When Missoula fourth grader Athena Starin got off the bus following school last Friday afternoon, she was in for a big surprise.
Family, friends, teachers and representatives from Google met her at her house in Missoula to announce that she's Montana's winner for the annual Doodle for Google competition.
She was happy, excited, and certainly shocked when she saw a large group of people outside her home in the Upper Rattlesnake neighborhood.
"I was just like, 'Can I get off at the next stop? What are all these people doing at my house?'" Athena said. "I thought maybe mom was having a cleaning party or something."
Her mother, Keila Cross, is an art educator at Paxson Elementary School and helped organize the surprise. A tent was set up with balloons and a few gifts from Google, including a T-shirt with Athena's winning Doodle on it.
It was a happy scene.
"She's shy, so this was a huge shock," Cross said of Athena, who is her and her husband Justin Starin's oldest child. "She's kind of been like, 'Well, when are we going to know what's going on with this?'"
Google Doodles are featured on the Google search homepage and often change on a daily basis. Each year they hold a drawing competition for school-aged kids.
Rattlesnake Elementary has a Google Digital Citizenship Curriculum and Robin Nygren, a school librarian, gave students the optional assignment of creating a Doodle to submit to the competition.
Selections are made from a panel of judges, who narrow down one winner from each of the 54 states and territories. There are five age groups based on grade level, but only one winner is selected from each state.
Starin advances to the next round, where five finalists, one from each age group, will be selected. Online voting runs May 10 to May 14 to determine the top five Doodles. After that, judges will pick one overall winner who's Doodle will be featured on Google's homepage.
The national winner will receive a $30,000 college scholarship and a $50,000 technology package for their school or nonprofit, as well as other gifts from Google. The four national finalists who are not the overall winner will each collect a $5,000 college scholarship.
This year's theme was "I am strong because..."
Athena's Doodle, titled "Stay Strong and Smile, Smile, Smile!!!!!," includes a superhero cape, a heart, a strong arm, a cat and a person sleeping.
"I have dyslexia and anxiety. I worry that I am not good enough, but I keep trying. I can do hard things. This picture represents some of what it takes to be strong. I am strong!" Athena wrote in the description of her winning Doodle.
"She had a few drafts, and lots of brainstorming and discussion over, you know, what she felt like inner strength meant to her and then how she was going to execute that," Cross said.
An intelligent and funny kid, her parents as well as her tutor, Elisabeth Laatsch, said Athena has been very open about living with dyslexia and anxiety. It's something the family speaks about openly.
"I drew all the stuff that made me happy when I thought I was strong — pets are good and sleeping's good and being strong like that, but also being smart and strong," Athena said.
"She's curious, she's creative, she's witty, she's confident in some ways, well-spoken, self-aware and takes on a challenge," Laatsch said.
Jordan Hansen covers news and local government for the Missoulian. Contact him on Twitter @jordyhansen or via email at Jordan.Hansen@Missoulian.com