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Ceremony honors REEL Kids who are overcoming life’s challenges

Justin Abassi, a 2010 HTC REEL Kid, is now a freshman at Yale University. He spoke at the 15th annual REEL Kids (Recognizing Extraordinary Examples of Leadership) Awards about the impact the program has had on his life. HTC honors 51 students from Horry County Schools who have overcome adversity to reach high levels of achievement.
Justin Abassi, a 2010 HTC REEL Kid, is now a freshman at Yale University. He spoke at the 15th annual REEL Kids (Recognizing Extraordinary Examples of Leadership) Awards about the impact the program has had on his life. HTC honors 51 students from Horry County Schools who have overcome adversity to reach high levels of achievement. jlee@thesunnews.com

Horry Telephone Cooperative honored 51 students from Horry County Schools at the 15th annual HTC REEL Kids Awards ceremony Wednesday at the Marriott Resort and Spa in Myrtle Beach.

Recognizing Extraordinary Examples of Leadership, or REEL, Kids are nominated by teachers or counselors because of the inspirational ways they are overcoming obstacles in their lives. Those obstacles range from debilitating diseases to the deaths of parents or siblings, homelessness, abuse and many other situations that might make most people give up.

Michael Hagg, HTC’s CEO, placed a REEL Kids medallion around the neck of each student. Guest speaker was Ben Utecht, a former NFL player whose concussions led him to pursue a singing career and to become a national spokesman for the American Brain Foundation and the American Academy of Neurology.

Justin Abbasi, the REEL Kid for Forestbrook Middle School in 2010, also spoke. Abbasi, now an undergraduate student at Yale University and an advocate for youth in foster care, was 11 in 2008 when the domestic violence in his family left his mother dead, his father on his way to prison, and Justin and his sister in foster care.

Abbasi said he remembered sitting at the 2010 ceremony and thinking, “Do I deserve this? What did I do? To me, it seemed like something was done to me — something happened to me.”

He asked the kids to remember that it was not the obstacle they faced that caused them to be there, it was the way they overcame their obstacles. “You guys deserve to be here,” he said.

Abbasi said he used to look for the light at the end of the tunnel, but stopped looking for that light and started looking for the light within himself.

Taylor McKinney Awards were presented to Patience McBryde, a Conway High School senior, and Andrew Alfano, a senior at the Academy for the Arts, Science and Technology. HTC created the award for Waccamaw Elementary School fourth-grader Taylor McKinney, who was battling leukemia and was nominated in 2005 as a REEL Kid. Taylor died before the event and was honored posthumously. The Taylor McKinney Award is presented to a REEL kid who has overcome fear and exhibited great courage.

Taylor Blankenship, a Socastee High School senior, received the Meagan Conner Award, which is presented to a student for strength of character, the degree of their determination and the duration of their perseverance. Meagan Conner was Loris High School’s REEL Kid during the first season of the program, but her fight with cancer prevented her from attending the ceremony, and she died a few months later.

Taylor McKinney and Meagan Conner’s families were present at the event, as they are each year.

Myrtle Beach High School senior Jimmy Recinos received the Rodney C. Hardee Memorial Scholarship award of $750, given in memory of the Loris director of public works and assistant fire chief who died in 2013.

Loris High School senior Donna Doerr received the Presidential Scholarship from Horry-Georgetown Technical College of $500 per semester for two years.

Greta Gore, a counselor at Waterway Elementary School, received an honorary REEL Kids Award for her devotion to the kids and the program.

Brian Brunson, a special education teacher at Carolina Forest High School, received the Ken Summerall Mentoring Award, given in honor of HTC’s president and chairman of the board who died in 2011.

HTC’s Nicole Hyman and Nat Adams work together to produce the REEL Kids program. Hyman, who hosted the event, had already interviewed each student. Those interviews are showing on HTC Channel 4. The awards ceremony will run later this summer.

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