2019 Student Essay Winners

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Our theme “Courageous Missionaries” references Pope Francis’ letter Christ Alive in which he challenges young people to “Learn to swim against the tide, learn how to share Jesus and the faith he has given you.” Students were asked to write an essay explaining how and with whom they share the Good News of God’s love. We received 2,847 essays from students competing in two divisions (grades 6–8 and grades 9–12). Following are the essays of the 2019 Student Essay Winners.

DIVISION I (Grades 6-8)
First-place Winner: Tatiana Orsburn

Sharing God’s Love through My Story

I believe one way that I show God’s love to others is by sharing my story. You see, I didn’t have a family when I was little, but it was because of God’s love that when I was 3 and a half, I got adopted and have the best family ever. God’s love also saw me through my medical complications that now make me an amputee.

I was born in Smalanks, Russia. I lived in an orphanage, with ladies that took good care of me but no family. When I turned 3, my name and picture went on the international database. That is when my parents in the U.S.A., who had been praying for a baby, saw my picture and heard my story. They fell in love with my pictures and started the adoption process. Even though the process can take years, for my parents it was five short months. They had to make two trips visiting me and the second one brought me home.

When I was born, I had some medical complications. I was born with a hole in my heart, an extra digit on my left hand, an extra rib (also on my left side) and several deformities in my left leg. At the age of 2 and a half I had a surgical procedure in Moscow. At this point they removed the extra thumb, and amputated my left leg. In Russia, people don’t make prosthetic limbs for amputees, so I would never have walked if I stayed in Russia.

I know firsthand how awesome God’s love is and how miracles can happen for a little baby. God’s love stretched halfway around the world.

Since God’s love was shown to me with such great magnitude, I try to show God’s love through all of my actions that I do today. One way I show God’s love is by taking care of other people, and helping others (no matter how hard it is). Another way I show God’s love is by respecting others, treating people with kindness, sharing and listening to my parents (even if it’s hard to do). The way I help others is by feeding the poor (like making a few lunches) and donating my toys and clothes. Another way I help others is by helping pick up books that someone dropped. A few ways I respect other people is by not making fun of them, and respecting their privacy and their personal space. A way I treat people with kindness is by helping them, caring for them, and respecting and celebrating their differences. A way I listen to my parents is by doing what they tell me to do, not doing stuff behind their backs, and only having to be asked once.

Before the quarantine and trauma of COVID-19, Father Dennis Moorman distributed Holy Communion at Mass at St. Joseph Church in Peruas, Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Nile Sprague/Brazil)

After receiving her first-place award for Division I in Maryknoll Student Essay Contest 2019 on Ash Wednesday, Tatiana Orsburn gets kudos from (l. to r.) Maryknoll mission promoter Walter Hidalgo, teacher Kelly Updike, principal Stephanie Rattell and assistant principal Terry Ferro. (Taylor Stillings/U.S.)

Since I am an amputee, I have participated in Paralympic swimming. I have worked hard and traveled to several different states for National Championships and Para World Games. I hope to be on the Emergent Team for Team USA this year. My long-term goal is to participate in the Paralympic Games in Paris in 2024. This travel and competition allow me to show how you can overcome obstacles through God’s love.

God’s love has made me the person that I am today. Since I started life without what most people consider necessities, a family, a home, a leg, I appreciate things differently. I try my best to show God’s love as it was shown to me.

Tatiana Orsburn, an eighth-grader at St. Mark School in Catonsville, Md., 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: Sophia Allen

Sharing God’s Love with Special Children

Before I leave my house, I never forget to tell my mom that I love her. When my friends are leaving school, the last thing I always say to them is, “Drive safe; I love you.” Saying “I love you” has become the societal standard for exhibiting love in the most basic and concrete way. However, although we may mean it, we are not always intentional in saying it. Intentional love is exhibited in our actions, which speak volumes more than a simple phrase. I have found that the greatest love in the world is found in gestures of care and compassion. After all, God cannot stand in front of us and say, “I love you,” but his love is still undoubtedly present. God’s love protects us, nurtures us and blesses us with opportunity.

This past summer, I had the eye-opening experience of working for the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. One morning after church, I checked my phone and saw a text from an unknown number. In the text, a woman introduced herself as the coordinator for a summer camp held at the Alabama School for the Blind. She stated that one of her lifeguards had backed out at the last minute, and my friend Emma had told her that I might be able to fill the spot. Admittedly, I was initially reluctant to accept her offer because I would have to start the very next day and drive an hour to get there. I had always wanted to do something like this, but I felt that the timing was just not right. However, I absolutely love children and had gotten lifeguard certified the month before, so this offer was impossible for me to resist. I texted her back and informed her that I would be there bright and early on Monday. It was not until I arrived the next morning that I realized what an amazing experience this would be. Immediately, I recognized that the Lord was at work, and that his timing was perfect.

