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End of The Hunt

ThanksUSA awards $3.5 million in scholarships and closes summer treasure hunt.

When Kristy Gower married Sgt. Terry Wayne Gower Jr. three years ago, she knew that she would need to choose a career that allowed her some flexibility.

"Being that my husband is in the Army, I know that moving is going to be the story of my life," said Gower, who is 24.

Gower decided to enroll in the University of Phoenix online program to study business, and is currently four classes away from graduation. Her husband is stationed at Fort Meyer, and the couple lives in Alexandria, but Sgt. Gower will be reassigned to a new location soon.

"My main goal is just to be marketable," said Gower. "Right now I have a good job here in D.C., but the thing is we're only going to be here for another year."

Last year, Kristy Gower applied for a school scholarship through the National Military Family Association, but was denied. The association referred her to ThanksUSA, another military family scholarship site that was started in 2005 by two young McLean residents, Rachel and Kelsi Okun. Gower filled out the application and was recently informed that she would be receiving funds for her schooling.

"I honestly didn't read up on what it [ThanksUSA] was all about," said Gower. "But it was real easy – I just filled out the application, there was no essay, and I found out at the end of July."

GOWER was just one of many scholarship winners awarded money through the ThanksUSA program. Last month, $3.5 million in scholarships were awarded to 1,000 winners in all 50 states. The scholarships ranged from $1,000 to a maximum of $5,000.

ThanksUSA, which stands for Treasure Hunt Aiding Needs of Kids (and spouses) of those Serving the United States of America awards scholarships that are funded by federal, corporate and individual contributions, and from the first-ever nationwide treasure hunt. Rachel Okun, 10, and Kelsi Okun, 8, came up with the idea to create a national treasure hunt during a family vacation in the summer of 2005. They broached the idea with their parents and the family concluded that a treasure hunt was a wonderful idea, but one that would be even better if it supported a higher cause — thus, ThanksUSA was born.

The Okun family spent the 2005-2006 school year working with friends, neighbors and one of the girl's Franklin Sherman Elementary School teachers to create a 12-stage, American history themed treasure hunt. Rachel and Kelsi Okun wanted the treasure hunt to generate support for the ThanksUSA scholarship fund while simultaneously providing children and their families with a fun, patriotic summer activity. Participants registered for the hunt online, and could choose to work individually or in groups to tackle the 12 puzzles, each of which were based on a U.S. state, and had clues rooted in American history, culture and geography. Correct answers for each stage were entered into the prize drawings, and players who successfully solved all 12 stages became eligible for a grand prize trip to Washington, D.C. Nearly 6,000 players signed up to participate in the hunt.

All prizes for the treasure hunt were donated and include items such as a family vacation to Disney World, a family vacation to Egypt to see the pyramids, and a customized Harley Davidson motorcycle. Local Great Falls jeweler George Adeler heard about the hunt through the media and decided to donate a treasure chest containing more than $100,000 of jewels. The Treasure Hunt was closed on Sept. 5, and the results are being tabulated.

"We have a lot of people to sort out, and we'll have the results in October," said Rachel Okun. "We're hoping that the grand prize winner can come to the gala."

THE FIRST ANNUAL ThanksUSA fundraiser gala will take place in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 14, and will feature special guests, a treasure hunt room and special announcements. Part of the purpose of the gala is to raise money for next year's scholarship program.

"It's going to be another memorable day in ThanksUSA history," said Rachel.

For Kelsi and Rachel Okun, watching their own original concept blossom into a national phenomenon has been an incredible experience. They have managed to provide tuition money to thousands of military children and spouses, and have had amazing opportunities along the way. Both girls appeared before Congress last fall to ask for seed money, and both also appeared on national morning news shows "The Today Show," and "Good Morning America."

"It's a really special feeling," said Rachel. "I don't know if you can describe it, but there have been a lot of cool memories along the way… and if we can make this happen, where's our next idea going to take us?"

The girls recently traveled with their parents to Idaho to do a ThanksUSA Treasure Hunt book signing event. At the signing, Rachel said that one family sat down and worked through two chapters of the hunt with the Okun's.

"It's amazing and spectacular to see people having fun with our game and appreciating this country's great history," said Rachel. "This has just been the best experience ever."

Kelsi Okun has enjoyed reading the numerous thank you letters that have been coming in to the organization.

"I was going through all of the notes that our teacher… organized, and I found this really nice one," said Kelsi. "But we have like millions of them."