Essay winner puts words into generous action

CHAMPAIGN — Hannah Shinew won two awards with the essay she wrote about how one person can change the world.

But the eighth-grader took it a step further — instead of keeping the $200 gift card she won for winning first place at her school, she donated it to Edison Middle School.

"I don't really need the money and I think the school could use it to buy new books," she said, demonstrating that she was listening when her parents taught her about keeping other people in mind.

The contest she won was a part of area Rotary clubs' efforts to get students thinking and writing about helping others. This year, the eighth-grade students at Edison and Jefferson middle schools participated, as did participants in the same grade at Champaign private schools. They wrote about how one person can change the world.

Shinew is not only Edison's essay contest winner, but also the overall winner. More than 120 students entered the contest.

This is the essay contest's first year across Champaign-Urbana — last year, only students at St. Matthew School participated, said Bob Scully, past president of Champaign West Rotary and coordinator of the essay contest.

Shinew said she used advice from her parents to help her write the essay, as well information she discovered about Rotary, both locally and internationally.

Her parents have always encouraged her to think of others, she said.

"They say that our issues might seem big, but there's people in the world that have bigger issues," Shinew said.

First-place winners from Edison, Jefferson and the private schools division received a $200 gift card for themselves and a $200 donation to the charity of his or her choice. Shinew will receive an additional $200 gift certificate for being the overall winner.

Scully said the essay contest is a part of New Generations, which helps Rotary focus on young people. Five Rotary clubs — Champaign, Champaign West, Champaign-Urbana Sunrise, Champaign-Urbana Illini After Five and Savoy — were involved.

Nancy Baird, language arts teacher and building leader for English language arts at Jefferson Middle School, said discussions about the essay contest last year with Scully led to her department using the idea of "how one person can make a difference" as a theme this year.

"It was perfect because in literature and writing, you can speak to it in anything," Baird said.

She found that students liked the concept.

"My kids always love to have an authentic audience for their work so when they write, someone else is reading it besides me," Baird said.

She was touched by what her students wrote, as well.

For example, one child wrote, "the best way to make a difference is just to be nice," Baird said.

"You hear all this stuff about kids bullying," she said. "This is really a counterbalance to all that."

She said the contest is a way to recognize those community-minded thoughts in eighth-graders.

"We really need to give them a lot more credit," Baird said. "They're really good kids and really deep thinkers."

The essay contest's theme was also reflected in a book the eighth-graders read, called "A Long Walk to Water," by Newberry Award-winning author Linda Sue Park.

It's the story of a former lost boy of Sudan who moves to the United States, where he's adopted. It also details the life of a young woman whose entire existence was spent walking two hours to a well, twice a day.

The man later returns to Sudan to help his people, and built a well in the young woman's village. Once she didn't have to walk for water eight hours a day, she could go to school.

Turns out, Rotary clubs helped pay for that well, so five local Rotaries helped sponsor a session during which the eighth-grade students could Skype with the author.

"The kids were riveted to her every word," Baird said.

The Rotary essay contest also fits into Jefferson social studies teacher Christine Adrian's curriculum, which also requires students to volunteer four hours each semester. (For more information, please see related story.)

"This is one of those projects that once you get started, there's just spinoffs all over the place," Scully said.

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