The Central Texas Youth Coalition will honor the 2014 Central Texas Incredible Kids on Thursday at the Bell County Expo Assembly Hall in Belton.

This year’s honorees, with quotes from their nominating letters, are:

Emily DeGraaff

“Emily DeGraaff is a fifth-grade student at Jefferson Elementary, who has already overcome many challenges in her life. Emily is diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment and often blindness. ... Emily never looks at her vision difficulties as a disability, rather this is her normal. ... Emily is an honor student, and this year she was elected as the student council president. She has many wonderful ideas for fundraising, field trips and service projects. Helping others comes naturally for Emily. Whether it is serving others at our Star student breakfasts, helping with a school garage sale to raise money for a family in need, or greeting community members at our library dedication, Emily’s caring nature shines. What stands out the most for me, is her heart. She is sensitive and truly cares about others.”

Nathan Diederich

As an Ellison High School senior, Nathan is a member of the National Honor Society and “is well thought of by both his peers and teachers. His actions are selfless.” He is a “tremendous leader” and “influence to young children, as he has co-led a soccer camp for under-privileged kids in Port Arthur and often participates in reading events at local elementary schools.” This summer, he plans to counsel at a camp for kids who are hematology cancer patients. Despite suffering from a blood clot as a star soccer player, Nathan kept his grades up and “has not allowed his diagnosis to stop him from living his life.”

Lance Dugger

A senior, “Lance is in the education and training program at the KISD Career Center. Lance’s dream is to become a future educator. Lance is a positive role model for all of his peers. He is always willing to help his teachers and fellow students. Lance goes above and beyond in his projects and academic endeavors. ... Lance goes to an elementary school where he assists a variety of educational tasks ... and serves as an officer for the school’s TAFE chapter. ... Lance was born with a physical malformation of the jaw. This hindered Lance’s speech, but he has been able to overcome this and has done an exceptional job in his field site classes. Lance has given personal testimonies of being bullied as a child and this served as an inspiration for him to become a teacher. ... Lance has been instrumental this year in helping bring Rachel’s Challenge to the Career Center. At the heart of this program is kindness and compassion. These are both qualities that Lance completely embraces. ... He always has a smile on his face and always is wanting to know where he can serve and make a difference in his community.”

Michael Eckert

“Michael is new to Joe M. Pirtle Elementary this year, but you wouldn’t know it by watching him. He is right at home in his new school, and his (fifth-grade) classmates would agree with that. Making friends easily seems to come natural to Michael, and he’s friendly with everyone in the classroom, not just his buddies. That makes him a good helper and mentor for his peers, and they are comfortable working with him. ... Michael always seems ‘up’ and brings a positive energy with him that is contagious. He loves to learn and is a good student. ... Outside of school, Michael is a caring older brother and an avid baseball player. He helps his mother make sandwiches for the homeless through the Feed My Sheep organization, and helps to make and serve meals for the homeless through Family Promise. He also helps with his church’s setup in a school building. This year Michael has a vision of helping to build a school for children in Uganda.”

Brody Grogan

“Brody, a Belton High School senior, is a very kind, polite, well-spoken young man. ... Brody (achieved) National Merit Semi-Finalist status and a photographer came out to take pictures. Ironically, the same week this article appeared, another article appeared in the paper about Brody and his family. And that article shed light on what I didn’t know about him. The article was about a family domestic shooting; in fact, his mom had shot and injured his dad. It just didn’t square with the Brody I knew. I called him in my office ... and the story came out. He and his twin sister were raised in a turbulent household with an alcoholic mother and an often absent father. ... Brody entered ninth grade as an angry, questioning young man. But then Brody joined the debate team. He wanted to argue so he might as well argue intelligently, he told me. He met a couple of other boys who had similar intellectual ability and befriended them. Brody credits these friendships with making the difference in his life. ... Brody is now a student leader at Belton High School, one whom both teachers and students like and respect.”

