MLK Essay Contest in its 34th year

BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer

St. Petersburg – The Martin Luther King, Jr. Essay Contest is in its 34th year and once again it attracted some outstanding participants that promise to make a huge impact on the world in the years to come.

Thursday, Jan. 12, was a night of outstanding performances by four Gibbs High School students. Each participant took the stage and brought their speeches to life for a panel of judges and an awe-struck crowd.

“I think Dr. King would be proud,” said Tyna Middleton, secretary of the Enoch Davis Center Senior Advisory Council. She watched the finalist blossom on stage, putting fear in their back pockets and using it as a source of energy, not an excuse. “I think he would be inspired to believe his dream is possible.”

Students from schools all across St. Petersburg are encouraged to send entries in each year. Virginia Scott is part of the MLK Commemorative Organization and one of its founding members. Time and time again she’s witnessed winners and past participants go on to make great contributions to society and believe the essay contest will always be an integral part of the community.

“Will Packer stood right on this stage and won the essay contest,” said Scott. Packer, a writer/producer, is well known in the film industry for turning low-budget films into blockbusters.

And there have been others who have followed in his footsteps in their own respected careers, each given a chance to perfect their speaking and each given an opportunity to take a stand and be heard.

Although throughout the years, students from various high schools have entered the contest, Gibbs High has consistently remained actively involved, and this year most of the finalists hailed from its campus. Lakewood High School also had students in the finals, but none could make the final presentation piece leaving first, second and third place spots, along with honorable mention, to be awarded to Gibbs High students.

“Even after the flyers go out, the kids have to be willing to want to do it,” said Scott, who personally reached out to Lakewood High. She feels blessed that she could make contact with the right people who encouraged students to get involved.

Students were recruited in October by teachers who’d heard of the event and by flyers passed out to schools and community centers with all the pertinent information they would need to get ready. Original essays had to be submitted by Dec. 5 on the topic: Which of Dr. King’s techniques do you think we can use to reach out and eliminate conflict between the races?

 A panel of judges reviewed the submissions and six finalists were selected.

Each finalist was invited to attend a training session where they were groomed on the proper etiquette of making a speech. Wanja Huvert is a retired choreographer and cousin to Scott. She was given the task of relaying pointers to the finalists on projecting their voice, intonation, diction, overall expression and delivery.

In her illustrious career that has taken her all over the globe and seen her working with high- profile singers such as Michael Jackson, the Pointer Sisters and Gloria Estefan, Huvert has witnessed what it takes to be successful.

“I served as a coach, a supporter, a guide to encourage their work,” said Huvert, who doled out information on body language and how to get the audience interested in what they had to say. “Them expressing what it is they have written, their physicality, their spirit, their energy, their voice, all of those things are involved in delivering a good message.”

Students were also shown a DVD from the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., where they saw firsthand the sacrifice many have made in the name of civil rights.

Finalists used their time on the stage weaving words of peace, justice, love and unity for the future.

“I think these young people get it when so many of us have missed it,” said Middleton, who urged those in attendance to look within and take the opinions and viewpoints of the youth on stage into account the next time they encountered a difficult situation. “I hope that the words we’ve heard tonight will settle in our hearts.”

First place trophy and $200 went to Daniela Pepe, second place and its $100 prize to Ke’Aisha Singer and third place and its $75 purse to Aysiah Pagan. Honorable mention went to Deidrick Harper, who was awarded $25.

Pepe also won two tickets to the MLK Leadership Award Breakfast where she was seated with VIPs, including members of Dr. King’s family. She was also invited to speak at the MLK Interfaith Memorial Service last Sunday at Christ Gospel Church where she gave her impassioned speech once again.

“All of you are winners to me,” said Henry Ashwood, president of Enoch Davis Center Senior Advisory Council. He encouraged all the participants to follow their dreams wherever it takes them and to continue to take their studies seriously. “All you have to do is believe it will happen.”

The MLK Essay Contest was cosponsored by Alpha Phi Alpha Education Foundation, the City of St. Petersburg and Crown Eurocars.

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