Wide Eyes, Goosebumps and Jaws on the Floor: "Simply captivating" Adams Central sixth-grader Ava Bonifas chases a dream

Wide Eyes, Goosebumps and Jaws on the Floor: "Simply captivating" Adams Central sixth-grader Ava Bonifas chases a dream

By Tyler Dahlgren

Little Ava Bonifas came into the world carrying a tune.

By the time she turned two, the eldest child of Michael and Kelly Bonifas was dancing and belting out America’s favorite Disney songs. By the time she turned five, Ava was playing Whitney Houston’s famous Super Bowl XXV performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” on loop, her young but mighty voice doing its best to match one of the most powerful in the world.

“Once she started memorizing the words, it was kind of like, ‘Oh, wow, she can really carry a tune,’” said Kelly, who has plenty of videos still saved to prove it. “And then it got to be a little bit more, and her love for it continued to grow. She would watch other little kids on TV sing and eventually she said ‘Maybe I can do that,’ and off we went.”

Ava hasn’t stopped singing since. 

“Ava’s been singing on pitch beautifully all of her life,” said Ava’s music teacher Kristin Lukow, who’s been at Adams Central Elementary for 39 years. “So do most of my students. They all have talent, and that’s my belief, but she is the one who decided to go for it.”

Lukow makes it a priority to foster patriotism-they are the Adams Central Patriots, after all-and introduces her students to “The Star Spangled Banner” as kindergarteners. Thanks to Whitney Houston, Ava had a bit of a head start.

When she was nine, she auditioned to perform the national anthem at a Hastings Sodbusters game, her first performance in front of a sizable crowd. She was nervous until she had the microphone in her hands. Then the lights came on, metaphorically speaking, and Ava Bonifas wasn’t nervous any longer. 

She was simply breathtaking. 

“After I sang it my very first time, I suddenly realized I had fallen in love with it,” said Ava, who’s performed on stages big and small 45 times since that summer night. 

On December 22, 2022, Adams Central hosted York for a boys basketball game just before the holiday break. Ava’s music career was just taking off, but word of her talent had already been spilling out of Hastings and spreading through Central Nebraska. Before taking her spot by the scorers table, Ava hugged her brother, took a deep breath and let it rip in front of the hometown crowd.

That night, everything changed. That night, jaws hit the floor.

“She’s got such a powerful voice, it just leaves people in awe,” said Adams Central Elementary principal Lonnie Abbott. “It’s just like a dead silence comes over the crowd and people are blown away. And then the roar after she finishes the national anthem that she receives from the crowd is just unbelievable. It’s captivating, really.”

NTV’s Colleen Williams shared a video on social media. In it, you can see Ava’s rendition physically take the crowd by surprise. The referees next to her were left wide-eyed and could only shake their heads and mouth a “Wow” to one another. 

America was left to do the same. The video went instantly viral.

We’re talking 14 MILLION views viral.

“What I think is cool is when she’s performing at our high school, and seeing those high school kids that are just in awe of her,” said Adams Central Elementary assistant principal Shannon Nepple. “They’re just like, ‘Oh my goodness,’ and you can see it on their faces and in the way they cheer. It reflects that sense of the Patriot community that exists here. That’s what has been neat and so impressive to me, is how even our high school kids make a big deal out of, and are so proud of, her accomplishments.”

Ava said going viral was a “pretty cool experience,” an even-keeled summation from an even-more-keeled 12-year-old. Mrs. Lukow said there’s no denying Ava being a wonderful talent, but said it’s her humble nature and modesty that are really striking for a student her age.

“She’s very grounded, she knows who she is and she doesn’t make excuses,” Lukow continued. “Ava is quiet, compliant, kind and genuine. She doesn’t get sucked into silliness often. She’s just a very kind and wonderful, hard-working kid.”

Ava has other musical direction in her life too, namely vocal teacher Ashten Smith, who unfortunately recently moved out of state from her home in Geneva. She also performs at Grand Island-based children’s musical theater CREATE 308, but the bond she’s built with Lukow is undeniably special.

