OCDE students reflect on sacrifice, gratitude in Memorial Day essay contest

When he was younger, Vincent Wilson would spend Memorial Day listening to stories from his great-grandfather and his great-uncle about their World War II service. Years later, the day would be spent in remembrance of them.

Wilson, who penned a personal reflection on the holiday dedicated to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, earned top honors in the seventh annual Jack R. Hammett Memorial Day Essay Contest, which is organized annually by the Orange County Board of Education for students enrolled in OCDE’s alternative education program, or ACCESS.

At the board’s May 5 meeting, the cadet from Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy performed with his school’s color guard before reading aloud his first-place entry, in which he also wrote about a U.S. Marine medic who had served in Iraq. Joined by teacher Kerrie Schulze, Wilson, 17, received a $350 prize and words of praise from trustees.

Essay contest winner with two board members and guests
Vincent Wilson, a 17-year-old cadet with Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy, is congratulated after winning first place in the seventh annual Jack R. Hammett Memorial Day Essay Contest. Pictured, from left, are Sunburst Principal Dinah Ismail, Orange County Board of Education President Dr. Ken Williams, Cadet Wilson, OC board member Mari Barke, Sunburst Director Major Gilbert Sanchez and County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares.

“That’s what the Freedom Committee (of Orange County) has passed to this next generation, that love for county, that love for the individuals who gave their lives for our liberties and freedoms,” OC Board of Education President Dr. Ken Williams said. “And to the staff there at Sunburst, thumbs up. Great job.”

Other winners

The annual Memorial Day Essay Contest is named in honor of Jack R. Hammett, a Pearl Harbor survivor who, following his retirement as a warrant office in the U.S. Navy, spent more than 50 years serving the City of Costa Mesa in government and civic affairs roles.

Edwin Perez was awarded second-place and a $250 prize for his submission on the importance of gratitude for those who fought for the United States — and for those who wear its colors today. His teacher is Mike Gill.

Perez is also a cadet at Sunburst, a community high school for at-risk youth operated by the California National Guard in partnership with OCDE. Sunburst cadets spend more than five months in a military-style environment that helps them develop leadership, pride and confidence as they earn high school credits.

Third place was awarded to Erik Perez, who received $150 for his essay highlighting the connection between military service and freedom, as well as the need to care for veterans. Perez attends OCDE’s Otto Fischer School and is taught by Robin Russell.

Ten other OCDE students received honorable mention and $25 for their essays. They are:

  • Isaac Castillo, Otto Fischer School (Allen Catadal, teacher)
  • Jose Copal, Rio Contiguo School (Julia Hwang, teacher)
  • Aydan Coughlin, Century Day School (Raphael Nguyen, teacher)
  • Vitoria Angelica Martinez, Rio Contiguo School (Julia Hwang, teacher)
  • Angel Munoz, Fischer School (Allen Catadal, teacher)
  • Cadet Christopher Ramirez, Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy (Mike Gill, teacher)
  • Dina Silva, Century Day School (Raphael Nguyen, teacher)
  • Isabella Tinoosh, Tustin Main School (Brian Linn, teacher)
  • Cadet Victor Villegas, Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy (Mike Gill, teacher)
  • Cadet Johnny Zavala, Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy (Mike Gill, teacher)

OCDE’s ACCESS program — the acronym stands for Alternative, Community and Correctional Education Schools and Services — serves more than 10,000 students a year, including young people who have encountered significant academic and social obstacles, as well as students who thrive in non-traditional settings.

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.