'Military Kid of Year' Has Leadership Qualities

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Tristan's leadership qualities led a panel from the nonprofit "Our Military Kids" organization to choose him as one of four Military Kids of the Year.

Tristan and the other winners -- Keegan Neverett, 16, of Leesburg, Fla.; Chris-Shanti Jackson, 15, of Jackson, Miss.; and Katherine Bensburg, 14, of Mahopac, N.Y. -- won year-long grants to pursue their interests. In Tristan's case, it will pay for his karate training and boot camp.

The organization also named the family of Air Force Senior Master Sgt. William Liston, an Air National Guardsman from West River, Md., as its Family of the Year.

Tristan is the youngest of the four individual award winners.

"I thought it was pretty exciting," he said at yesterday's award ceremony. "We were able to come to Washington, D.C., and I've never been here or able to get an award." His face lit up as he talked about today's special White House and Pentagon tours.

Our Military Kids is a public-private partnership that awards grants to children of deployed National Guardsmen, reservists and certain disabled veterans.

Unlike children from active-duty families, they don't live on or near a base, surrounded by solid support systems and activities. Rather, said Greg O'Brien of Our Military Kids, these children often are isolated in their communities, where people may not understand what military children go through when a parent is deployed.

"My husband is deployed more often than not, it seems," said Tristan's mom, Kimberly Fissette. To fill the time when he was deployed, she added, the family turned to community service near their home in Elk Grove Village, Ill.

"We hand out food at a mobile food bank," she said. The family also volunteers for "Feed My Starving Children" by sending nutrient-rich foods to children in other countries.

Community service is one of Tristan's passions, his mother said. When his father was in Kuwait during one of his four deployments, Tristan was 7. It was then the youngster enrolled in karate to stay busy while his dad was away. Before long, he was hooked on the ancient martial art.

"He's one of the youngest in his karate school to receive a black belt," Kimberly said. "With his dad gone, he just pursued it above and beyond. Most people don't get their black belts for three or four years, and Tristan did it in two and a half."

Tristan quickly moved into upper-level training. Now he trains several days a week.

"You get to do funner things like a sword-sparring class, one of my favorites," Tristan said, quickly explaining the "swords" are made of foam.

His activities don't stop there.

Whether at karate or school, Tristan mentors all the new kids, especially if they're struggling.

"At karate," Tristan said, "I kinda tell them how to bow and do other karate things. And sometimes if they're having trouble, I'll help them."

He mentors on his own, his mom says. No one asked him to help.  Tristan admits he's a pretty good student and good with new kids. "I'll talk to them, and sometimes in math, if they're having trouble with a problem, I'll maybe help them out with it," he said.

Tristan's 11-year-old sister, Kailey, like many other children at the awards ceremony, won a six-month grant to pursue her interest in hip-hop dancing.

O'Brien said the four Military Kids of the Year were chosen from 150 who applied. Since 2004, he said, the grants have grown and so has the program's popularity. The organization's Facebook page has nearly 5,500 members.

"'Our Military Kids'" has provided 28,000 grants totaling $11 million since 2004, O'Brien said. This year's four Kids of the Year received grants of up to $500 per six months, and might qualify for six more months if the parent is deployed.

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