2022 Maryknoll Student Essay Contest

Reading Time: 8 minutes

In his book, Let Us Dream: the Path to a Better Future, Pope Francis writes, “God dares us to create something new.” How is God inviting you to create something new that would help your community and your world?

We received essays from young writers from all over the country in answer to this question. Following are the winning essays.

Caelyn Alcantara, shown with her parents, is presented the Bishop Francis X. Ford Award by Maryknoll Father Stephen Judd in San Francisco. (Courtesy of Stephen Judd/U.S.)

Caelyn Alcantara, shown with her parents, is presented the Bishop Francis X. Ford Award by Maryknoll Father Stephen Judd in San Francisco. (Courtesy of Stephen Judd/U.S.)

Division I (Grades 6-8)

First Place Winner: Caelyn Alcantara

God’s Wish

Pope Francis’ book Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future tells us how “God asks us to dare to create something new.” It creates a question in your head when you hear that statement: how can you create something new in God’s name? You first ask yourself what you want to accomplish. Do you want to help people, inspire people, maybe even want to change people for the better?

I want to be able to create something to help people through their struggles. A safe place, somewhere people can go to if they ever feel lost. I know people struggle and go through a lot these days. I want to help them. God would want a safe and comforting place for the children he loves to go to. They should know there will always be someone to help them in their times of struggle. There are a lot of problems going on in today’s world. I want to create a space that can help these people, a place called “We’re Here for You.”

With the recent illnesses and the pandemic, a lot of people have lost their jobs. Or, they are struggling to maintain their job as demands are being raised. I want to help them get back on their feet. We can start with providing the needy with donations of basic necessities or even being available just for someone to talk to. It doesn’t have to be the same person every time who would talk to these people. It could be a number of different people that can or want to help others in the community and world. I want to be one of those people. 

Giving donations to help others live is one of the first priorities because people cannot function when their basic needs are not met. However, it does not and should not always stop there. Who knows if after so much struggle and trauma that person just needs someone to talk to. I want to help others overcome their mental struggles beyond just physically helping them. People in the world suffer from emotional or mental problems and with the right encouragement others can help them. We’re Here for You will be a safe space that can help people through their struggles. Charity money can be raised, donations can be collected or people can volunteer to help others mentally. We’re Here for You could be located locally in an area where a lot of people need help, for example, in my area it would be San Francisco.

There are so many things people can wish to create, to fix problems in the world. Whether it is globally, environmentally or sadly, any other problem in the world, it should start somewhere locally and with someone willing to lead. It starts with people who live in the community and want to be supportive of their neighbors. In the Ten Commandments, we are encouraged to love our neighbors. This love includes fostering a real community where people support each other, a community where people care about each other and the physical place they live in. 

We’re Here for You will create a community space to help neighbors and let this positivity spread so that more people can come together and impact our world. The Church is a peaceful and safe space to be. It is a space where positivity can grow. Similarly, We’re Here for You can be a place where suffering people can find that comforting feeling. The center will have helpers who build trust in the community so that it will encourage people to open up to them. Volunteers can help in different ways just as we can all struggle in different ways.

We’re Here for You would be a comforting “home” for everyone, a community space they can turn to for help just as they would with their loved ones. Whether they’re struggling physically, mentally, or for any other reason, this would be a safe haven for all those who need it. The place I will create, We’re Here for You, will show people that others want to help them because they may not have been able to help themselves at the time. Those getting help, in turn, can spread this love when they are in a better place and help others who need it. In God’s name, I want to help, and this is what I want to create.

Elliot Courtney, shown with his father, is presented the Bishop Patrick Byrne Award by Maryknoll Father Leo Shea in Punta Gorda, Florida. (Courtesy of Leo Shea/U.S.)

Elliot Courtney, shown with his father, is presented the Bishop Patrick Byrne Award by Maryknoll Father Leo Shea in Punta Gorda, Florida. (Courtesy of Leo Shea/U.S.)

