Ask 5-year-old Mae Jillian Hebert about her hero and the young girl describes her favorite Disney character, Belle, for the fictional princess’s love of reading.
But for many others, Mae Jillian is the hero.
The young girl was born with a genetic disorder — Marfan syndrome — a potentially life-threatening genetic disorder that affects the development of her connective tissue, particularly her eyes. Despite her impaired vision, Mae Jillian loves to read and has excelled in her kindergarten class at Cecil Picard Elementary School in Maurice.
Some scholars believe Abraham Lincoln may have been afflicted with the syndrome.
As for Mae Jillian, “She has challenges — she can’t do any type of strenuous things — but it doesn’t slow her down. She loves to read. They enlarge things for her at school so it’s easier for her,” said her mom, Tonya Hebert.
Mae Jillian and 41 other Acadiana-area students were recognized for standing out as heroes on their campuses during the fifth annual Cox Inspirational Heroes ceremony.
The program recognizes students for their triumphs over obstacles in their lives — whether the challenges they’ve faced are due to an illness, intellectual disability or the loss of a family member.
The event, held at River Oaks Catering, also provides an opportunity to honor the teachers, administrators, parents and guardians who have supported the young people in their achievements, said Julie Simon-Dronet, executive director of operations for Cox Acadiana.
Schools are invited to nominate students for the honor.
Short biographies of each student with common themes of determination, positive attitudes, and helpfulness and compassion toward others were read aloud during the ceremony, bringing applause and tears from those in the audience.
Stories like those of Alex Clark, an eighth-grader at Youngsville Middle School who endured the hardships of a house fire and a sibling’s diagnosis with an illness but continues to maintain honor roll status and has set goals for success in high school, and Teurlings Catholic High School junior Jasmine Mitchell, who was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, has faced vision issues and surgeries and lost a brother, but has maintained a 3.9 grade-point average and earned college credits.
New Iberia Senior High School guidance counselor Ashlie Gray said she’s watched one student balance moving to a new country and learning a new language while still giving of herself to help other students.
New Iberia Senior High’s Mathumitha Vijayaganapathi, 16, moved to Louisiana with her family four years ago from India and quickly began the process of acclimating to her new home, which meant learning English while adjusting to the social and academic challenges of high school.
“She had to learn a new language, a different culture. She had no friends or other relatives here except her parents. It was difficult. She’s now graduating with a 3.5 and plans to go to the UL and become a doctor,” Gray said.
The toughest obstacle to overcome in her transition to the United States was learning English, said Vijayaganapathi, who graduates next month.
Gray said the senior gives her time to help her fellow students.
“She is a giving individual who never gives up. She now assists other students who need help with English and math,” Gray said.
Those honored as 2015 Cox Inspirational Heroes include:
Acadia Parish: Nathan Joseph Guidry, Crowley High School.
Iberia Parish: Kyle Arceneaux, Highland Baptist Christian School; Kimbriell Collins, Jeanerette High School; Sye Comeaux, Daspit Road Elementary School; Mia Freeman, New Iberia Catholic High School; Rome Good, North Street Elementary School; Da’vonne Griffin, Magnolia Elementary School; Katilyn Johnson, Westgate High School; Rafaela OIivato, St. Edward’s School; Brody Oubre, Loreauville High School; Jimmy Thibodeaux, Sugarland Elementary School; Daniel Trevino, Iberia Middle School; and Mathumitha Vijayganapathi, New Iberia Senior High School.
Lafayette Parish: Trayon Andrew Babin, Holy Family Catholic School; Jonah Bares, Comeaux High School; Pernell Bartley, Ossun Elementary School; Paxton Rees Chamberlain, Charles Burke Elementary School; Alex Clark, Youngsville Middle School; Angel Trenise Eubanks, Carencro High School; Jareyon Goff, Westside Elementary School; Chelsea Guidry, L. Leo Judice Elementary School; Halie Melissa Harmon, Acadiana High School; Alayshamaine Matthews, Acadian Middle School; Sophia McCrocklin, Truman Early Childhood Education Center; Jasmine Mitchell, Teurlings Catholic High School; Deondré Nelson, Paul Breaux Middle School; Keyani Reynolds, Live Oak Elementary School; Jessica Vice, Green T. Lindon Elementary School; and Andrew Womble, St. Thomas More Catholic High School.
St. Martin Parish: Hunter Collins, Teche Elementary School; Trevor Landry, Parks Middle School; and Vanel Porter, St. Martinville Senior High School.
St. Mary Parish: Zane Bartley, Hattie Watts Elementary School; John Sonnier, Jr., W.P. Foster Elementary School; Amber Stansbury, West St. Mary High School; Jarmaine Scott Thomas, Centerville High School; and Donnie Williams, Jr., Bayou Vista Elementary School.
Vermilion Parish: Aaron Dartest, Abbeville High School; Mae Jillian Hebert, Cecil Picard Elementary School; Kade Lasalle, Dozier Elementary School; Tae’Shawn Moore, Eaton Park Elementary School; and Kayli Thibodeaux, North Vermilion High School.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.