This year, Sarah Banning is the captain of the cheerleading squad at Metro-East Lutheran High School in Edwardsville, and she’s all set for her pre-med college career at McKendree University in Lebanon.
But when Sarah was in fifth grade, things were different. Her father, Tom Banning, was deployed to Afghanistan for a year. Her mother, Tonja Banning, was pregnant with her little brother and was diagnosed with gestational diabetes.
Sarah had to grow up very quickly, Tom said. “Sarah had to pick up the slack to do chores around the house and cook the meals, all as a fifth-grader,” he said.
Sarah said her father was always encouraging to her, and when he was gone, she had to learn to encourage herself and motivate herself to do well. “I think I had to mature a lot faster,” she said.
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It’s hard to be a military child. Every military child understands the difficulty of having a parent who’s away, especially if that parent is the main support of the family.
Sarah Banning on taking on responsibility
That maturity has paid off. Sarah will graduate this year from Metro-East Lutheran as head cheerleader and class representative. She’s also part of the National Honor Society, WYSE (a student group focused on science and engineering), Students Against Destructive Decisions and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. She plans to attend McKendree University in the fall as a biology major, preparatory to medical school, possibly at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
As if that weren’t enough, Sarah volunteers with the Nosim Maasai Mission, writing appeals and assisting with computing tasks to help rescue operations half a globe away. Nosim Maasai Mission provides African girls fleeing forced genital mutilation with an escape and educational opportunities. When she is older, Sarah hopes to travel and be able to help the Maasai people in person, she said.
Operation Homefront recently recognized Sarah’s efforts for holding down the homefront as a young girl. She is one of two metro-east students nominated for Military Child of the Year, an honor bestowed on only a few students each year.
Sarah was listed among 15 semifinalists from each branch of the U.S. military last week, selected out of more than 500 applications. She will find out in March if she has been selected to represent the National Guard.
“It’s hard to be a military child,” Sarah said. “Every military child understands the difficulty of having a parent who’s away, especially if that parent is the main support of the family.”
Tom, now retired from military service, said he and Tonja are “incredibly proud” of Sarah. “She’s a fine young lady mature beyond her years,” he said. “She’s got a drive that pushes her to take on things and try new things. ... We’re almost spectators by now, because she just does it. We don’t have to push her to do anything. It’s amazing for someone who’s only 17.”
For her fellow students, Sarah says to go for what you want. “Don’t hold back and be scared to fail,” she said. “Failing just pushes you to try harder and achieve more.”
And for kids whose parents are deployed, Sarah said it’s important to know that the separation and loss isn’t forever. “Learn from the experience you’re going through right now,” she said. “It’ll be over soon. There is an end.”
Meet Sarah Banning
- Age: 17
- School: Metro-East Lutheran High School
- Grade: Senior
- Parents: Tom and Tonja Banning
- Siblings: Zachary, 20; Aiden, 6
- Activities: National Honor Society, W.Y.S.E., SADD, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, class representative, head cheerleader
- Volunteer: Nosim Maasai Mission
- Favorite class: Biology
- Favorite pastime: Watching movies, hanging out with her friends and boyfriend
- Favorite hangout: Starbucks