Abigail Patterson

A Rogers High School senior, “there could not be a more deserving young lady for such a special reward. ... Abigail is a student that has accepted all challenges that have come her way with hard work, integrity and perseverance.” ... Abigail has not only been accepted to Texas A&M, she has done so with many honors and activities to her name, graduating third in her class with a 98.33 GPA. ... “While working to earn these excellent grades and class ranking, Abigail also involved herself in multiple academic and athletic activities. ... Outside of school she shows the importance of her faith by being an active member of Rogers First Baptist Church. ... Abigail not only demands excellence for herself, but also for those around her. She is a natural leader in all areas of her life. Her character and zest for life speak for themselves.”

Rosine Abuwe Smith

A Salado High School senior, “Rosine is one of the most resilient and positive young ladies I know. Wherever you see her she will have a smile on her face and she will be making those around her laugh. Her kind heart and sweet spirit make her one of the most incredible people I know. Rosine has only lived in the United States for five years. In November 2008, Rosine’s mother sent her and her brother to the U.S. from Rwanda, Africa, in order to escape continual threats to their lives. During the Rwandan genocide, most of Rosine’s family, who were Tutsis, were murdered, including her father, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. ... During her last two years of high school, Rosine has continued to challenge herself by taking AP and honors courses and staying active with a variety of extracurricular activities. ... While living through threats to her life, separation from her mother, living in a country where she did not know the language, and being moved from place to place, Rosine’s spirit never let down. She has always maintained a positive attitude, worked hard, and never missed a day of school. She loves people and has a natural way of making them feel better no matter what they are dealing with. Rosine has chosen to enlist in the Marines because she wants to serve this amazing country that has embraced her.”

M’ryle Nycole Spencer

“My most difficult student in recent years began the process of integrating into the mainstream. ... He quickly started associating with an (eighth-grade) girl named M’ryle and her group of friends (at Copperas Cove Junior High School). After a few days, I was concerned that she was tolerating him because she was afraid to tell him to leave her alone. ... She said in a matter of fact tone of voice, ‘Mr. Perry, he’s just lonely and scared. I’ll be his friend.’ In a few short months, this young man dramatically improved to the point that he had moved on to a group of peers who have similar interest. He always refers to M’ryle as his favorite friend. ... M’ryle handles her friends and their quirks with a level of dignity and grace that I haven’t seen in my 20-plus years of working with adolescents. Not only is M’ryle a godsend to her friends, she is polite and well-mannered toward adults also. She is patient and she doesn’t get an attitude or complain when we misspell her name. ... The positive impact M’ryle has on her peers and adults she encounters is why I choose to nominate her as an Incredible Kid.”

Samantha Stapper

“My name is John Warden and I would like to nominate senior Samantha Stapper from Belton High School for Absolutely Incredible Kids. ... What makes Samantha incredible beyond anything else is that incredible isn’t something she does, it is who she is. If you could spend even a little bit of time with her you would understand what I mean. Her warm, kind personality and desire to help others can inspire those around her. Even though Samantha is at Belton High School, I teach at Sparta Elementary in Belton where she went to school previously. Even though she wasn’t in my homeroom until fifth grade, she was someone I knew before that because of how friendly she was. She never failed to give a good morning to me every time I saw her in the hall. She was a kid that was constantly upbeat and never had a bad day. ... She still conducts herself with the same spirit of service, kindness, and integrity that she had back in her Sparta days. Rachel Hill, who has been her Magic Belles drill team director for the last fours years, said ‘If I had to choose one student out of all of those that I have ever taught that I knew would make a difference, Samantha Stapper would have to be that student. From being in the top 5 percent of her class, to leading her dance team, and helping with all of her community service projects, ... I have never known anyone who is so motivated and driven, and yet so caring and thoughtful of others.’ When I think about what Samantha has done and will continue to do to make the world a better place, I am filled with hope for the future of mankind.”

Nathan Wallace

A Central Texas Christian School senior, Nathan is a member of First Baptist Church in Killeen and the campus worship leader for grades seven through 12 at Central Texas Christian. He is the first student who has “felt comfortable enough to actually lead the weekly worship service for his peers, teachers and administrators.” He also leads the musical worship time Monday nights for the Baptist Student Ministries at Central Texas College. Nathan plays multiple instruments, but really excels with the guitar, piano, drums and his voice. He is the choir president at Central Texas Christian. He will attend Baylor University in the fall to study religion. “I can see him being a music minister, but really, wherever God leads Nathan I am confident he will progress from being an absolutely incredible kid to an absolutely incredible man.”

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