Our theme, “Love in Action,” referenced Pope Francis’ letter Rejoice and Be Glad in which he reminds us we are called to live our lives with love, not necessarily through extraordinary deeds but through everyday acts of kindness. Students were asked to tell a true story of someone sharing God’s love through kindness and how it inspired them to act in a similar way. We received 1,828 essays from students competing in two divisions (grades 6–8 and grades 9–12). Following are the winning essays.
DIVISION I (Grades 6–8)
First-Place Winner: Harmony Jenkins
Love never ending and eternal
I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a city with a reputation for being one of the worst in the United States, and there is some truth behind that. The education system is broken. Schools are consistently failing on standardized tests. The homeless population is steadily growing (a 9.7 percent increase in the last year), and substance abuse is also a huge problem, methadone being the most popular drug to misuse. However, there are people who have the courage to be a light to people who live in darkness. One of those lights is my mom, Laura Jenkins.
My mom works for a missionary organization called The Navigators. She directs a program called Juntos, which means “together” in Spanish. Through this program, she connects with youth in dangerous neighborhoods, giving them a place where they feel secure. Juntos teaches Jesus’ love and kindness by example, producing godly leaders who can continue to witness for God in their neighborhoods by demonstrating His goodness.
Juntos is important because it provides an opportunity for God’s unconditional love to be shown to people of all ages, races and social backgrounds. Juntos has changed the lives of many lonely children because it demonstrates to them that there is a place where they can feel loved and there is a reason for their existence.
When I think about my mom demonstrating an act of love by sacrificing her own comfort, a specific time comes to mind. At around 1 a.m., my mom came into my room and woke me up gently. My sister, half asleep, walked in behind her with a sleeping bag and a pillow. My mom told me that two of the kids she works with had to sleep in my sister’s room because their mom was extremely drunk. They were not safe in their own home. I was irritated at the time because I had to share a room with my sister, and I did not understand why I had to give up my own comfort. However, I later realized that we were providing a secure environment. If these siblings had not stayed in our house for the night, they may have been hurt by their mom. I eventually understood that their safety was more important than my comfort.
My school, Holy Ghost Catholic School, encourages the students to participate in community service. One of my service projects involved volunteering at a nonprofit thrift store with other middle school students from East Central Ministries. When I arrived, I realized that I recognized nobody. This was extremely uncomfortable because everybody else was communicating in Spanish. I did not want to be there. They obviously did not think I understood what they were saying. Much to their surprise, I do understand Spanish and I can speak enough to carry on a conversation. When I finally mustered up the courage to respond to one of the kids in Spanish, I suddenly became included.
I definitely had to stop playing it safe to go and participate in an event where I knew nobody and had to sacrifice my comfort to converse in a different language. However, like my mom, I decided to continue to put my own comfort aside, and I kept going back to the thrift store. Now I am volunteering as a cashier for the duration of the semester. Because of my mom’s example, I was able to sacrifice something to benefit others.
My mom is a woman of God who does her best to bring joy and hope to the next generation of Albuquerque. Because of her sacrifice, I have become more grateful for everything, recognizing that others are not as fortunate as I am.
I am also extremely blessed to have a godly father who will support and protect me. The fact that I have a home, a place where I feel safe and understood, is such a blessing, and it is something that I took for granted before. Because my mom demonstrated such incredible generosity to these kids that she loves so much, I have been inspired to put aside my comfort and use my blessings and gifts to help other people. I hope that, just as my mom has passed down to me this idea of sacrificing my comfort to help others, I can share this idea with my children and the younger generation.
Harmony Jenkins, an eighth-grader at Holy Ghost Catholic School in Albuquerque, N.M., wins the Bishop Francis X. Ford Award, named for the Maryknoll priest 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: Heidi Maier
A legacy of love
There is nothing more sad and degrading, I think, than feeling so utterly alone in a room full of people. I experienced this loneliness when my family and I moved from Norway to the States, where I enrolled in a new school.
Along with not knowing the language very well, I did not know anyone. For the first couple of months I was friendless; this became even more apparent during school assemblies, where I would sit all alone. However, this is not a sad story, rather how someone brought happiness and God’s light into my otherwise dark and lonely life.