Every weekday for the next month, I lifeguarded at the School for the Blind in Talladega, Alabama. On my first day, I helped a girl who was bound to a wheelchair get in the water for the first time. It was beautiful to watch her amazement in doing something that we so often take for granted. I got to share God’s love by protecting the vulnerable who could not see or hear. Pope Francis once said, “How many pages of the Sacred Scripture speak to us of God’s presence, closeness and tenderness for every man, especially for the smallest, the poor and the troubled! The greater our need, the more His gaze upon us is filled with mercy. He feels compassion and pity towards us because He knows our weaknesses.”

Before the quarantine and trauma of COVID-19, Father Dennis Moorman distributed Holy Communion at Mass at St. Joseph Church in Peruas, Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Nile Sprague/Brazil)

Sophia Allen, 12th-grader at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Anniston, Ala., holds her first-place Bishop Patrick J. Byrne Award, with (l. to r.) principal Frances Shipp, dad Jim, mom Anna, pastor Father John McDonald, Maryknoll Father Douglas May. (Emily Harrell/U.S.)

As I engaged with these young children, I was reminded of the special place in his heart that Jesus has for children. It was incredibly beautiful to be able to help children swim for the first time. For other kids who loved to swim, it was the only time that they got to the whole year. The excitement on their faces was priceless.

I realized that God’s love is limitless. It is not bound by earthly disabilities or physical inabilities. When I was blessed to get to share God’s love with the deaf, blind, autistic and severely mentally disabled, I realized that everyone has their own way of exhibiting love. Love cannot be defined in a phrase or specific action. Love is personal. It relates to our deepest insecurities, inabilities and failures. That is why it is so beautiful and intimate. While working at the Alabama School for the Blind, I recognized that God knows our shortcomings, accepts them and loves us for them. His love is completely unconditional, and sharing this love with others is the most pure and heartwarming feeling in the world.

Sophia Allen, a 12th-grader at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Anniston, Ala., wins the Bishop Patrick J. Byrne Award, named for the missioner who died on a forced march in Korea in 1950.

Essays of all 2019 winners will be published on maryknollsociety.org/winners. For future news on the Maryknoll Student Essay Contest, stay tuned to maryknollsociety.org/essay



Lizzy Fields, Grade 8
Immaculate Comception School
Columbus, Ohio

Lizzy shares God’s love by following “the little way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “doing little things throughout the day to serve others, love them and spread joy.” Her inspiration comes from her deceased mother, who “expressed God’s joy by doing little things for those around her,” and from her relationship with Jesus and the realization of his love.(Read essay.)

Cotter Welch, Grade 11
Mercy High School
Farmington Hills, Mich.

Inspired by her sister, who has autism, Cotter volunteers at Miracle League, a foundation that allows children with special needs to play sports. “I have the opportunity to show these children that they are equally loved by God and that they are not different from anyone else,” says Cotter, who considers this one of the most powerful experiences of her life.(Read essay.)


Mairead Reitzel, Grade 8
St. Mary School
East Islip, N.Y.

Each Christmas, Mairéad and her family share God’s love by joining other families in serving meals to the needy in their local community. Called “Eileen’s Home for the Holidays,” the event, says Mairéad, “gives hundreds of people not only a hot meal, but a welcoming environment in which to celebrate the Christmas holiday.” (Read essay.)

Caroline Berardo, Grade 12
St. Christopher Religious Education
Parsippany, N.J.

Visiting the memory care facility where her grandmother was battling Alzheimer’s disease, Caroline and her friends devised activities to share with the residents. “Working with these beautiful people, who had lost their ability to communicate in the traditional sense, I saw how God’s love could be shared silently, caringly, deeply,” writes Caroline.(Read essay.)

Read More:To read the essays of last year’s winners, go to Essay Winners 2018.

Before the quarantine and trauma of COVID-19, Father Dennis Moorman distributed Holy Communion at Mass at St. Joseph Church in Peruas, Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Nile Sprague/Brazil)

The Maryknoll Sisters have helped judge the Maryknoll Essay Contest for decades, one Sister writes that this has shown her “The Power of Youth”

Featured Image: Tatiana Orsburn, an eighth-grader at St. Mark School in Catonsville, Md., proudly shares her first-place Bishop Francis X. Ford Award with her parents, Jeffrey and Janet Orsburn.
(Taylor Stillings/U.S.)

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