American Legion contests engage youth
Essay and speech competitions among ways group stokes students' interest in democracy
Last updated 8/13/2019 at 10:24am | View PDF
Rohan Chadha believes America will truly thrive as the world's leading democracy if its citizenry is educated on current affairs and endeavors to understand all sides of an issue.
Oh, and have respect for the rule of law.
"Those are the most important responsibilities," said Rohan, a Gower Middle School eighth-grader and winner of this year's essay contest sponsored by Hinsdale American Legion Post 250.
Chadha's social studies teacher encouraged his students to participate in the contest to write a 500-word essay on "What are my responsibilities as a U.S. Citizen?"
"I was a little bit surprised, and I'm honored," he said of earning the top prize. "I'm glad that I won first place."
Post 250 Adjutant Tom Lynch said the contest, open to local students in middle school and high school, seeks to promote Americanism among youth. In his four years overseeing the contest, he said the children's' submissions never cease to impress him.
"They are head and shoulders above where we were in school. They're attuned to certain things that just surprise me. I always learn a lot from their essays," he said. "The most rewarding thing about the essay contest is the diversity of what the kids write about."
The judging panel for the 12 submissions included a retired principal and two area teachers along with members of the legion.
"We rate them on a scale of 1 to 10," Lynch explained. "We take the top four highest scores that we get and then pick the best out of those."
Chadha received a nice $25 prize for his achievement. His essay was also forwarded on to the district level, after which it could advance to the division level. The first place prize there is $200. Not too shabby.
The post also held its annual speech contest at the end of March for seventh- and eighth-graders. Two students took part, selecting an aspect of the U.S. Constitution on which to expound for four minutes. Hinsdale Middle School seventh-grader Brandon Walker chose voting, leading with this quote by Dr. Martin Luther King: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
"The point of the speech was to discuss voting and the way Americans need to exercise their right to vote," Brandon said, noting how studies show growing apathy among the younger set. "It does concern me. I think it's strange that people don't vote because they were given the right to vote for a reason, to show what they do and don't agree with."
Brandon won $75 for his second-place finish locally. With some guidance from the judges, he polished his delivery at the district competition and took home the $200 first place reward.
"The judges told me to project my voice and enunciate more," he said. "I wasn't expecting to win because there were eight-graders a year older than me. So it did feel pretty good as a seventh-grader."
What became of the prize money?
"I bought airpods," Brandon revealed.
For high school students, the American Legion sponsors an oratorical contest. Post 250 didn't have any takers among its schools this year. Lynch laments the sagging participation in the contests, which he attributes to an ambivalence toward military-related groups.
"Some of the schools think because we're a paramilitary organization, they think everything that we do is based around the military," he said. "The legion is out to help the community and the youth and the veterans."
A few years back a Hinsdale Central student entered in the annual poppy poster contest to create the image that will be used for the American Legion's annual Memorial Day fundraiser. She won first place in the state and received $500, in addition to having her work displayed all across Illinois.
"It's amazing to work with these kids and see what they're doing and their talents," Lynch said, reiterating the education that the contests are for him and fellow judges. "There isn't a person that walks out of that room that doesn't say, 'We didn't' know this! 'They're teaching us."
Rohan said he hopes his peers become more engaged in their civic duties as they mature and eventually reach voting age.
"People think that a singular person can't make a difference," he said, citing razor-thin election margins to dispute that mentality. "I wanted to write about that - being open-minded and being aware of worldwide affairs. Mostly kids today don't know what's going on the world. Most of them they don't know who their senator or representatives in Congress are."
After all, previous generations didn't give up on this democracy, he suggested. On the contrary, hundreds of thousands lost their lives to preserve it. He expressed appreciation for veterans, all they have sacrificed and all they continue to contribute to the community through groups like the American Legion.
"I've met many veterans before," he said. "They're just really nice people and I just have a massive respect for them."