Student Essay Contest 2015
Reading Time: 9 minutes

In honor of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which Pope Francis has declared from Dec. 8, 2015 to Nov. 20, 2016, we asked students to share a real-life story of mercy that has inspired them and to tell what this story teaches them about the need for mercy today. We received 6,452 essays from students competing in two divisions (grades 6–8 and grades 9–12). From recounting events that moved them to experiences that changed them, young writers captured the spirit of this jubilee year. “Unfortunately only three entries in each division could be selected as winners,” said Maryknoll Sister Mary Ellen Manz, who coordinated the judging. “But we were so inspired by all the students who shared their experiences and ideas that we congratulate each one as well as their teachers who encouraged them to write.”

DIVISION I (Grades 6–8)

First-Place Winner: Grace Wilson
Someone Special Needs You

Grace Wilson with (l. to r.) pastor Msgr. Philip Lowery, principal JoAnn Giordano, Maryknoll Father Robert Jalbert, teacher Tracy Varno. (Courtesy of St. James School

Grace Wilson with (l. to r.) pastor Msgr. Philip Lowery, principal JoAnn Giordano, Maryknoll Father Robert Jalbert, teacher Tracy Varno. (Courtesy of St. James School)

  Mercy is compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone or something. Acts of Mercy are performed as actions seeking forgiveness or charity and are identified with Christianity and most specifically, the Roman Catholic Church. Common Acts of Mercy include burying the dead, visiting the imprisoned or sick, clothing the naked and sheltering the homeless. There are many Acts of Mercy, but one more personal one inspired me more than any other act.
  My sister, Ryan, fed starving orphans in Thailand this past summer. She was there on a medical internship when she was scheduled to visit an orphanage in a poverty-stricken part of the country. Upon arriving, she saw that the orphanage where over 100 children were living was made of bamboo and floating on a lake. She learned that the orphanage and families whose homes float on that lake are too poor to pay land taxes so they live in floating homes. Sadly, the lake is prone to flooding, where people can die in the rising waters.
When Ryan saw the children so severely undernourished, she was deeply disheartened. Yet, even though they were hungry, they were still very glad to see Ryan. She played with the children and saw some of them didn’t get to eat that day due to the lack of food supplies.
  As she was departing, she felt awful leaving the children with no food to eat. Even though she would be late to get back to work at her internship, Ryan was determined to do something for these children. She went to the nearest market and purchased a 30-pound bag of rice. She drove all the way back to the orphanage with the rice. The children were crying with joy and dancing around her and the bag of rice. Ryan told me that she cried tears of joy for being able to help the children but also tears of sadness for she knew they needed more.
  I listened to my sister’s experience firsthand and she painted a picture of the village, the orphanage, the children, the poverty and their hunger. I am so proud of her and, after hearing her story, I know that I am capable of doing the same.
  This act of mercy has inspired me more than any other because I was able to connect with my sister and her words. I think that when an Act of Mercy is carried out by someone close to you, it affects you greatly. Listening to my sister speak about her experience moved me to take action. This Act of Mercy has inspired me to work at an organization, Someone Special Needs You, where people provide socialization for autistic and handicapped teenagers and adults. We play games, do crafts and eat meals together.
  Perhaps it is not as merciful as my sister feeding the hungry, but I believe I am making a difference. When I spend time with my “buddies” at Someone Special Needs You, they make me look at the world differently. For example, my buddy Daniel asked me if I was happy. I thought: What a powerful question that no one has ever asked me before! He smiled when I responded that I was happy. The truth is, I was happy to be spending time with him. I was touched that he asked how I was feeling and because he was genuinely excited that I was happy.   What a special friend I made! I can only hope that I make him smile as much as he makes me smile! I have made it my goal, my Act of Mercy, to spread happiness with my special friends.
  Mercy is an act that shows empathy and charity to others. I have heard about many Acts of Mercy, but the one that has encouraged me the most is my sister’s act of feeding poor orphans. It has inspired me to volunteer with Someone Special Needs You. Today, I feel like my buddies do more for me than I do for them. Specifically, I feel God’s love in Daniel’s smile. I feel God in my heart when Daniel and I laugh together. I feel like I have received so much more than I have given at Someone Special Needs You because my heart is full. Perhaps that is the secret to performing Acts of Mercy. Perhaps we grow closer to God because we are able to do for others and our hearts become nourished. Perhaps we who perform Acts of Mercy are the true beneficiaries, not the poor, hungry or naked.

Grace Wilson, an eighth-grader at Saint James Elementary School in Red Bank, N.J., wins the $1,000 Bishop Francis X. Ford Award, named for the Maryknoll missioner who was in the first group of Maryknoll missioners to China and died in a prison there in 1952.

DIVISION II (Grades 9–12)

First-Place Winner: Anna Brest
A journey toward mercy

Anna Brest receives first-place award from Maryknoll Father Douglas May

Anna Brest receives first place award from Maryknoll Father Douglas May as mom Jennifer proudly joins in celebrating her daughter’s achievement. (J. Ledbetter/U.S.)

