Speech, money, religion and independence are among the freedoms Hannah Romero De Gante considers fortunate to be able to have in America.

Lowering the veteran homeless rate and number of homeless people, ensuring strong national security and reducing the number of unemployed people are a part of Conner Lane’s vision for America.

A local panel of judges recently selected these students’ essays as the best among public, private and parochial schools entered in Veterans of Foreign Wars’ national essay-writing contests.

Romero De Gante, an eighth-grader at St. Ambrose Catholic School in Seymour, recently found out she was the VFW Post 1925 winner among middle schoolers in the Patriot’s Pen essay contest.

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Lane, a sophomore at Seymour High School, was the post winner among high schoolers in the Voice of Democracy contest.

“My stomach kind of lurched a little bit. My legs are kind of buckling right now. But it’s an honor to win,” Lane said moments after VFW Post 1925 Commander John Schafstall and local essay contest chairman Leon Lane visited the school to present a $500 prize and a framed certificate.

Shortly after, they visited St. Ambrose and announced Romero De Gante as the winner in front of the whole school after morning Mass.

“It meant a lot since I put a lot of work into it and a lot of feeling,” she said. “I really, really hoped I would win.”

Their essays move on to the district level, and the winner there will advance to the state level and can then move on to the national level.

For every 15 entries, VFW posts can enter one essay in the district contest, so 11 other local students’ essays move on. Post 1925 covers all county schools except for Crothersville, which has its own VFW post.

In doing research for his essay, Conner Lane found that nearly 50,000 veterans are homeless, and that’s 12 percent of the nation’s total homeless population.

He also found that another 1.4 million veterans are considered at-risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.

“These are the men and women who sought out after foreign affairs to keep us what we know as the land of the free and home of the brave,” he wrote. “We as a nation need to provide for these courageous young men and women who fought hard and continue to fight each and every day to protect us and keep us safe.

He also focused on national security with the growing threats of certain countries and terrorist organizations, and he found that about 11 million Americans are considered unemployed.

“ … With more jobs, it essentially provides for the people that are homeless. The homeless who find work can get themselves a small house or apartment and contribute to society and this country,” he wrote.

“Also, with improved technological advances, we can thrive as a nuclear powerhouse and still maintain a superb national security,” he said. “In my lifetime, I do not ever want to see or experience another tragic event such as Sept. 11, 2001.”

In Romero De Gante’s essay, she first talked about the right to express her opinions.

“I am lucky enough to be able to have my own thoughts, ideas and suggestions without being judged or criticized for what I say,” she wrote.

With freedom of money, she referred to the right to save, spend or give away money that is earned.

“Everyone is allowed to save it up for their children, college or any other special need,” she wrote. “Also, anybody can spend their money on whatever they wish and give their money away to whatever or whoever they want.”

Being a student at a parochial school, Romero De Gante said freedom of religion is something she personally cherishes a lot.

“Since I am Catholic, I have the right to pray to God and talk to him openly whenever I need to,” she wrote. “I also have the ability to study and learn more about my religion without being judged by other religions or people.”

Freedom of independence is possible thanks to everyone who fights for our freedom, she said.

“I am very grateful and thankful, and to show my gratitude, I want to become a teacher and teach children about the many qualities there is when people have freedom,” she wrote.

Romero De Gante said her language arts teacher, Allison Wheeler, asks students to do essays about Thanksgiving and freedom each year. This was her first time entering the VFW contest.

“It meant a lot to me because freedom is something very, very big in our school because not a lot of people have it, so it really encouraged me to do this,” she said.

She said many people in her Hispanic heritage don’t have freedom.

“Many people in my family worked for their freedom, and I’m very fortunate to live in the Untied States and have that freedom, so it really inspired me,” she said.

April Eaton, the history and social studies teacher at St. Ambrose, said she and Wheeler gathered essays from students and were happy to see a lot of participation. The school also had five students earn honorable mention and move on to district.

“I was proud of the effort they put into it,” Eaton said. “To see six of our kids standing up there, hopefully, the younger kids look up to them and it encourages them to participate in this essay and possibly think what freedom means to them, as well.”

Leon Lane, who has been chairman of the local contest for three years, said it’s neat to see a variety of viewpoints expressed by students in the essays.

“Especially with the world events going on and what the kids are exposed to nowadays, it gives them the opportunity to put their say out there and what they think,” he said. “A lot of the topics typically are related in a roundabout way with something that’s going on. It gives them the opportunity to present their ideas to in a sense be heard. … They are the leaders of tomorrow.”

Being able to reward the local winners with cash prizes is nice, too, he said.

“Of course, our first goal is veterans,” he said. “But then also to that is veterans’ families and the community, so this is just one way to give back and help support, build patriotism and let the kids have their say in what they think. It gives them an opportunity to advance and be recognized on a national level for their ideas.”

Schafstall said on average, Post 1925 gives out $15,000 in college scholarships to county students each year. The essay contest allows students to put money toward college.

“I think it gets people thinking about patriotism and what it really is,” he said. “I came back from Vietnam, and you were shunned. Now, people thank you for your service. Everybody is just really patriotic anymore, and I don’t think it was like that 30 years ago. I think these kind of things help do that.”

At a glance

Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1925 essay contest results

(Students listed below have their essays move on to district)

Voice of Democracy: Conner Lane of Seymour High School

Patriot’s Pen: Hannah Romero De Gante of St. Ambrose Catholic School

Honorable mention: Anna Benter and Katherine Benter, both of St. John’s Lutheran School at Sauers; Emma Gillaspy, Abigail Lemming, Meredith Ponce, John Casey Regruth and David Juarez, all of St. Ambrose; Ashley Goecker of Immanuel Lutheran School; and Lily Starr, Brant Steele and Kennedy Cockerham, all of Seymour Middle School

Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.