BY GENEVIEVE POSTLETHWAIT, The Paducah Sun
For 32 Mondays beginning last September and ending in April, The Sun's front page featured the faces and stories of 32 of the Purchase Area's most remarkable high school seniors, the Paducah Bank Teens of the Week.
From those 32, only one could be named Teen of the Year. Monday evening before an audience of his Teen of the Week peers, Murray High School senior Suphat Yoopensuk was presented the Paducah Bank Teen of the Year title as well as the $2,500 scholarship that comes with it.
"I will say, now that I've seen all of your faces, it makes it even more difficult to name just one of you Teen of the Year," Paducah Bank spokeswoman Susan Guess told the teens and their families in the Carson Center River Room on Monday night. "But even among this group of 32 extraordinary teens, one stood out to us."
At this point in the reception, all of teens had been given their keepsake plaques and printed copies of their Monday feature stories. It was any teen's game.
"His story is an inspiring one," Guess said, giving the first hint at the winner. "He made a difficult decision at a young age to come to America in sake of his education, and he never turned back."
In the very back row of the River Room, Yoopensuk's mother and stepfather leaned in toward him, hugging and squeezing his shoulders. They knew what was coming next.
"Since coming to Murray as a middle-schooler, Suphat has worked hard, in and out of the classroom, to become the outstanding student and athlete he is today," Guess continued. "His determination, his love of learning and his unfailingly positive outlook have helped us select him as our Teen of the Year. We are so happy and so proud to name as the Paducah Bank-Paducah Sun Teen of the Year, Suphat Yoopensuk."
This school year, The Sun received 75 Teen of the Week applications and recommendations from school counselors from 19 high schools across the Purchase Area. The 32 students recognized at Monday night's reception represented the best and brightest of an exceptional group of young people.
They include future healthcare professionals and engineers; aspiring writers, actors and architects; educators and businessmen and women in the making and everything in between - each of them driven and committed to their communities and their dreams.
As Guess put it, the decision of who would be named Teen of the Year grew more difficult with each passing Monday and each passing Teen of the Week story. In the end, Yoopensuk's dedication to his own education and unflappable positivity set him apart from his peers, who were the best of the best.
"I still can't believe it," Yoopensuk said after posing for photos with his fellow Teens of the Week. "Thank you so much."
When Yoopensuk was just a middle-schooler living in his home city of Bangkok, Thailand, he was given a choice. His parents told him he could stay in Bangkok with his father and family where everything was familiar, or he could uproot and move to Murray, Kentucky, with his mother and stepfather where he knew no one and barely spoke the language.
Yoopensuk chose Murray.
"The first time I see the story it made me laugh, but it's true!" Yoopensuk's mother, Mayuraporn Crittendon, said after the reception. "When he came here he could not even speak English at all, not at all. I cannot believe he can pass with all A and B grades."
Crittendon said she was thrilled when he was named Teen of the Week, and simply beside herself when he was named Teen of the Year.
"We are surprised," she said. "It's so amazing."
Despite the fact that Yoopensuk's English language skills were minimal at best when he started high school at Murray, he pushed himself, taking honors and AP classes while also juggling spots on the varsity tennis and soccer teams, as well as restaurant and construction jobs after school.
Rather than using his savings to buy a car and putting his paychecks in his gas tank, Yoopensuk chose to ride his bike everywhere instead. It meant more money for college, and he also just enjoys riding. Last year during preparations for Murray High's prom, for example, he rode his bike across town to help his classmates on prom workdays, never missing a meeting. He was nominated and elected by his classmates as prom king that year.
Though he's had to work harder than most to get to where he is today - a high school senior graduating from an American high school with honors and college-bound come fall - he doesn't for one second regret his decision to come to Kentucky. As he said in his March Teen of the Week interview, he knew it was the best choice, even if it wasn't the easiest.
The $2,500 Paducah Bank-Paducah Sun Teen of the Year scholarship (plus Yoopensuk's proven determination and can-do positivity) will help him further his education in business and computer science at Murray State University this fall.