As in recent years, Mikie Stroh, Coordinator, K-12 Social Studies Character Education and JROTC Curriculum & Instruction, set the tone by introducing the 24th Annual Laws of Life Essay/Speech Contest at the Hilton Hotel in Naples. Students, family members, teachers, Sheriff’s deputies, Principals and dignitaries streamed into the banquet room, not to find out who “won,” but to hear the essays written by Collier County students who write from the heart.
The Laws of Life Program is a character-building activity that helps young people focus on and develop positive character traits that lead to successful citizenship and a successful life. Twelve basic character traits are the focus of the Laws of Life including Citizenship, Cooperation, Courage, Fairness, Honesty, Kindness, Patriotism, Perseverance, Respect, Responsibility, Self-Control, and Tolerance. Laws of Life essays are created by students in divisions: 4th – 5th, 6th – 8th, 9th – 10th, and 11th – 12th grades. This year, more than 5,000 students contributed essays for judging from 56 schools, which necessitated countless hours of reading and evaluation before the semi-finalists were determined.
Forty semi-finalists were chosen to present their essays in front of a distinguished Blue-Ribbon Panel of Speech Judges including: Joanne Fowler, Linda Greenwald, Hazel Horsfield, Kate Lauer, Eve May, Dianne Mayberry-Hatt, Rhona Saunders, Lois Selfon, Mitch Sill, Carolyn Tieger, Sally Tiffany and Margot Tuntun. Between the initial reviews to select the top four essays in each grade level category and judging the 16 finalists’ speeches, there were well over 1000 hours devoted to determining the 1st – 4th essay winners. Special thanks go to the Women’s Club of Naples for the years of dedication and commitment to the Laws of Life Essay Competition.
Another important source of support for the Laws of Life are the members of the Southwest Florida 49’ers who were all members of The Young Presidents Organization (YPO), which is a forum for education and idea exchange for 7700 Corporate Presidents in approximately 75 countries. There are rigorous qualifications to be a member of this organization. YPO is committed to promoting the exchange of ideas and shared experiences, facilitating the acquisition of knowledge, the development of wisdom and inspiring and stimulating the continual improvement of the individual. You can see why they would be supporters of the Laws of Life Program.
In the Elementary Division, Grades 4-5, and in each division, the First-Place winner gives his/her speech to the audience after the Fourth, Third, and Second place entries are announced. Later, after all the division placements are announced and we’ve heard the First Places speeches, students placing Second – Fourth place read excerpts from their essays to the large crowd.
Elementary students focused on the topic of Respect. First place recipient, Judah Bobrow, from Laurel Oak Elementary School (Teacher, Mrs. Dimarzio) writes, “But what does respect actually mean in our everyday lives? Respect isn’t just how you act or what you do to people. Respect is much deeper. You see, the respect we show to others comes back in the respect they will show to us because respect cannot be purchased or demanded, it can only be earned through actions.”
Luke Brown, from Pelican Marsh Elementary (Teacher, Mrs. White) writes, “Respect. Arguably is the most multifaceted law of life. Respect is a feeling of admiration for someone elicited by their abilities, qualities or achievements—Merriam Webster. Most people think respect is as simple as saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Yet, in rare cases, exemplary people take it to the next level. ‘I fear no one, but respect everyone.’ Those words belong to the epitome of respect, professional tennis player, Roger Federer. As other players are getting fined for flipping over chairs, Federer has dedicated his everything to respecting the game of tennis.”
Lely Elementary student, Aurora Delziel, (Teacher, Ms. Lewin) writes, “Being respectful is more than being kind and generous to others. It is recognizing the value of others through the way you treat them. For example, if you disagree with someone, show them respect by listening to their perspective. Listening to what someone has to say is one of the most sincere forms of respect. You are communicating that their opinion matters, even if you do not agree with it. Too often, people allow their conflicting opinions to lead to hatred and anger. A society without respect is a society filled with darkness. As Maya Angelou once said, ‘If we lose love and self-respect for each other, this is how we finally die.’”
Thaddeus Thomsen from Pelican Marsh Elementary (Teacher, Mrs. White) writes, “’Carefully watch your thoughts, for they become your words… Consider and judge your actions, for they have become your habits… Understand and embrace your values, for they become your destiny,’ Mahatma Gandhi astutely stated. Most people, when treated unfairly, feel like they have a green light to mistreat others. However, Gandhi was the opposite. He faced many injustices and abuses, yet he was the epitome of respect.”
The Middle School division encompasses grades 6 – 8. Their essays are longer and written in more depth, but still focused on respect, the topic for this year’s Laws of Life competition.
Sadie Lipman from Community School of Naples (Teacher, Mrs. Lefebvre) writes about a parallel between two quiet heroes, Chinese Diplomat Ho Feng-Shan, and in Japan, Councilman Chiune Sugihara. Though two thousand miles apart, they both selflessly wrote thousands of visas to allow the Jews to flee from danger and escape the Holocaust. Both were exiled from their countries for disobeying their supervisors, but thousands were saved by their actions.