Division II (Grades 9-12)

First Place Winner: Elliot Courtney

After Hurricane Ian

Pope Francis posed the challenge, “God asks us to dare to create something new.” I believe the pope to be a wise man and his challenge to create something new for our community reflects the tireless efforts of Christ and the Church. At no point did God forsake mankind and assume we were well enough to not need his love, guidance and support. The pope’s book reiterates the message that a better future is always in need of that continued guidance and support. We can’t make it on our own as people, stoic and standing alone on an island. We need others, the community, the Church and Christ.

I had a great essay planned a few weeks ago. I volunteer with our local Habitat for Humanity and have had some great experiences serving others. I’m an Eagle Scout and through scouting have been a good servant, mentor and helper to others. I was going to pull from my leadership in sports, academic clubs, and other activities to craft an essay on how I have tried to create something new to help others. 

This all changed rather rapidly after Hurricane Ian. I’m writing from Punta Gorda, Florida, where the eye directly passed, leaving my community in absolute destruction and peril. As I type this, I still have not returned to school and am unsure of the damage. We had extensive damage to our home and had to evacuate but it is reparable and we are blessed compared to others who have lost everything. As we assessed the damage, I began to reflect on what I could do to make a difference.

Pope Francis wrote, “We need to feel again that we need each other, that we have a responsibility for others.” I don’t think God is daring me to reinvent the wheel but instead calling on me to use my time, talents, and skills to give back. As I surveyed my street, I realized several older people needed assistance. Roofs were destroyed and debris was everywhere, and I could make a small difference. My siblings and I began to help clean, making piles of debris and moving and cutting up trees. We reached out to former teachers who are older and lived nearby. I contacted people from my wrestling team, and even though we had downed power lines and cell service, we began to help. We began to make a difference. I began to make a difference.

This essay has helped me reflect and grow. I didn’t anticipate 150 mph winds rattling my home, but it makes us pause and consider things. Yes, I have always tried to give back to others and live a Christ-centered life. I know my efforts in the past have made an impact but as I helped with this hurricane recovery, I realized that while others needed me, I also needed them. My purpose was clear, and my responsibility toward others was evident, but as I gave of myself, the reward was given back to me.

This all sounds so poetic or trivial to write. It has been an emotional past few weeks. I helped my senior neighbor whose house was in horrible shape. She raised her kids in that home, lost her husband in that home, and would always bring us cookies when she made extras. As I moved large trees from her yard and cleared her driveway, I questioned whether it was she who needed help or I who needed her. 

God is good because he gave us the freedom to accept love and responsibility for others. I’m not sure if I have grasped the full extent of Pope Francis’ message but I do know that God is always inviting us. However, we must seize that invitation. While it’s tragic to see the circumstances of Southwest Florida, it’s hopeful to watch our community come together, with me knowing I was one small part of that process.


Division I (Grades 6-8)

Anabel Cooney

Division II (Grades 9-12)

Emma Howell

Anabel Cooney of Phoenix, Arizona

Anabel’s down-to-earth dream? A neighborhood composting campaign. She learned practical ways to reduce household waste while spending summers with her Nana — who makes use of a kitchen compost bucket. “As children of God, we must do our part to look after this environment,” Anabel writes. “This planet is truly a gift.”

Emma Howell of Fort Worth, Texas

In “A Rose for Renewal,” Emma shares a deeply personal account of unexpectedly receiving a white rose in answer to a prayer: she is considering a vocation to religious life. Emma reflects, “Far from being old and irrelevant in today’s world, being created anew in Christ in religious life allows new things to come into the world.”


Division I (Grades 6-8)

Olivia Volion

Division II (Grades 9-12)

Autumn Strebel

Olivia Volion of Paulina, Louisiana

Imagine a middle school club devoted to spreading kindness. Olivia describes her Kindness Club’s first event, “Chalk the Walk,” drawing positive quotes and pictures on school walkways in her Louisiana community. Everyday acts of kindness, writes Olivia, not only make kids and adults happier; they also help everyone get along better.

Autumn Strebel of Cincinnati, Ohio

In cofounding a St. Vincent de Paul youth conference, Autumn widens her classmates’ panorama — and her own — to view Cincinnati’s diverse, socioeconomically challenged population. “Equity instead of Poverty” recounts their journey toward understanding. “Living in poverty means facing invisible obstacles every day,” she writes.

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