It was during spirit week when I not only saw but was on the receiving end of someone’s kindness. I was sitting alone on the bleachers praying I wouldn’t start crying, when a girl tapped me on my shoulder. I looked up, expecting the person to ask me to move so someone else could sit there, but to my surprise, I was met with a bright and inviting smile. The girl asked if I wanted to sit with her. A wave of relief and gratitude washed over me. As a shy girl at a new school, making friends is not the easiest thing to do, so to have someone offer a helping hand when you’re walking alone is much appreciated.
Riding on this wave of happiness, I joined her and her friends and ever since that day I have not had to experience the hollow feeling of loneliness while in a crowded room. In the months following that assembly, we became close friends. She invited me to hang out with her friend group as well as encouraging me to get more involved in school and extracurriculars. The more time I spent with her, the more generosity I experienced and saw. She was the true definition of kindness as she was friendly and considerate of everyone.
Her compassion towards others inspired me to live a selfless life of kindness and compassion. She taught me that being nice to someone doesn’t cost you anything, so why not be kind to everyone? Additionally, she inspired me to provide the kind of comfort and kindness to other people’s lives as she did to mine.
When we tragically lost her in a car accident last year, she wasn’t completely lost, as her kindness continued to blossom through the myriad of lives she influenced in her too short life. Of the countless people I have talked to, one characteristic that everyone mentioned was her kindness and ability to make everyone feel loved and respected. Her ability to share God’s love with so many people is not only remarkable but inspiring as well. She made me be a better friend, classmate, teammate, daughter and sister. The way she treated others is what I strive for.
I knew from the start that she was a kindhearted person, but she was something out of the ordinary. She radiated kindness and shone God’s light upon everyone she met. Her small gestures of kindness and compassion might not have changed the world. However, they changed a myriad of people’s worlds; that in itself is just as powerful. More importantly, she inspired many others, including me, to carry on her legacy of compassion, generosity and of sharing God’s love through kindness.
Heidi Maier, a 12th-grader at Beachwood High School in Beachwood, Ohio, wins the Bishop Patrick J. Byrne Award, named for the missioner who died on a forced march in Korea in 1950.
Essays of all 2018 winners will be published on maryknollsociety.org/winners. For future news on the Maryknoll Student Essay Contest, stay tuned to maryknollsociety.org/essay
Seth Gibbons, Grade 7
St. Joseph Religious Education
New Paltz, N.Y.
Seth shares how compassionate people, especially his mother, have helped him face multiple heart surgeries. “It is from her kindness, caring and love that I feel strong,” he says of his mom. He follows her example. “When I am in the hospital, doctor’s office, school or anywhere, you can catch me trying to befriend someone like me,” Seth says. (Read essay.)
Julia Chomowicz, Grade 12
Stonington High School
Julia recalls visiting Jordan with Global Hope Network International, a Christian aid organization, whose members, she said, brought “Christian fellowship and the message of God’s love into the homes of physically disabled people.” She is inspired to share God’s love by pursuing a career in biomedical technology to help people with disabilities have a better quality of life. (Read essay.)
Ian Roskuszka, Grade 7
Annunciation BVM Catholic School
Seeing how his grandma cares for his grandpa, who has dementia, Ian says, “All of the little things she does for my grandpa are true acts of love and kindness. What she does inspires me to try to do the same.” He has begun putting his love into action by helping his grandparents more. (Read essay.)
Cameron Fisher, Grade 12
Jenks High School
Cameron says she was helped through a difficult time when a schoolmate unexpectedly handed her a “sharing Bible.” The Bible was worn and filled with notes and highlighted passages. Its purpose, Cameron explains, was “to leave comments for someone and then pass it on to someone you believe could benefit from it.” She did. (Read essay.)
Read More:To read the essays of last year’s winners, go to Essay Winners 2017.
Featured Image: Heidi Maier from Beachwood High School in Beachwood, Ohio, gets kudos on her first-place essay from (l. to r.) teacher Pam Ogilvy, Maryknoll mission promoter Paul Bork, mom Nina and school counselor Jason Downey. (N. Buford/U.S.)