Gabby Richardson is a winner -- and so is her dad, Cordell.
The soon-to-be second-grader at Cathedral Grade School and 18,000 other Illinois children in grades one through 12 wrote about "what my father means to me" for the 2013 Illinois Fatherhood Initiative/White Sox Fatherhood Essay Contest.
Gabby learned in April she was one of 156 finalists. To mark that award, mom and dad, Erika and Cordell, and younger sister, Abigail, 5, were guests with her at a Chicago White Sox game. A chill was in the air.
"I had to have my uncle's jacket on," said Gabby.
They also stopped by the American Girl store where Gabby chose a doll.
"Abigail already had hers," said Erica. "It was a present for Gabby's essay contest. We wanted to tell her she did great for the school year as well."
In May, Gabby learned she was in the top 12.
"She was the first-grade winner out of the whole state," said Erica, a government contractor.
Cordell, home from lunch on Monday, feels honored.
He likes just about everything that goes with being a dad.
"It's different every day," said Cordell, 32, a U.S. Air Force technical sergeant with the 375th Civil Engineers quadrant. . "It's a surprise every day. To know I have two lives depending on me is something special. It's very rewarding to be a father, especially when you're engaged in your children's lives.
"I did not have my father around. I strive to give my chldren what I didn't have. I try to be the father I always wanted."
He plays wii games with the girls, reads to them and showed up at school on Gabby's birthday to eat lunch with her.
"Sometimes, we play soccer," said Gabby.
"I can't tell. We ride bikes and go swimming."
For Father's Day, the girls plan to shower dad with cards, and the family will barbecue.
When Cordell was in Iraq for six months in 2011, they skyped in the morning and at night.
"That made the whole process a lot easier," said Cordell. "I sent videos of me reading books to them through the USO."
"I was a little bit sad," said Gabby. "I called him every night on Mom's computer. I missed him a lot."
The Richardsons, who are from San Antonio, have lived in Belleville for three years.
Gabby remembered back to the day she had to explain what her father meant to her.
"It was easy," said Gabby. "I have a good dad."
Here is Gabby Richardson's winning essay.
"My Dad means the world to me.
He reads to me and lets me read to him.
My dad is in the United States Air Force. He fights for our country. When my dad was in Iraq, he called me every night before bed and every morning before school.
My dad prays for me and with me. He tells me stories about God and teaches me how to be a good person. My dad is great. He kisses me every night.
He buys us candy from his work. We play the Wii together. He always beats me in Wii baseball and I win in bowling. My dad loves me very much and tells me I am kind, I am smart, and I am important."