Students in grades 10 to 12, throughout Orange County, were eligible to enter the third annual Stop Hate essay contest, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Orange County, the Newburgh Ministry, Inc., and the Orange County Human Rights Commission. Of all the participants, Cornwall High School sophomore Olivia Perez was declared the winner.
“Winning the contest is very overwhelming because I was one essay out of so many in all of Orange County,” Perez said. “The fact I won really showed me if I put my heart to it, I can do it. I felt proud to be from Cornwall and be able to do that.”
The purpose of the contest is to promote tolerance and understanding through education. This year’s topic focused on the issue of refugees, by comparing the plight of Syrian refugees with that of Jews just before the Holocaust of World War II.
English teacher Kelly Robinson-Finn told her students about the essay contest at the end of March. Perez was one of Robinson-Finn’s advanced students who opted to enter.
“I wanted to make myself proud and my town proud,” Perez said. “When I was in the eighth grade, I actually won another essay contest and got to read it at the school graduation. When I won that one I felt so proud and everyone was proud of me. It was really a joyous feeling and I just wanted to feel that again. I specifically liked the topic. With everything going on in the world today, I thought it would be a great way to get my voice out.”
Robinson-Finn thought the timing of the contest was perfect because, at the time, she was using “Night,” by Elie Wiesel, to teach her students about the Holocaust.
Over three or four days, Perez wrote a 1,500-word essay comparing the historical circumstances that led the passengers, on the St. Louis, to leave Germany with the reasons Syrian refugees are fleeing today. Perez was provided two paragraphs from which she based her essay, “Humanity at its Finest.”
“In Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler made his hatred for the Jewish race prominent,” Perez writes. “Without a second thought, the people of Germany began blaming the Jews too, because it is much easier to put the blame on someone else who is already considered inferior…. In today’s day and age, it is still a conflict of interest whether to allow refugees seeking sanctuary access into a country which pledges it is ‘The land of the free’-, because they have unjustly been labeled as terrorists.”
After a few drafts, Perez met with her teacher to review the essay for any grammatical or spelling errors. The essay was submitted by the April 1 deadline and 19 days later she received an e-mail advising her that she had won.
“I ran to my parents and I told them what was going on. We were happy about it. The next day I told my English teacher and she told the class about it. It was a very exciting moment. I was really proud my essay was able to make an impression on the judges out of hundreds of essays.
Due to softball obligations, Perez missed the e-mail inviting her to an awards ceremony, but she was mailed her $300 prize.
In eighth grade, Perez went on a People to People trip to Costa Rica. She will be using the prize money for a trip to South Africa next summer.