It's the time of year every kid looks forward to, but for Mandee Kunkel - Christmas has a different meaning.
"It was Christmas Eve morning and my mom got sick," the Hall High School Senior explained. "I rushed her to the emergency room and we waited a few hours to find out she had an aortic aneurysm that had spread to her stomach."
Mandee is used to spending Christmas in hospitals. During one, her brother overdosed on heroin. During another, her Aunt had a heart attack. This was one was supposed to be different, but it wasn't.
"The last thing she said to me before I left the hospital was - Mandee I'm sorry I ruined Christmas and I know I don't say it enough, but I really do love you and I'm so proud of you," she said.
Mandee's mom spent 10 days in a medically-induced coma before Mandee made the hardest choice of her life.
"I made the executive decision to take my mom off life support with my sister by my side and I said goodbye to mom on January 3rd."
It's not the first parent she's lost. When Mandee was just three years old, her father passed away.
"I would always get really upset," she explained. "There were kids who used to make fun of me in school - like, haha you don't have a dad... and I always felt left out because I didn’t get to go to the father-daughter dances and all that."
Her mom raised her to be resilient, though. So Mandee was ready when she faced her own battle of being diagnosed with Crohn's Disease her junior year.
"I had it for a lot of years, but they told me there was nothing wrong with me and finally November of my junior year my appendix was about to burst and I had an ultrasound done and another one and another one," she described. "It just went on from there. I spent three months in the hospital."
However, with a lot of support by her side, Mandee came back to Hall High School with a new outlook.
"Through being sick it gave me hope," she said. "Once I was healthy again it made me so much happier and appreciative for my health."
Despite everything that's happened to her, Mandee has made sure her last year in high school was her best. She became President of the Science Club and Manager of Hall's Football team. She also sang in the choir and spent a lot of time volunteering:
"We do the spaghetti fundraiser to raise money for kids in the area to get them bikes for Christmas," she explained. "It's just little things like that - to see the amount of money that you've raised and to see how many bikes you've gotten for the kids and just to know there's people in Spring Valley who are going to wake up on Christmas morning and they're going to have something special that they didn't think they would."
We also have something special for Mandee, so we surprised her at Hall High School with our $1,000 S.O.A.R. Scholarship, sponsored by The Sedona Group.
"It's truly an honor to be considered for the scholarship," Mandee said afterwards. "I'm really excited to start the next chapter of my life."
Mandee is studying to become an ultrasound technician. She says she's looking forward to the future, knowing she has two guardian angels now looking over her.
"I want to make them proud," she said.
Mandee is attending Illinois Valley Community College and then Sauk Valley Community College to study radiology.
The S.O.A.R. Scholarship is given to five high school seniors around the Quad Cities area every year. S.O.A.R. stands for Strength of Character, Optimism for Future Success, Achievement in Academics and Volunteerism, and Resolve. This is the 7th year WQAD News 8 has partnered with The Sedona Group to grant this scholarship.