Sadie Lipman writes, “Rabbi Fishel, a man who wouldn’t be alive if not for Sugihara’s work, became a very influential person in my own life. For the past five years, he has been my rabbi. Indirectly through Sugihara’s selfless choices, I have been affected. Without the kindness and respect that the councilman had for strangers he didn’t even know the names of I would be a totally different person. From both Chiune Sugihara and Ho Feng Shan, I have learned selflessness, courage and the importance of having an open and respectful attitude towards everyone, because if I do, I can change the world.”
Rabbi Fishel Zaklos is the grandson of Rabbi Moshe Rubin who caught one of many visas that Sugihara continued to write and throw out of the train windows even as he was being ousted from his homeland.
Liam Purtle from Seacrest Country Day School (Teacher, Dr. Bowden) writes about a shabby street performer playing his violin on the corner of a busy Metro station in Washington DC and was virtually ignored by those passing by, except some children.
Purtle writes, “The street player… was Joshua Bell, a world-famous violinist who was playing some of his most beautiful pieces with his three-hundred-year-old Stradivarius violin. This well-respected musician had just sold out his concert in Boston with tickets costing one hundred dollars each. He played the same level on the streets—yet was treated with almost no respect. Respect for talent shouldn’t be based on your clothing or how much money you have. Every person deserves respect because we are all human.”
Cypress Palm Middle School student, Bailey Matthews (Teacher, Ms. Gilley) wrote about Lucy Stone, who dedicated her life to improving the rights of American women in the 1800s.
Matthews writes, “Respect is important to me because it is so much more than just considering someone’s feelings. It is taking the consideration and putting it into action by accepting someone’s beliefs, ideas and decisions even if they are different than yours. It is so easy to show someone respect by just treating them as an equal and being welcoming and courteous, yet it still took so long to get the respect that women deserve. It took relentless fighting and countless setbacks, but American women are now respected, thanks to people like Lucy Stone.”
Howard Gleason from Community School of Naples (Teacher, Ms. Lefebrve) writes about typical historical heroes, mentioning Martin Luther King Jr., President Lincoln, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and an everyday hero from his life. Here are some of his thoughts.
“Churchill strove for victory at every opportunity. He rallied his people, strategized with allies and helped sustain his people and win the war. However, it’s not only his actions themselves that earn him respect it’s also the way he acted in peril. His determination never wavered as he led Britain through thick and thin… the kind of leader we should aspire to be.
“Another person, not quite as well-known, is Jimmi Stevens, my Spanish teacher. Mrs. Stevens is an active steward of our environment… and almost every week participates in an activity to help our Earth, from beach clean-ups to coral reef restoration. She also loves to honor the veterans that have served our nation. She goes on school field trips to Honor Flights and has even created a book to commemorate veterans. Mrs. Stevens has an unending respect for America, the environment, and all who live in it.”
The High School essay winners in the 9th-10th grade category include Alejandra Ramos of Lely High School (Teacher Ms. Rivera), De’jah Charles of Golden Gate High School (Teacher, Ms. Lozada), Leisha Elusnor of Lorenzo Walker Technical High School (Teacher, Ms. Simmons-Rosen), and Rachel Newman of Barron Collier High School, (Teacher, Mr. Peterson).
The essay winners in the 11th-12th category include Betsy Mattio of Barron Collier High School (Teacher, Mrs. Herrera), Jefferson Valladares of Golden Gate High School (Teacher, Ms. Shaw), Annaleigh Gnlo of Seacrest Country Day School (Teacher, Dr. Bowden), and Kevin Barry of Marco Island Academy (Teacher, Mr. Scalia). In both of these age groups, the essays are longer, and students can write about the topic of their choice. To say their topics and writing are excellent is an understatement, as are the excerpts from essays of the younger students already published in this article. Of the students from the 11th-12th age group, I want to highlight a student from Marco Island Academy who really stood out at Laws of Life this year—Kevin Barry.
I’ve known Kevin Barry since he was in elementary school at Tommie Barfield and frankly, the whole Barry family, including the grandparents, is extraordinary. Kevin’s essay was one of the top four in the 11th-12th grade group and focused on the power of cooperation and teamwork.
He writes, “I see a future where diverse teams are able to collaborate to solve our world’s greatest challenges. I picture these teams transcending political divisiveness and welcoming a healthy clash of viewpoints. Perhaps, one of these teams could put an end to the death and destruction ravaging our drug-addicted individuals. We need to break some of these vicious cycles.”
While this is impressive, what he did next was even more stunning. Another finalist, Annaleigh Gnlo, used crutches to mount the stage and we read in her essay that she was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive bone cancer and had to have eight inches of her left femur removed, have extensive chemotherapy and many weeks of hospitalization, but her optimism shown through.
When Kevin went to the stage to receive his medal, he announced that he was “donating his $250 prize money to Anna (Annaleigh Gnlo) because she is the kindest person in the room.” Standing ovation and tears all around. Kevin lives by his ideas about teamwork and I couldn’t be more proud of him and the rest of the students who demonstrate their positive character every day.