task and uprooting to Japan once settled was a huge hit. Texans just can’t do without their Friday night football and marching band!”

When she first entered Hardin-Simmons University, Tori immediately looked for ways to incorporate her global views and understanding into her college experience. Along with her sister, Katie, she became part of the International Student Fellowship. “The next year as the event coordinator, I was planning projects to introduce the Chinese Malaysians to cattle ranching and the cattle ranchers to Chinese New Year. Both were successful!”

Tori Whitmore with members of Hardin-Simmons International Student Fellowship

Tori also looked for a way to give back to the local community. She visited several churches and eventually found a special ministry which primarily served the homeless, impoverished, and underprivileged. Tori began volunteering with the kindergarten and first grade Sunday School class and after several weeks of assisting, the lead teaching position became available. Tori says, ” Here, on a golden platter, was my place of service. I look forward to seeing “my kids” every week!”

Next year, Tori will graduate from Hardin-Simmons with her BSN and will begin to serve others as a Registered Nurse. ThanksUSA is confident that Tori will make an excellent nurse and we look forward to bringing our supporters updates on her academics and future career. In closing, Tori delivers a special thank-you to the ESA Foundation for sponsoring her ThanksUSA scholarship:

“Many scholarships are available for first-year college students and then expire. Having faced my second year with significantly reduced financial aid, I was extremely concerned about entrance into nursing school in my third year. The ThanksUSA scholarship I received not only covered costs comparable to my $2,000 textbooks, but also my uniforms and other specialty equipment needed for the field. As a person who takes my studies very seriously, it’s a huge relief to be able to spend more time focusing on them and less time at the workplace to pay for school. Thank y’all so much!”

You can support students like Tori by making a $10 donation today…simply text THANKSUSA to 85944 to make your $10 donation.

 

 

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ThanksUSA allows me to meet some amazing students who have the drive and determination to truly make the world a better place. This week’s featured scholar, Kelly McCorkle, is a prime example. Now in her Junior year at Oklahoma State University, this Physiology major (Pre-Med option), is poised to become a leader among medical professionals.

Kelly McCorkle

Kelly is the daughter of Chief Warrant Officer (R) Earl and Cheryl McCorkle, who say, “We are extremely proud of Kelly and all her accomplishments. We know how hard she works to reach her dreams. A strong education, coupled with her determination, knowledge and focus will carry her to the highest level of success.”

Indeed! Kelly has been a ThanksUSA scholarship recipient throughout her college career. This year, she received a $3000 ESA Foundation/ThanksUSA Scholarship, bringing her total ThanksUSA scholarship awards to $7000! Kelly states, “I really appreciate the opportunities provided by the ThanksUSA scholarship. If it had not been for this generous scholarship, I would not have been able to achieve this level of academic success.”

Though we like to brag about the successes of our scholarship recipients, we can hardly take credit for them. Kelly has strived for, and achieved, academic success for years. She was Valedictorian of her 2007 high school class and has since earned numerous accolades in college. Her most recent honors include the OSU President’s Honor Roll, President of Alpha Epsilon Delta-Premedical Honor Society, Vice-President of the OSU chapter of the American Medical Student Association, National Society of Collegiate Scholars, and Golden Key International Honour Society.

As a supplement to her academics, Kelly remains very involved with the local medical community. She is a member of the American Legion Auxiliary and volunteers regularly at the Veteran’s Administration. This past summer, Kelly assisted Doctors at the VA Medical Center in Oklahoma City with neurology research and shadowed the Chief of Surgery.

When asked about this amazing opportunity, Kelly says, “The Chief of Surgery is very knowledgeable, personable, and works really well patients. It was an awesome learning experience. Interaction with the Chief of Surgery, residents, nursing and administrative staff was an incredible experience. They are all an important part of total patient care. The most rewarding feeling is the gratitude and appreciation that is shown to these individuals from the veteran or their family members. It is amazing how many lives they touch and improve throughout their careers while truly enjoying their job. Being in the operating room is always exciting. Seeing new surgeries and techniques is very interesting to me. One thing that is great about shadowing at the Oklahoma City VA is that it is a teaching hospital, so I am able to learn more about the surgery while I am in the operating room.”

Knowing that she will attend medical school, Kelly is still deciding on a specialty. “I am exploring numerous fields in medicine and there are many of interest. During my rotation at the Veteran Administration Medical Center this past summer, I spent time in the operating room, in the surgery clinic and also toured radiology, anesthesiology, and pathology. I had previously observed primary care and neurology at the Veteran Administration Medical Center as well as surgeries at other local surgery and medical centers. I like the surgery environment. At this time, I am leaning towards becoming an anesthesiologist. I am attracted to this field due to their exposure to a wide variety of operations, patients and surgical teams. I would like to gain their knowledge, as well as technical skill.”

You may think that Kelly’s ambitions leave little time for anything else. In fact, Kelly is very well-rounded and active in individual sports and volunteerism. She is a member of the Guthrie Women’s Golf Association, enjoys swimming and bike riding, and always finds the time to volunteer within the local community. “The benefit I receive from volunteerism is the opportunity to make a difference. I get great pleasure in knowing that it can make a difference by raking leaves for the elderly, assisting with neurology research, visiting hospice patients, teaching children at golf camps, or helping with blood drives. The look of joy and gratitude on the individual’s face after volunteering is priceless.”

Kelly’s advice for fellow students? “Set high expectations and go for your dreams. Don’t give up, have confidence that working hard and staying focused will make a difference to your future success.” Well said Kelly! Knowing that such a sincere, competent, and dedicated young woman is a doctor of tomorrow certainly comforts me. Kelly, thank you for the inspiration and keep up the great work!

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