Six students were honored for their writing skills at the Voice of Democracy Banquet at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1836 last week.

Voice of Democracy and Patriot’s Pen are two contests designed to encourage patriotism and writing skills in students. The former is for high school students and the latter is for middle school students.

“This is actually a national VFW program,” Commander Ashley Bratton said. “It’s our hallmark program particularly focused on our youth, providing scholarships for them.”

The prompts vary by year. This year the prompt was “What Makes America Great?” The students received a plaque and check for their scholarships and read their essays during the banquet.

The winners for Voice of Democracy are: homeschool student Jessica Schlandt in first, Lufkin High School student Riley Thornton in second and Lufkin High School student William Lanigan in third.

The Voice of Democracy contest is a family tradition of sorts for Jessica. Her brother won the contest in 2013, her sister won before that and she placed eighth in the state last year.

“(The competition) has really challenged me to think deeper about the issue that the essay topic was,” Jessica said. “I know America is a wonderful country, but this just made me stop and go, why?”

Jessica’s essay talked about why so many people flock to the U.S. for a safe haven or a new opportunity.

“What is it that has made us great, so different from any other country?” Jessica read. “Is it our invincible army? Is it our thriving economy? Is it our premiere education system or simply our tourist attractions?

“In a way, it is all of those things but not any one individually because they are all inextricably connected and enabled by a common thread.”

The common thread is freedom, and those who have the best grasp on that thread are often those who aren’t even born in the U.S., Jessica read.

Riley was not able to be present at the banquet because he was in the hospital. Quartermaster Joe Wolf said he would present Riley with his plaque and scholarship soon after.

William’s essay covered how America’s democracy, innumerable freedoms, overwhelming resources and self-sufficiency make it a country that others around the world look to for guidance and leadership.

“In difficult times, we all identify ourselves simply as Americans,” William said. “All these aforementioned characteristics — democracy, freedoms, nature, the military and diversity — are what makes America great.

“The United States of America is the greatest country in the world and always will be. I’m forever thankful that the Lord put me here. May God bless all of you, and may God bless America.”

The winners for Patriot’s Pen are: Lufkin Middle School student Savannah Brightwell in first, Hudson Middle School student Sydney Dwyer in second and Hudson Middle School student Taylor Latham in third.

Savannah said her goal with the essay was to help make the world a better place. Her take on the prompt was that the people of America make it great. She called the citizens of America the leaders of today, regardless of wealth, race, age or gender.

“America remains a republic because of its people,” she read. “The words of the Preamble of the Constitution still reign true — ‘We the people of the U.S.’ It is the people of America that make it great.

“We are from somewhere else, beginning when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. From the Native Americans to the colonists originating in England to explorers establishing an island in the Pacific, we are from different origins but have all chosen to call America our home.

“If you decide to be someone, there are no barriers to what you can accomplish in America.”

Sydney’s essay focused not on the freedoms given to the people of U.S. but the chance for opportunity.

“America is designed as a land of opportunity where every man, woman or child has hope,” Sydney read. “Everyday people migrate in search of opportunity for better jobs, a better life and a brighter opportunity for the children in America.”

Taylor’s essay touched on the liberties given to America’s people, including free access to education, free choice in religion and more.

“Unlike other nations, we are provided with an education at public expense,” Taylor said. “Every child has the opportunity to attend school from kindergarten to 12th grade. Going to school teaches children essential life skills that help guide them in the future. Public schools often encourage some type of higher education that helps this nation as a whole.”

Jessica’s and Savannah’s essays also won the district competition, and they are headed to state competition in Austin at the end of the month. Bratton said they already know that Jessica’s essay placed in the top 10 at state.

For the first time, the VFW also awarded a teacher of the year prize to Slack Elementary School teacher Gustavo E. Monsante.

Quartermaster Joe Wolf said Monsante was an excellent person to receive this award because of his expert communication and encouragement with his students on their journey to learn more about themselves, their world and what it means to be human.

Monsante thanked Wolf for the nomination and the Lufkin ISD Education Foundation for their grants to enable teachers like him to pursue new projects with their students.

“Thank you so much for this award; we’ll put it to good use,” he said. “And thank you students. Your speeches are incredible. Keep up the great work. I’m always looking for writers in my classrooms. It’s so important.”

Grace Juarez’s email address is grace.juarez@lufkindailynews.com.