Ohio church awards thousands to students through annual MLK Day essay contest

It was 34 years ago when Sharon Jefferson — a member of East View United Church of Christ in Shaker Heights, Ohio, since childhood — learned that a friend’s church sponsored a pancake breakfast to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Brandon Campbell Jr. was the youth announcer at the MLK Day essay contest celebration.

Jefferson thought her church could do that and more. She came up with the idea of an essay contest with cash awards for students. Since then, the primarily African-American congregation has handed out prizes of more than $44,000 to Greater Cleveland-area students since its inception.

This year’s winners were honored during a special program on MLK Day, Jan. 15, at East View UCC. They read their essays to those in attendance, on the subject of “What can be done to eradicate poverty in the United States?”

Investment in social services

Jefferson said she was quite pleased with the entries.

“Students answered the prompt thoughtfully,” she said. “They realize it takes education, good healthcare and affordable housing to provide the support to lessen poverty. Dr. King had planned to lead the Poor People’s March before he was assassinated. He never got the chance.”

Essay contest awardees standing together, from left to right, are Silvia Philips (second place in the 4th-6th grade category), Rayven Ross (second place in middle school division) and Violet Zickel (first place among middle school entries).

Jazmin Ross won first place in the high school division. She pointed out that more than half of all Americans live in a childcare desert.

“I suggest that the government makes significant investments in early childhood care and education to provide struggling families with the opportunity to obtain necessary childcare,” Ross wrote. She won $500.

Quality over quantity

In the annual contest, East View UCC awards cash prizes for high school, middle school and elementary school students, for first and second place each. Essays are judged on originality, neatness, punctuation, grammar and spelling.

This year’s program included words from civic activist the Rev. Benjamin Gohlstin, Sr., of the Heritage Community Baptist Church, and musician and former radio and TV news reporter Obie Shelton. A brunch followed the awards ceremony.

Violet Zickel took first place in the 7th and 8th grade (middle school) division, winning $300.

Zickel believes the government should distribute funds equally. That is especially true with schools, she wrote. “If all schools get the same amount of money, then all kids would receive equal education.”

At the height of the essay contest years, the church received over 300 essays. Jefferson said that students don’t have as much opportunity to participate in this kind of contest with so many standardized tests being held across school districts.

“This year we had 42 entries, but they were all very high in quality,” she reflected.

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Categories: United Church of Christ News

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