  I was born in a small town in Russia. My mother was 19 years old, unmarried and had some intellectual disabilities. She gave me up for adoption. This was the beginning of my journey toward learning the depth, the power and the joy of God’s mercy.
  My adoptive mother found me in an orphanage half a world away and brought me home when I was 13 months old. She brought me into a loving and supportive network of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends who have made me as much a part of the family as they who share DNA. I have enjoyed a blessed life as part of this family. Despite that, I harbored anger toward my birth mother and toward God.
  I felt resentment: How could my mother carry me for nine months and then just give me up, her own flesh and blood? I felt guilt: It must have been my fault that she gave me up. Did I cry too much, was I not cute enough? I felt helpless: I was just a baby; I couldn’t control any of those things. Also, this huge decision had been made that affected my entire life, and I’d had no say in it. I felt loss: I yearned to know my mother. I had seen her face. The image was somewhere in my brain, if only I could find it. I wanted to tell her that I was OK and that I had a good life. Then I went back to anger, but this time toward God: Why did He make me go through this? Why did He not care about me? Why did neither He nor my birth mother care about me?
  At Mass one Sunday, the priest spoke about how God is always looking over us, and how He cares about everyone unconditionally. I started thinking about that. I decided it was time to really talk to my mom about my adoption. My whole perspective changed after that conversation. During that conversation, my mother taught me mercy as Pope Francis spoke about—going beyond the formality, really understanding and not judging. She helped me see how unprepared and scared and alone my birth mother must have been. She made me realize that my being given up for adoption was not a selfish act; it was the most selfless act she could have made; it was a sacrifice that could only have been made out of absolute love for me.
  My perspective toward God changed as well. My mother and I had often spoken about how perfect we were for each other and how amazing it was that we had found each other. Now I started realizing the full extent of God’s elaborate plan. I saw His mercy toward my birth mother: He gave her an option to do what was best for her child, and He stood by her and gave her the strength to make that decision and carry it out. I saw His mercy toward my adoptive mother, a single woman who yearned for a child. He blessed her with me, and with the supportive family she already had who helped her through the adoption process and who love me as if I were their own. I saw His mercy toward me; He had been watching out for me after all. He made me part of the family I was meant to be a part of, even if there was a detour on the road to get there.
  Realizing the extent of God’s mercy changed me. Gratitude replaced anger. Faith replaced doubt. Forgiveness replaced guilt. Understanding replaced judgment. My faith is strong.
  I recently received the sacrament of confirmation. I chose William, the patron saint of adopted children, as my saint. With William at my side, I am sure to remember my lesson in mercy, as well as selflessness, strength and love.
  We live in a fast-paced society where we encounter many people every day. It is easy to judge, to not take the time to understand. It is easy to harbor anger or hatred, rather than take the time and effort to forgive. It is easy to be so overwhelmed that we look out only for ourselves, and don’t take the time to think of others. The experience of God’s mercy changed all of that for me, and it will do the same for others. If only everyone could have the same experience, what a harmonious and joyous world we would live in.

Anna Brest, an 11th-grader at Cary High School in Cary, N.C., wins the $1,000 Bishop Patrick J. Byrne Award, named for the missioner who died on a forced march in Korea in 1950.


Maryknoll Magazine Essay Contest Winner

DIVISION I (Grade 7)

Julia Osborne
St. John Fisher School
Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.

Reflecting on others’ compassion to her and her family when her mother was being treated for breast cancer, Julia concludes: “I will continue to live my life loving and supporting anyone who needs a comforting and compassionate friend, just as others have done for my family and me.”



DIVISION II (Grade 12)

Adriana Collins
Huntingtown High School
Huntingtown, Md.

Sharing her journey from an abusive life to a loving home, Adriana writes, “Because of my past and the grace and mercy my adoptive parents have showed me, I know how much one gentle merciful action can affect a multitude of lives for the better.”



DIVISION I (Grade 8)

Codi Dicharry
St. Peter Chanel Interparochial School
Paulina, La.

Codi describes how the father of a murder victim teamed up with the father of his son’s shooter to stop gang violence. From this story of reconciliation, Codi says, “I have learned that only through mercy and forgiveness can you truly be at peace.”



DIVISION II (Grade 12)

Caitlin Simpson
Robinson High School
Robinson, Texas

Caitlin recounts how her dad, a high school teacher, changed the life of a troubled student through kindness and respect. Her dad’s example, she says, “made me realize that I am here to help others realize the power, love and mercy God pours out upon His people.”

Essays of all 2015 winners will be published on and will be featured in the Jubilee Year of Mercy exhibit at the Maryknoll Museum of Living Mission at the Maryknoll Mission Center in Ossining, N.Y., later this year. For information on our 2016 student essay contest, stay tuned to



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About the author

Margaret Gaughan

Marge Gaughan has been on the staff of MARYKNOLL magazine since 1988, serving first as copy editor, then assistant managing editor, and managing editor from 2000. She was named editor in 2019. A former Sister of the Divine Compassion, she was a middle school teacher and director of religious education and holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Good Counsel College in White Plains, N.Y., and a master’s degree in religious studies from St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minn.