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Despite being deaf, Hellgate High School sophomore Kiana Manners is fluent in English, sign language and Hawaiian.

It took years of speech therapy, two surgeries on each ear and multiple implants to help her hear since it was determined she was deaf at the age of 2.

“It taught me to be more independent,” Manners said of the challenges that came with struggling to hear.

Now, she’s able to hold conversations and do well in school, which has taken people pushing her, either with their positive encouragement or with their disbelief in her capacity to do things, Manners said.

Doubt in her abilities makes her try harder, she said. “I’m going to do everything that you think I can’t do.”

Often, though, people are surprised to learn of her disability because of how well she speaks.

Still, sometimes she has difficulty understanding people and has to look directly at them while they talk or ask them to repeat themselves, which she used to find embarrassing.

Then a friend told Manners it wasn’t embarrassing and she has overcome her fear of being considered different.

“I want people to know that I am deaf and diabetic and that doesn’t stop me from doing bigger things in life, and it’s OK not to be normal,” she said.

On Thursday, Manners and 51 other Missoula County Public Schools middle and high school students will be recognized for overcoming extraordinary circumstances to succeed.

The students will be given Most Inspiring Student Awards during a dinner reception and ceremony, after having been nominated by teachers and counselors for the recognition. The Missoulian is the banquet’s sponsor, and publisher Jim McGowan will be the keynote speaker.

This year marks the fifth that the awards have been given.

Already, the district has many ways to recognize students for sports, academics, clubs and governments, said Hatton Littman, a spokeswoman for MCPS.

Through the Most Inspiring Student Awards, two students from each grade level are recognized for overcoming obstacles outside the classroom, Littman said.

“We want to recognize students that have demonstrated a great deal of persistence and courage and that have overcome adversity – and most importantly, that they’ve overcome adversity to succeed,” she said.

Manners said she was surprised to receive the award.

“I don’t know why they think I’m inspiring, but it’s nice to know that,” she said.

***

Sam Little is another student who will be recognized Thursday evening.

After struggling with addiction and eight months in a comprehensive treatment center, Little returned to school in October as a junior at Sentinel High School – and has spent the months since encouraging others to make healthy choices by sharing his experience.

When he was 14, his best friend died, sending Little deeper into his already present depression. By the time he was 15, he had started abusing prescription drugs, smoking marijuana and cigarettes, and drinking alcohol.

“There was just kind of that hole there,” Little said of how he felt after his friend’s death.

But the drugs and alcohol didn’t help.

“I was very unhealthy. It made my depression worse,” he said.

In February 2013, Little became suicidal and was institutionalized for a week before being sent to a treatment facility in Utah for eight months.

Now, his stronger sense of self-respect is helping him share his story with others in the hope that they will see the positive opportunities in every life.

“I have learned that I can push through the obstacles I’m given,” Little said.

Kerry Herndon nominated Little because of his spearheading the creation of a Healthy Alternative Lifestyle Opportunities club at Sentinel.

The club meets Tuesdays during lunch and members organized a lecture series for students and staff this week. The group is not a support group or just for kids who have struggled with addiction; rather, it fosters positive peer mentorship for students at a time when making healthy decisions isn’t always easy.

It takes a lot to turn around an addiction, let alone help others while recovering, said Herndon, who works for Western Montana Addiction Services and has an office at the school.

Little’s decision to be open about his story is inspiring other students to tell theirs, and the shared experiences build support, Herndon said.

“He’s a natural leader. He’s got lots of ideas and drive to go through with them,” she said.

Little said he was caught off guard by receiving the award, but that it makes him feel appreciated.

“It’s good to know that people look up to me,” he said.

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Reporter Alice Miller can be reached at 523-5251 or at alice.miller@missoulian.com.

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