So I’ve mentioned I want to write a book..
So very many of the stories I’ve covered are inspiring, emotional and powerful… often because they reflect something incredibly positive, born out of something terrible and tragic.
January 5, 2011. I was 8 months pregnant, sluggish and FOREVER late. That day I was running behind as usual, hoping to stop at Subway on my way to work. I was at the stoplight at 144th and Q and one, then two, then three Omaha Police cruisers flew past me with lights and sirens blaring. I called the KETV assignment desk to let them know something was going on, and my managing editor, Jim Reding, responded, ‘Yeah, we’ve got a shooting at Millard South, we need you here right away.’
I immediately turned my car around and sped to KETV as quickly as I could. Within minutes, I was on the anchor desk and on air, sharing what we knew with our viewers. A young man had walked into the front office and opened fire, shooting two principals. One of them was dead, another was critically hurt. The teenager drove a few miles away, then shot and killed himself.
Millard South student Kyler Erickson heard and saw it all. He hid in a bathroom, called 911, and waited. No one should be witness to a nightmare like this; Kyler was as a teenager. Still, he refused to let that horror take him down, despite the nightmares and grief that followed. With therapy and sheer inner strength, Kyler healed emotionally and grew physically, attending the University of Nebraska Omaha to play Division 1 Basketball. He began to share his story, meeting with everyone from veterans suffering from PTSD to other students. This year, Kyler was named to the National Association of Basketball Coaches Good Works Team, recognized at the 2016 Final Four tournament, one of only five student athletes nationwide. This dude is simply AWESOME.
Kyler’s loved ones are among those most proud of this young man, including his longtime friends from Millard South…
..friends who were there in full force at Kyler’s final game with UNO. The girl in the beige and black sweater is LaRissa McKean.
“He’s so inspiring,” LaRissa told me recently. She too was at Millard South that day, in AP Economics class. And much like her friend Kyler, she’s devoted much of her time and focus on simply trying to make the world a better place.
Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography
“The best compliment I received was from a sorority sister. She anonymously left me a note saying ‘you make people feel good about themselves,'” said LaRissa. “That statement is what motivates me daily to make an impact on someone’s life.”
I first met LaRissa last summer at the Miss Nebraska Pageant; she left her mark on most, if not all of the audience and her fellow contestants. This girl is SHEER JOY.. she lights up a room with her smile and personality, and radiates energy and glee the second she steps on stage. LaRissa was also voted Miss Congeniality by her fellow contestants.
That beautiful smile shows LaRissa’s inner spirit… but so does THIS.
Hilarious. Carefree. So many women in pageants, business and LIFE are afraid to let their guard down, so afraid of what people will think about them. LaRissa knows who she is and OWNS it. You can just tell she LOVES life, and everyone around her smiles and lets THEIR guard down because of it.
LaRissa will compete at Miss Nebraska again this year as Miss Gering 2016. Her personal platform of service is called ‘Feel The Difference: Empowerment Through Communication.’
“[It’s] based on Maya Angelou’s quote, ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ I will leave a legacy where I make people feel inspired and willing to take the act of listening through conversation to better the lives around them.”
LaRissa has all kinds of opportunities to communicate.. the girl is surrounded by people CONSTANTLY. A University of Kansas graduate specialized in Accounting and Human Resources, LaRissa currently works three jobs; she’s a Head Instructor of summer high school/college dance camps with Universal Dance Association, she’s a full-time educator with Lululemon, and she’s a substitute paraprofessional in the district where she grew up, Millard Public Schools. She volunteers every week with local 4th graders, helping them catch up on homework and answering questions. LaRissa also takes part frequently at charity events, doing what she can to help as Miss Gering.
THEN.. there’s dance, a constant in LaRissa’s life for many years.
“I have judged the State Dance Competition for the last three years along with other local high school competitions and college regional competitions for the NAIA Nationals,” said LaRissa, who learned at and competed with Kitty Lee Dance, a place she still practices and volunteers. “One of my biggest role models was Miss Kitty. Not only did she instill my love for dance, she taught me to be stronger and never think you can’t improve. She raised me in the studio and I can’t thank her enough for whacking my leg with a ruler to get my knees straight. She was the first one to correct me in every dance class but also the first to congratulate me on a performance well done. Even with her gone, I know she is watching every class and performance, smiling that her passion lives inside of me.”
Talent is LaRissa’s favorite part of the Miss Nebraska Pageant; she plans to combine her love of comedy and dance to present a musical theater piece with ‘an element of surprise’ this year.
“Not only does [talent] set our system apart from others, it is truly beautiful to see all the contestants show their art to the world,” said LaRissa. “I love watching the contestants light up the floor with their interests and show a piece of themselves to everyone. The emotion that can be portrayed in 90 seconds gives me goosebumps and really shows the uniqueness of every competitor.”
That’s one of the things LaRissa hopes to share with pageant naysayers.. to learn more about the women who take part before forming an opinion.
“I remember going to pageants as a young girl and telling my mom I couldn’t wait to be as pretty or as talented as the women that compete for Miss Nebraska,” said LaRissa. “The majority of people who compete are varsity athletes in their schools, Honor Roll recipients, and leaders in their community. They are some of the most respected people and receive more credit for being mentors to people all across the nation.”
LaRissa adds that every woman she knows who’s taken part in this system has made a difference in someone’s life.. and that she became a leader because of it. She describes the title of Miss Nebraska as a job she’s applying for that could give her a year of memories she can only imagine. BUT.. in the swirl of glamour and costumes and performances, LaRissa hasn’t lost focus of her values and priorities; her family, including grandparents Pampy and Nana who she spends several hours with every week. Education, through both mentoring students and planning ahead to obtain a Masters Degree. Love, and her love of people.. simply spending time with those who matter most, friends like Kyler Erickson.
No one would have faulted Kyler for never talking about that day again, for withdrawing from everything to process what happened, for moving thousands of miles away from Omaha to escape everything and start fresh. Instead, this guy confronted his demons, defeated them, then stayed and shared his journey to help others still battling. LaRissa McKean’s story doesn’t stem from tragedy and horror but is inspiring nonetheless.. a young woman using her gifts and positive attitude to simply do good work in our world.
Photo courtesy Loren C Winkler Images
“At the end of the day, I look in the mirror, washing off my makeup and think it would be amazing to be Miss Nebraska 2016, but I would rather be known as LaRissa who became Miss Nebraska because of the person I am,” said LaRissa. “I’m an honest person, who gives my opinion respectively. I won’t change my values or morals because of a title, I will continue to grow and live a life I treasure. At the end of the day, I will still be LaRissa McKean forever.”
I think they call this perspective. Maybe it’s what she saw Kyler go through. Maybe it’s been the lesser challenges she, like the rest of us, go through. No matter where the drive comes from.. imagine what life could be like if we all strived to do good work to help each other, and in turn, found peace and joy within ourselves.
Click on each link below to follow Miss Gering 2016 LaRissa McKean
WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT LaRISSA?
For more information about the Miss Gering/Miss Western Nebraska Pageant, CLICK HERE to visit their Facebook page. For information on becoming a contestant, contact Director Heather Hayes by phone at 307-340-0601, or by email at Heather.Hayes@chartercom.com.
To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2015 & 2014, click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!