Phoebe Park

Midway High School senior Phoebe Park (center) looks over her Youth Citizen Award with her parents, Maria and Ken Park, on Monday. She is the first Midway senior to earn the award in about 20 years.

As a high school freshman, Phoebe Park thrived on challenge, winning state-level piano competitions, placing in regional swim meets and founding a group to teach swimming lessons to low-income children.

But nothing had prepared her for the challenge she suddenly would confront on a Sunday morning two years later, when she woke up with a numb face, unable to close her mouth.

The diagnosis was a sudden onset of Bell’s palsy, a temporary paralysis caused by damage to facial nerves. She would spend her junior year struggling with the condition, but she never lost her resolve to help children.

That persistence led the Rotary Club of Waco and the Tribune-Herald to name Park as this year’s Outstanding Youth Citizen during the 38th annual Youth Citizenship Awards on Monday. She is Midway High School’s first Youth Citizen Award in nearly 20 years, said Principal Alison Smith.

“She’s kind of a quiet force,” Smith said. “She doesn’t step out, and she doesn’t stand out in front of everyone and say, ‘Look at me.” She does her work through her actions and she’s very humble.”

Park was one of 21 students nominated by for the award, which recognizes service above self – the Rotary Club’s mission statement. From 21, the nominations were narrowed down the top five students at various schools across McLennan County. Runners-up received a $2,000 scholarship for their communication, and Park received a $4,000 scholarship.

Park said her faith drives her to help others even in the face of personal obstacles, such as the Bell’s palsy diagnosis.

“It was not something in that you could take an antibiotic and it just immediately goes away. You just have to wait it out ultimately,” Park said. “That was kind of hard for me because I like to get things done and I like to be in charge of what is going on and be in control.

“For the first time I had lost control, but it showed me how humble and how grateful I need to be just to smile or close an eye, things you don’t think about until you lose control of them.”

Park is the founder of Swimming Enabling Empowering Kids, or SEEK, a summer program through Mission Waco that offers free swim lessons and swim equipment to teach low-income children about the risks of drowning. She funds the program by organizing benefit concerts.

Park’s father, Ken Park, said it was difficult to see her health keep her from doing what she loved.

“Her Bell’s palsy was a moment where she felt completely hopeless,” her father Ken Park said. “Before then, she thought she could have everything under her control. It was an eye-opening moment. She had an epiphany of the Lord and figured out she needs Him.”

When Park first started doing the swim lessons, she was nervous because the children came from different backgrounds from her own. But her fears soon vanished when the children would run up to greet her. SEEK became a place after her diagnosis where she could go and not feel judged because of her condition, she said.

“For them, their first thought was, ‘Oh, there’s somebody to play with us and that’s wonderful,’ and that thought is just so beautiful,” Park said. “It did help me get over my Bell’s palsy, not physically, but in my head and in my heart.”

SEEK has since become an official partner to the USA Swimming Make a Splash Foundation, the only program within a 50-mile radius of Waco to join a national effort to prevent children’s drowning, stated McKenzie Miller, Mission Waco’s Children’s director.

When Park graduates May 26, she’ll go off to Dartmouth College to major in international relations and minor in Spanish, she said.

Some of Park’s other accomplishments include multiple academic and state-level music awards, and performing as an environmental music therapy pianist in the patient lobby of McClinton Cancer Center at Baylor Scott & White Hospital – Hillcrest.

Park was also a food server for the McLennan County Hunger Coalition, feeding low-income families and children each summer from 2014 to 2016.

“She’s got a great support system at home, which is very helpful,” Smith said. “Her parents are amazing and she just has the will to excel in and out of the classroom, always.”

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