OCDE students reflect on the nation’s heroes and their own in Memorial Day essay contest

County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares, Board of Education members and U.S. Veterans from Freedom Committee of Orange County pose for photos with students who wrote essays and completed artwork to honor fallen servicemembers ahead of Memorial Day.

Keon Ferber remembers being at a loss for words when his family visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. 

Standing in front of the wall, he watched as strangers placed white sheets of paper over the names of their loved ones and shaded them with pencils, creating tokens of remembrance they could take back home.  

“The walls looked as if they went on for miles and they were full of so many names of Americans who never came home to their family and friends,” wrote Ferber, an 11th-grader enrolled in OCDE’s Alternative Education program. “I saw my grandfather reading the names on the wall and teardrops came one after the other.” 

Ferber shared his written reflection on Memorial Day, the legacy of sacrifice, and his own family’s military service as part of the eighth annual Jack R. Hammett Memorial Day Essay Contest, organized by the Orange County Board of Education. At Wednesday night’s board meeting, his essay was announced as the top submission overall, earning a cash award of $350.

While Ferber was unable to personally attend the ceremony, OCDE’s Media Services team filmed a video presentation of him reading his composition. He was recognized along with his teacher, Steve Larkin. 

The Jack R. Hammett Memorial Day Essay Contest is named in honor of Jack R. Hammett, a Pearl Harbor survivor who, following his retirement as a warrant officer in the U.S. Navy, spent more than 50 years serving the City of Costa Mesa in government and civic affairs roles. Traditionally open to students enrolled in OCDE’s alternative education program, or ACCESS, the contest was expanded this year to include students from the department’s Special Education program.

In all, ACCESS students produced 36 submissions. Sixteen additional entries — either written or illustrated — were submitted by students in grades nine through 12 or from the Adult Transition Program in OCDE’s Special Education division, which serves students with the most significant disabilities. 

Nazim Abellali, a cadet enrolled in the Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy, was awarded second-place and a $250 prize for his submission on the great depth of gratitude his family has for the United States and the generations of people who have risked and given their lives for freedom. 

“My parents hail from Algeria, a state of authoritarian oppression,” Abellali shared. “The United States harbored the nobility of opportunity. It provided a relief for my parents and a home for their family.” 

Sunburst Youth Academy is 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. Abellali’s teacher is Jacqueline Cerbin.

Third place was awarded to fellow Sunburst Cadet Destiny Campos, who received $150 for her essay on how the holiday serves as a day to honor the nation’s heroes. She also wrote about her own personal hero, her uncle, who served for the country and was killed 11 years ago in the Syrian conflict.

Campos wrote that she hopes to follow in her uncle’s footsteps by enlisting in the U.S. Army or the Marines. 

Noah, an adult transition student at Harbor Learning Center, was the first-place essay winner from Special Education, receiving a $350 prize. While he was not able to attend and read his essay in person, OCDE’s Media Services team recorded a video of him reading his reflection. He shared how Memorial Day reminds him to pay tribute to service members who dedicated their lives for their country. His teacher is Dominique Vellanowith. 

Earning second-place in the same category was Cindy, a ninth-grader from the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program at University High School. She received a $250 prize for her essay on how the holiday reminds her to thank service members for the freedom she experiences every day. Her teacher is Laurie Drago. 

In the art category, Taylor from the OCDE Adult Transition Program at Golden West College received $100 for an illustration of a soldier saluting in front of the United States flag with the words “God Bless America” above them. Handley’s teacher is Joe Arnold. 

Also in attendance 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. This allows students to meet people who were part in shaping the history that they often read in books.

“We have served our country, but at the same time we believe there has to be a connection to the past because otherwise we don’t have a country,” shared retired U.S. First Lieutenant John “Scott” Williams.

Sharing that same mission are retired veterans including U.S. Army Major Alan Harvard, U.S. Army Captain Timothy Richards, U.S. Army First Lieutenant Scott Williams and U.S. Navy Senior Chief Gary Tegel, who took turns sharing their names, rank and tours in front of 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 students across Orange County. It 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.

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. Referrals to the program, which teaches skills aligned with California’s state standards, are made by each student’s district of residence when a more intensive educational setting is needed.  

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.