Local contestants showed a surprising depth of emotion and insight in this year’s annual VFW-sponsored youth essay competition, designed to give students from grades K to 12 the opportunity to express their views on American ideals and principles. Winners of the contest were honored at the awards ceremony and luncheon held Dec. 19 at Ruskin VFW Post 6287, officiated by lead organizer, Shirley May, and attended by local students, parents, VFW and Auxiliary members.
Established by the VFW in 1947, the Voice of Democracy contest accepts essays from nearly 40,000 American high school students who enter for a chance to win a share of the $2 million in educational scholarships and incentives that are awarded. The national first-place winner receives a $30,000 scholarship paid directly to his/her American university, college or vocational school. Other scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $16,000 are also awarded, with the first-place winner from each state winning a scholarship and an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C.
This year’s first-place winner was Richard Scilabro from Ruskin Christian School, with his essay entitled “My Vision for America.” While expressing an immense love for his country, Scilabro also made a number of hard-hitting observations concerning the “great decay” and “lost morale” of our current American structure.
“My vision is for an America that practices the fundamentals that made us once a revered nation,” wrote Scilabro. “Many public schools fail to teach the Constitution, and the Pledge of Allegiance is being eliminated from public institutions. This has led to a decadence in the great patriotism our people once possessed. I envision an America in which the youth have been taught the importance of our heritage.”
Scilabro goes on to discuss corruption in national politics, the neglect of VA hospitals and the burden of the national debt on our next generation of youth.
Daphne Gulotta, the second-place winner, agreed. “Many American citizens are furious that our government is not taking serious action,” she wrote. “This is my vision for America: To reaffirm our rights, enforce our laws, and become debt-free.”
Third-place winner Melanie Couturier, from Riverview High School, stirred many to tears as she read her essay to the audience at the VFW post. Opening with quotes from George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ronald Reagan, she emphasized the importance of personal action and responsibility in curing our nation’s ills. “We bury our heads in the sand of arrogance and never take the blame for our country’s diminishing spirit,” she said, describing her activities in her school’s NJROTC unit and the Youth Leadership Conference in Tallahassee.
“I learned to be a valuable citizen,” Couturier said, “and how to take the core of this very nation and use it to touch the souls, hearts and minds of everyone I meet. I plan to carry those ideals into the remainder of my academic career and my years in service. Sharing the marvels of my country will be my legacy.“
Also honored at the awards ceremony were the winners of the Patriot’s Pen contest, which included middle school students Alexa Martinez, Ethan Dean and Amber Miller, all from Ruskin Christian School, who wrote essays entitled “What Freedom Means to Me.”
Each year more than 125,000 students in grades 6-8 enter the VFW’s Patriot’s Pen essay contest for a chance to compete for national awards totaling $50,000. Each first-place state winner receives a minimum of $500, and the national first-place winner wins $5,000 and a trip to Washington, D.C., in March.
“We should be proud of those people who sacrificed themselves for our freedom,” wrote Alexa Martinez. “Foreign people come to America because they are seeking a better life for themselves and their family. A lot of people take freedom for granted because they haven’t had to experience what other people in different countries have.”
Ethan Dean expressed a similar sentiment: “Freedom is what makes this country so great. It is where I can wear the clothes I want, choose the religion I want, say what I want, and can even choose the job I want.”
Amber Miller wrote: “I have many friends with different heritages. We stand side by side as equals because the freedom of America has set us free.”
“Our hearts and tears were welling up as we read their essays,” said an emotional Shirley May, who organized the VFW event and also helped judge the Americanism contest entries from elementary school students, which included a coloring, poster and essay competition.
Elementary school winners included Zachary Helton, Victor DeSilva, Chloe Kellenberger, Sean Cameron, Anna Wright, DaVany Villnave, Allison Garcia, Morgendy Buzbee and Bradley Gober. All took home a fun pack with a $65 gift card for The Alley at SouthShore, plus crayons, puzzles, posters and games.
The final awards of the day went to Valerie Dickson from Apollo Beach Elementary, and Kelly Zunkiewicz from Lennard High School, for the VFW Teacher of the Year contest. Both women were recognized as exceptional teachers for their outstanding commitment to promoting Americanism and patriotism to their students.
For more information on the VFW national and local contests, visit www.vfw.org, or email VFW Post 6287 at vfwpost6287.com.