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May 24, 2009

Our essay contest winner

Earlier this spring, the Catholic New World and the Office for Catholic Schools announced an essay contest for seniors in Catholic high schools, asking them to write about how they “Celebrate Service.”

First prize, $1,000, was awarded to Alexis Kedo of Regina Dominican High School, Wilmette. Her essay is printed here.

Second prize, $500, went to Ashley Broadfield of Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School.

Third prize went to James Bertucci of St. Ignatius High School.

First Prize

Ashley Broadfield

Alexis Kedo

Maria’s faith was like her wrinkles: deep. I’m used to older guests at the soup kitchen, so when Tommy walks in, I take notice. It’s hard not to: he’s over 6 feet tall, his stiff hair teased in an afro.

“Mira, Fernando!” I say, pointing past the Mexican orphanage to the mountains. Fernando gives me an empty stare. I sigh.

Maria’s a pistol. You think a 90-year-old woman would simply watch while we paint, clean windows, and repair the mailbox. Not Maria.

After our first morning, we come inside, hot and sweaty, to find lunch waiting. While we eat, she talks about her life on a farm in rural Nebraska, how she had to wait to get married until John got back from the war.

The next day she weeds while I stand armed with a roller, tackling the siding. I find myself talking about my family, my best friends, my future. She listens better than most people I know. I came here aiming to give, but I find myself taking more away.

On our third day, we snap a picture outside the finished house. I promise to e-mail Maria. Half a year later, I still do.

Today, I’m on ketchup duty. Tommy, in line with the rest of our PADS recipients, stops squarely in front of me and points to his pile of mashed potatoes. Yuck, I think, but do as I’m told, squirting a dollop on his food.

“More, please,” he says, and I squirt some more. “Girl, more than that. I love my ketchup.”

I squirt until the potatoes disappear. I start laughing. I hear someone join in and look up to see Tommy’s toothless grin. I’m not alone.

The kids at the orphanage bombard us with hugs. Then I spot Fernando, riding a decrepit Big Wheel in circles. He’s only 4, but he moves like an old man — already, he’d been through more than I have.

Over the next month, I followed Fernando around everywhere. My shoulders delivered endless piggyback rides. My lungs belted renditions of “Cucaracha.” My goal was simple: make this little guy smile.

One day, I found him by our bus, looking for me. I sneaked up behind him and planted a big kiss on his forehead. Finally, Fernando smiled.

My volunteer work has included renovating the homes of needy residents in Omaha, Nebraska; serving the homeless at a local PADS shelter throughout my high school career; and working for one month at a government orphanage in Mexico. If you had told me before that I would find God in a 92-year-old woman, a homeless man, or a surly 4-year-old orphan, I wouldn't have believed you.

But Maria, Tommy, and Fernando have showed me that God is truly all around me. God reveals himself to me in ways that I can recognize and understand. To me, God is in Maria's faith, Tommy's spirit, and Fernando's smile.

I know that God is working through me as well. I am a means for God to reach other people.

You could say that my good deeds are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively small. Yet I am proud. I am proud of the fact that three days was all I needed to become Maria's friend. I am proud I shared laughter with a man who lives nearby, yet in a world far different from mine. I am proud I gave a parentless child something to smile about.

After all, that is how change happens: in one moment, one gesture, one smile at a time.

— By Alexis Kedo, Regina Dominican
High School class of 2009