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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane honors its exceptional young

To the applause of the Opera House crowd, Julie Whiteheart walks to the stage to accept a Chase Youth Award for Personal Achievement on Thursday. 
 (Christopher Anderson/ / The Spokesman-Review)
To the applause of the Opera House crowd, Julie Whiteheart walks to the stage to accept a Chase Youth Award for Personal Achievement on Thursday. (Christopher Anderson/ / The Spokesman-Review)

Most consider Julie Whiteheart a busy senior with cheerleading and club activities at East Valley High School. Those who know about her rough upbringing consider her a brave heart.

Before 2,000 friends, peers and family, Whiteheart walked on stage Thursday under a spotlight at the Spokane Opera House. She showed tears and smiles as she received her Chase Youth Award for Personal Achievement. She was one of 46 award recipients in the annual event.

Named for the late Jim Chase, a former Spokane mayor, the Chase Youth Awards were created to honor local young people for their efforts to make Spokane a better place to live or “for making good choices in their own lives,” according to organizers. Categories include such things as citizenship, courage and leadership.

This year, about 1,500 youth were nominated by teachers and others who know them well.

Whiteheart’s friend and teacher, Laurie Wittrock, was so nervous as the announcement was made that Whiteheart had won that she forgot to take pictures. Their hands were locked.

“She’s really been through so much,” Wittrock said, her eyes teary.

Whiteheart carries a planner with her wherever she goes. She gives her manager at Zip’s a calendar two months in advance, showing all her school events to help determine her work shifts. Just about everyone who knows her mentions something like, “I don’t know how she does everything she does.”

Whiteheart’s a cheerleader, baseball manager, vice president of her senior class and dance team member. She’s also in choir, Spanish club, has a 3.7 grade-point average and is in the drug-free youth program. She worked 30-hour weeks last summer for the Greater Spokane Substance Abuse Council.

“She will tell you about her past, but she doesn’t want you to feel sorry for her,” said Kendra Juarez, a co-worker at the council. “Nothing has gotten her down. She definitely lights up a room.”

Whiteheart has two families: her biological mother who’s wrestled with drug addiction and her current foster family.

Before she was born, her father was killed by a drunken driver. Whiteheart was 11, when her mother began using methamphetamine. As the oldest, Whiteheart looked after her three siblings when her mother left them home alone.

“Fellow students would tease her because she wasn’t wearing clean clothes,” said Wittrock in her nomination letter.

When she was in middle school, Whiteheart would buy the family groceries with food stamps. She eventually left school and by the time she was 13 she was placed with foster parents by state Child Protective Services. She’s still with a foster family but visits her mother and her toddler brother.

“There are many horrific stories about Julie’s past … ,” Wittrock wrote in her nomination letter. “But the real story here is an amazing young woman with a positive attitude and a never-ending smile who has displayed a resiliency that should be a model for us all.”

Before learning she had won, Whiteheart said she’s accepted all that’s happened to her. Mostly, she understood that she had a choice to make her life better, and that’s what she’s done.

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