OCDE students honor heroes through annual Memorial Day Essay and Art Contest

  • Sunburst Youth Academy's color guard presented colors at the Orange County Board of Education's meeting on May 1.
  • Ruby is recognized by the Orange County Board of Education for her winning essay in the 10th annual Jack R. Hammett Memorial Day Essay and Art Contest.
  • Dr. Ramon Miramontes stood beside student Ruby as she read her personal reflection.
  • Hieu from OCDE’s Southwest Anaheim site, accompanied by his teacher Julie Bauer-Ochoa, earned second place for his personal essay.
  • Cadet Brynna from Sunburst Youth Academy received a $75 prize for her essay, supported by her teacher Jacqueline Cerbin.
  • ACCESS teacher Mike Zanio accepted the third-place award on behalf of student Gabi.
  • Noah from Golden West College Adult Transition Program stands with representatives from the Freedom Committee of Orange County as he is awarded the first-place $100 prize for his written reflection.
  • OCBE trustees recognized student Hank from Golden West College Adult Transition Program for his first-place artwork.
  • Connections teacher Joe Arnold accepted the second-place award on behalf of student Stacy.
  • Connections student Emiliano’s artwork placed third place in the annual contest.

From stories about his father’s experience in Operation Desert Storm to his great-grandfather who parachuted onto the beaches of Normandy, Noah drew from familial narratives spanning generations of service as he recognized the solemn importance of Memorial Day.

Joining him were 67 fellow students from the Orange County Department of Education’s Alternative Education program, or ACCESS, and the Special Education division’s Connections program. They conveyed their reflections on the federal holiday through personal essays and artwork for the 10th annual Jack R. Hammett Memorial Day Essay and Art Contest

Sponsored by the Orange County Board of Education and coordinated by OCDE, the contest honors the memory of Hammett, the late decorated veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor. He dedicated more than 50 years in government and civic affairs roles in the City of Costa Mesa following his retirement as a warrant officer in the U.S. Navy. 

During a board meeting on May 1, OCDE Deputy Superintendent of Instructional Programs Dr. Ramon Miramontes and Special Education Services Chief Analee Kredel presented the contest honorees before the board trustees.

“We are very proud of the work of all of our students, including the teachers, administrators and staff who support them,” Kredel said. “Thank you, members of the board and the OCDE cabinet, for your financial contributions that have made these awards possible today.” 

Contest results and recognitions

In all, ACCESS students contributed 43 submissions. Additionally, 25 entries — comprising written essays or illustrations — were submitted by students in grades nine through 12 who are enrolled in OCDE’s Connections program, which serves students with the most significant disabilities. Entries also came from the Adult Transition Program, which is part of Connections.

ACCESS Student Ruby's Memorial Day Essay
Ruby’s winning essay

Leading off the recognition ceremony, the color guard from Sunburst Youth Academy presented the colors, accompanied by a student cadet who performed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Dr. Miramontes and Kredel then introduced each finalist, inviting them to stand beside the trustees for photographs.

Those who attended or watched the live stream had the privilege of hearing from Ruby, ACCESS’ first-place writer from Mission Viejo, as she read aloud her winning reflection. With support from her teacher, Mike Zanio, she was awarded the top prize of $250.

“Even as a student who hasn’t directly experienced the horrors of war, Memorial Day holds profound significance to me,” Ruby wrote. “It’s not merely a day off from school or work, but a solemn reminder of the sacrifices made by countless individuals who bravely fought for their lives.” 

Hieu, hailing from OCDE’s Southwest Anaheim site, clinched second place, earning a $150 prize. His teacher is Julie Bauer-Ochoa. 

Two ACCESS students tied for third. Gabi, a student from OCDE’s Mission Viejo site — Zanio is also her teacher — and Sunburst cadet Brynna from Sunburst, supported by teacher Jacqueline Cerbin, each received $75 prizes for their essays on Memorial Day.

In the Connections program, first-place honors for personal essays went to Noah, who was accompanied by his teacher, Joe Arnold. Noah earned a $100 prize for his work. His classmate, Hank, also won a $100 prize and first place for his artwork, which depicted a soldier standing before the United States national flag. Arnold is Hank’s instructor as well.

Stacy, another student of Joe Arnold who was unable to attend, is served by the Adult Transition Program at Golden West College. She received a $75 prize and second-place recognition for her drawing. Emiliano, a student in the Connections program at Irvine High School, received a $50 prize and third-place recognition for his piece. He was accompanied by his teacher, Kristin Bartus.

Veteran perspectives

Seated in the front row that evening were representatives from the Freedom Committee of Orange County, an organization of veterans based in Costa Mesa. This committee brings “living history” into local classrooms by sharing personal stories about wartime service and the transformative impact of those experiences.

Among the committee’s board of directors sat Secretary Timothy Richards, a former captain in the U.S. Army. He emphasized the significance of education, highlighting its continuity even as individuals serve their country. 

Connections student Noah's winning artwork
Noah’s winning illustration

Each of the student honorees was invited to stand beside the veterans for photographs as they received their recognition, a moment that connected sacrifices of the past to the achievements of today.

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.