Juvenile justice program students reflect on the ‘perfect world’ in essay contest

Juvenile Justice Commission essay contest event
Orange County Juvenile Justice Commissioner Mary Lou Vachet introduced each student writer at the annual essay contest.

Everyone has a story to tell, but it can take time and trust for them to open up and let people in. 

A few weeks ago, English language arts teachers from the Otto A. Fisher School, one of four detention and treatment facilities run by the Orange County Department of Education’s Alternative Education program, encouraged students residing in the Orange County Juvenile Hall to write essays based on the theme “In a perfect world.”

The combination and order of those four words inspired students in the middle and high schools and postsecondary levels to pen their thoughts on the topic. Nearly 50 students submitted their essays into the fifth annual Voices from Within Essay Contest, which is organized by Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC) of Orange County

Juvenile Justice Commissioners
Assisting Presiding Judge Anthony C. Ufland of the Juvenile Court (center) posed for a photo with the Orange County Juvenile Justice Commissioners.

In partnership with OCDE and the Orange County Probation Department, 18 students were recognized for personal, reflective essays. Several of them read their pieces aloud during a special ceremony that was livestreamed on a private link for families on Oct. 21.

With more than 100 sets of eyes on them, the students read their essays with passion, displaying their emotions and most inner thoughts. Many paused at pivotal moments to keep listeners on the edge of their seats to find out what came next. 

Some students spoke about what living in an idyllic world would feel like and gave glimpses into how their upbringing was far from picturesque.  

“In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have grown up in the neighborhood that I came from. At the age of 9 where I grew up, I saw people lose their lives in front of my eyes.”


Other students took the opportunity to speak about how broken they feel and how desperately they want people to help them find a way to fit in with others, in a world that seems to be too perfect to be a part of. 

“If I had a wish, I’d wish to live in a perfect world. I would live in a world where I can be normal and where I could be a happy girl and just twirl. I wouldn’t be scared and I wouldn’t be worried. I would be at home and get to my priorities.”


The local commission that advocates on behalf of incarcerated youth selected six awardees — three high school students and three postsecondary students. Erik, 19, was chosen as the first-place winner among the postsecondary group. He titled his essay “Perfectly Scarred.” 

“We never had a father, all we needed was our mother. Our life was never perfect but we remained together. We starved together, been homeless together.”

I was blessed with imperfection although I never wished for this. So if the world was fully perfect I would never have existed.” 


After reading his piece, Erik walked back to his seat in the front of the room and lowered his head between his knees as if he just let out a sigh of relief.

“Their voices are important,” said Otto A. Fischer teacher Richard Berman. “Everyone in attendance today who heard the students’ voices should carry them out into the world.” 

The OCDE Newsroom spoke to Erik after he shared his essay. 

“I feel very privileged to be able to be a voice for many people who don’t feel like they have one,” said Erik. 

Before he and his peers were escorted back into the hall, dozens of people approached and thanked them for sharing their stories and letting them in.