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ELKO – The Veterans of Foreign Wars awarded more than $1,500 in scholarships to Elko County students who wrote essays and speeches in the Voice of Democracy and Patriot’s Pen contests.

The annual award banquet on Feb. 24 hosted by VFW Post 2350 recognized 10 students from area middle school and high schools who were selected out of 43 total entries to receive scholarship monies, pins, certificates and plaques.

This year, the middle school Patriot’s Pen essay contest had 18 entries and the high school Voice of Democracy speech contest had 25 entries, said Merlene Merck, junior vice commander for VFW Post 2350.

Teachers were also honored by the VFW for their efforts. Laura Pope, fifth-grade teacher at Flag View Intermediate, and Denise Brown, sixth-grade teacher from Spring Creek Middle School, were each awarded $100 by the organization.

“Our teachers don’t get enough recognition and credit for all they do,” Merck said.

In the Patriot’s Pen contest, the VFW post first place winners were Samantha Beardall and Ella Bailey, each winning $150; second place winner was Shannon Watkins, who won $75; and third place winner was Kristyna Testerman, who won $50.

In the Voice of Democracy contest, the first place winners were Kierra Watson and Mikayla De Guzman, who each won $150. Second place winners were Seth McNeal and Miah Hill, who each won $75. Third place winners were Leah Heieie and Soledad Negrete, who each won $50.

Each of the post winners competed at the district level.

Beardall and Bailey were each district runners up in the Patriot’s Pen contest, winning an additional $50. Testerman placed first in the district and was awarded an additional $400. De Guzman was a runner up in the Voice of Democracy contest and won an additional $100.

Entrants for this year’s Patriot’s Pen were given the theme, “America’s Gift to My Generation.” The Voice of Democracy theme was “American History: Our Hope for the Future.”

This year, about 14 supervisors and managers from Barrick and Newmont Gold Corp. scored the essays and speeches, and they “got to see first-hand into the minds of our future leaders,” Merck said.

Attending the banquet were Katy Neddenreip, Barrick corporate social responsibility manager, and Nancy Ostler, Newmont community relations specialist.

Spring Creek High School senior Seth McNeal, 18, said he already enjoys writing, but was encouraged by his teacher, Julie Lewis, to write a speech for the Voice of Democracy contest.

“She convinced me to get some of my writing out there,” McNeal said, explaining he was inspired to write his speech on servicemen and women who gave their life for their country.

“We look to those who fought and died for what we believe in,” McNeal said. His mother and grandmother attended the banquet with McNeal and said they were proud of his achievement.

“I’m happy for him and glad he decided to enter,” said his mother Kelly McNeal.

Adobe Middle School eighth-grader Samantha Beardall, 13, said she was inspired to enter the contest because both of her grandfathers served in the Vietnam War.

“I really respect what they did for our country,” Beardall said. Her mother, Kelinn, said Samantha’s grandfather talked to her frequently about what service taught him.

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Her father, Mike, said she “definitely thinks about those types of things.”

Post Commander Jerry Franco attended the banquet and said the topics make students “start thinking what it’s all about.”

“It’s an awesome program for the youth coming up,” Franco said. “They’re going to be our leaders someday. They could be our state governor, president or mayor.”

After the banquet, most students said they planned to keep writing and submitting entries for future contests, citing inspiration from either family members who served in the military or teachers who gave them the push to enter.

Merck said the students “brought a whole new perspective to the subject,” as she read their essays and listened to their speeches.

“Some of them brought tears to my eyes,” Merck said. “I had the chance to go, ‘I never would have thought about that.’”

Merck also hoped that more students in the future would take a chance on entering the contest and earning much needed scholarship money for college tuition, books and supplies.

“Every little bit will help,” Merck said.

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Courts, schools & Spring Creek reporter

Staff writer for the Elko Daily Free Press

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