“She’s really helped me a lot,” Ava said of her teacher. “In class, sometimes we have private sessions, and I learn so much from her.”

Lukow’s music room is anything but bland, even after four decades. In it, Ava and hundreds of other students have flourished through the years. That’s no surprise to Abbott, who sees innovation and an inclination to think outside of the box across his entire staff.

“Mrs. Lukow is one of those teachers who picks up on the new thing, or whatever’s hip right now, and finds a way to incorporate it into making music more interesting to the kids,” Abbott said. “It’s not just a music class, it’s a movement class with music. She has kids doing unbelievable things.”

Kelly said her daughter has a big fan club at Adams Central. That support has been invaluable through the first couple years of Ava’s journey, which hit another peak this past December, when she performed the national anthem in front of 16,000 red-clad volleyball fans at the Devaney Center before Nebraska’s NCAA Volleyball Tournament win over Missouri.

Like a closing pitcher’s mother shielding her eyes from the bleachers in the bottom of the ninth, Kelly still gets nervous before each performance. Sometimes, she feels like she could throw up, but then she looks at her daughter and lets out a deep breath.

It’s all going to be okay, she tells herself. When Ava has the microphone, it always is.

“If you didn’t know it, Ava’s my oldest and she’s very cautious,” Kelly said. “She’s scared of everything, and so very self-conscious. But there’s just something about it when she gets a microphone in her hand. You would never know by hearing her sing that she’s shy in real life.”

Having adopted the title of “Momager”, Kelly spends a lot of time working the phones. Her and Michael promised Ava at the outset of this voyage that they would do anything they could to help take Ava as far as she wanted to go.

“I think we do a pretty good job of helping her balance it all,” said Kelly. “It’s no different than kids playing sports. There’s a lot of practicing and she’s definitely grown as far as confidence, communication, time management and those other life skills.”

Ever so wise beyond her years, Ava said none of this would be at all possible without the support of her parents and two younger siblings, who listen to her sing or strum on the guitar (which she’s teaching herself, by the way) nearly every night.

“Their support is everything,” said Ava. “It’s very special. I’m so grateful for my family.”

Nepple called Ava one of Adams Central Elementary’s model students, a 6th-grade girl with an eternal smile on her face. Abbott agreed, saying it's easy work for the school to be so proud of someone who represents its values so well.

“She’s kind, caring and compassionate to the other kids in her class,” said Nepple. “She’s a leader. She will help us with any task that needs to be done within the school.”

Ava is all those things and then some. 

She’s also still a kid. In her free time, she loves to read and plays basketball, volleyball and softball. She could watch Frozen over and over and has never met a Jimmy John’s sub that hasn’t hit the spot. This week, the Bonifas family is headed to Copper Mountain for some skiing. 

But make no mistake about it, Ava is ambitious. To be on this ride, you kind of have to be.

“She’s intrinsically motivated,” said Nepple. “I mean, she has to want that inside of her. Obviously, it’s a passion of hers, and she’s risen to the occasion. I’d love to say we created that in her, but I think a lot of it is in her intrinsic motivation and just having that innate ability and confidence to perform on the stages she’s performed on.”

Lukow believes that Ava is doing what she was meant to do.

“The piece inside of Ava that drives her, that’s unique,” she continued. “Her calmness to be able to go out and sing at ‘The Bob,’ that’s unique. She just loves to do it. She loves to share.”

One day, Ava dreams of winning The Voice or making it onto American Idol. She idolizes Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift, though you won’t catch her cheering for her brother’s beloved Chiefs. It’d be cool to be in movies and to perform in front of sold-out arenas, too.

“You have to believe in yourself,” she would tell anybody with similar dreams. “If you believe it, you can be it.”

It’s a Friday morning, and the bell is just about to ring. The future is bright, but right now Ava Bonifas has to run along to class. 

She darts down a hallway, and blends into the hustle and bustle of a school that has vowed to always cheer her on.

Something tells me we’ll hear from her again.