McCool student Kenley Smith recognized as hero by sheriff’s department and governor

McCOOL JUNCTION – Kenley Smith was surprised – along with her fellow students at McCool Junction Public School – Friday morning when she was honored by the York County Sheriff’s Department and Governor Jim Pillen for her heroic efforts last year following a very serious crash involving a McCool school vehicle carrying students and another van.

Smith was just 11 years old, last May, when her calm and courageous actions led to four other students being taken to safety and emergency first responders being notified.

YSO Sergeant Alex Hildebrand read aloud the commendation bestowed upon the youngster, as he presented her with the Community Meritorious Conduct Award.

“On May 19, 2023, deputies with the York County Sheriff’s Office were dispatched to the area of Road 9 and Road Q for an injury accident involving a school van,” Sgt. Hildebrand said. “Upon arrival, deputies observed one wrecked van and one van that was fully engulfed in fire. The wrecked van was observed to be a McCool Junction Public Schools van.

“During the investigation, it became known that the McCool Junction school van was occupied by five students and a driver,” he said. “As a result of the crash, the driver of the school van was incapacitated. Realizing the other vehicle involved in the crash was completely engulfed in flames just feet away from the wrecked school van, Kenley Smith quickly jumped into action to save the other four children in the school van. Smith, who was 11 years old, was the oldest student on the van at the time of the crash. She successfully and safely removed the remaining four children from the school van through a side door and a broken rear window. All children involved in the crash sustained various levels of injuries.

“Once out of the van, Smith then walked all the children to a nearby house to call 911 for help. All the while, Smith remained calm in an attempt to help calm her fellow schoolmates. She herself was injured in the accident but remained strong and knew she had to act to help the other students. Once first responders were on the scene, she helped identify all the children involved. She also helped identify the parents of the children involved until school officials arrived on scene.

“It is because of Kenley Smith that the remainder of the children in the school van were not injured further after the crash occurred because of her quick action,” Sgt. Hildebrand said. “This was a very unfortunate situation, but because of her bravery, there were no further injuries sustained in the incident. The York County Sheriff’s Office commends Kenley Smith for her confidence, bravery, quick action and willingness to help others. York county is a better place because of people like Kenley Smith.”

The entire McCool Junction School family was in attendance – all students, faculty, school board members and administration – and they all rose to their feet to applaud Smith. Also in attendance, besides many members of the sheriff’s department and Pillen, were her family members and York County Commissioner Daniel Grotz.

The McCool gym was full of emotion as she was honored.

“What a privilege it is to be governor, to be able to have experiences such as this to honor heroic action,” Governor Pillen said. “All of us, regardless of our age, all of us have the opportunity and ability to do what’s right, every single day. Sometimes it takes extraordinary courage. We are working on a culture of love and life in Nebraska. We have no idea what kind of impact we can have on others. And this is a great example of who our heroes are and what we all can be.”

He presented her with a Nebraska admiralship and the governor’s coin.

“This is the best part of what we do in law enforcement,” Sgt. Hildebrand said, “to recognize when people go above and beyond to help others. I challenge all of you to be brave and do the right thing and be more like Kenley.”

York County Sheriff Paul Vrbka said it was last summer when Sgt. Hildebrand first brought the idea to him, to recognize Smith’s heroic actions. Shortly after they discussed how they would honor her, Sheriff Vrbka saw Governor Pillen at a conference.

“I told him about this young girl’s heroic efforts and asked if his office would send me a declaration in writing, to honor her, which we could present to her,” the sheriff explained. “But the governor said no, he wouldn’t just do that. He would also be there in person, to honor her as well. I thought that was awesome. So between working out his schedule and the winter weather and our schedule, we finally were able to do this today, in front of her whole school and community, to honor her. And we are so honored Governor Pillen took the time to be here with us. And for him taking so much time to even have photos taken with all the McCool students. It’s been a really cool day to honor a kid who did a remarkable thing.”

Governor Pillen thanked the entire McCool School family for having the surprise assembly and he thanked the YSO for allowing him to be part of it.

“This is a really special day, to honor a really special young person,” Governor Pillen said.

Sheriff Vrbka agreed. “It’s wonderful to recognize when someone does the right thing. And that’s certainly what Kenley Smith did.”

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