OCDE students express gratitude for veterans in Memorial Day Essay Contest

Sunburst Youth Academy students lead the presentation of colors at the Orange County Board of Education meeting May 3.
Sunburst Youth Academy cadets lead the Presentation of Flags at the Orange County Board of Education’s May 3 meeting.

Century Day School student Sheyla M. decided to join her grandmother’s church group to help feed the homeless one Saturday morning.

While Sheyla was handing out the food and hygiene products that she helped load into her grandmother’s truck, she met a veteran who served in Iraq. Hearing about his story of hardship after sustaining an injury in battle moved her to tears in the car ride home. 

This brief interaction changed Sheyla’s perspective of Memorial Day from a school-free, family barbecue day to a holiday for showing gratitude to veterans, mourning those who lost their lives in war and recognizing the privilege that she has to spend time with loved ones.

ACCESS student Sheyla Mendoza with Principal Ruth Ramirez and board trustee Mari Barke.

Sheyla’s first-place story and the reflections of many more students from OCDE programs were celebrated in the Orange County Board of Education’s ninth annual Jack R. Hammett Memorial Day Essay Contest, dedicated to the late decorated veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor. Following his retirement as a warrant officer in the U.S. Navy, Hammett spent more than 50 years serving the City of Costa Mesa in government and civic affairs roles.

Fifty-five students from OCDE’s Alternative Education program, or ACCESS, and the Special Education program shared what Memorial Day means to them through personal essays and drawings for the ninth annual contest, which was created to commemorate the holiday honoring veterans and those currently serving in the military. At the County Board of Education’s May 3 meeting, the contest winners were presented with certificates and cash prizes in the company of their teachers and families.

First-place winner Sheyla was awarded a $250 prize after reading her personal essay during Wednesday’s special ceremony. Her teacher is Christian Butala. 

A $150 award went to second-place Southwest Anaheim student Jared R., who was joined by his teacher Julie Bauer-Ochoa. Sunburst Youth Academy cadet Christopher Z. was given $100 for his third-place win. His teacher is Elizabeth Wilson.

What Memorial Day means to students

Orange County Board of Education member Dr. Ken Williams shared at the meeting that when this tradition began more than 15 years ago, it was created to celebrate the patriotism and love for this country.

“We give the opportunity for our kids in our programs to write an essay that is chosen amongst the teachers to best represent what honors Memorial Day, and what it represents to the students,” Williams said. “When you read these essays, they’re very moving.” 

Adult Transition program student Hank alongside OC Board of Education President Lisa Sparks

Of the 55 entries, 37 original essays came from students in the ACCESS program, while 18 essays and art pieces were submitted by students in grades nine through 12 from the Special Education program, including OCDE’s Adult Transition Program.

First-place honors for artwork went to Hank from the Golden West College Adult Transition Program. He was joined by his teacher Joe Arnold and awarded $100. Hank’s classmate, Stacy, tied for second place with Harbor Learning Center student Julius, and they were both awarded $75. Julius’s teacher Dominique Vellanoweth was also in attendance. Harbor Learning Center student Andrew — who is taught by Wendy Watts — was awarded $50 for third place.

All participating students received a certificate for their efforts.

Bringing a living history to schools

Also in attendance Wednesday were members from the Freedom Committee of Orange County, an organization of veterans located in Costa Mesa. The veterans bring “living history” into local classrooms by sharing personal stories about serving in wars and how their experiences shaped them. 

Freedom Committee Vice President James Grimm said this opportunity allows them to share stories of veterans from all generations and all services. Fellow committee members and veterans Dwight Hanson, Gary Tegel and Tim Richards echoed his sentiments in their comments to the board.

OCDE’s ACCESS program — the acronym stands for Alternative, Community and Correctional Education Schools and Services —  is a nationally-recognized alternative education system that offers transformative learning experiences and support to more than 10,000 students annually across Orange County. 

OCDE’s Special Education division has 14 campuses throughout Orange County to serve students with the most significant disabilities, as well as students who require Deaf and Hard of Hearing services and those with emotional disturbance disabilities. 

The Orange County Board of Education is made up of five elected officials who each serve four-year terms. The board’s responsibilities include approving OCDE’s budget, signing off on the purchase of property for department programs, and ruling on expulsion appeals, interdistrict attendance appeals and charter school appeals.