For the fifth consecutive year, military veteran and two-time Massapequa Park mayoral candidate Dr. Cynthia Paulis has run the 500 For 500 essay competition. Paulis, who is a Massapequa Class of 1971 alum, created a contest that asked participants to write an essay in under 500 words centered on a particular patriotic theme. Winners consist of one boy and one girl from each Massapequa High School senior class receiving a $500 check. This year’s winning seniors were Juliana Lovett and Christopher Flaherty who wrote to the theme of, “Why are veterans important to this country?” As it’s been in previous years, Paulis admitted choosing the winning entries proved to be quite the challenge.
“The entries this year were extraordinary and it was difficult choosing but Juliana’s and Chris’s essay really epitomized the sacrifices veterans make for not only this country but around the world,” she said.
Because of the pandemic, the site of the award ceremony was changed from Massapequa Park village hall to Massapequa’s American Legion Hall 1066, a smaller venue with family, friends and veterans attending while donning masks and observing social distancing. The change of venue proved to be particularly heartwarming for Paulis, who won a similar contest here when she was a high school senior.
“This hall is very special to me because in 1971, the American Legion had an oratorical competition and it was, ‘Why Is the Constitution Important To This Country,’ she recalled. “I entered it and won a $100 savings bond, which was a lot of money in 1971. And I thought, ‘What better place to bring it back to than where it all started in this hall?’”
Lovett’s winning essay drew from her experience growing up in a military family. Her father served as an active-duty U.S. Marine who served overseas through much of her childhood in places like Mogadishu, Somalia. She touched on the experience of having a parent who misses milestone events like holidays, birthdays and father-daughter dances. When asked about his reaction to hearing his daughter read her essay for the first time, her father admitted that he cried.
Lovett’s opening paragraph started, “The year 2008 showed me firsthand why veterans are important to this country. My kindergarten year was different from other children as my after-school hours were spent in preparation for “talking to Daddy’s head” on Skype or deciding what I would include in my video log. It never occurred to me that documenting the seven-minute-long trip my hamster took around the house in its neon pink exercise ball would be the only time that my dad would hear his child’s voice in weeks.”
Lovett’s essay is divided into sections highlighting sacrifice (“the word didn’t hit me until it reflected on our life as a military family”), honor (“This word is reserved for showing respect to the veterans of the United States”) and service (“Service is not just a word put on a résumé. For veterans, it is a vow to protect one’s country”). She concluded with “While my dad certainly did not enjoy these sacrifices, he did it for the greater good of the country. Veterans are so important to this country because they make sacrifices so that we can have freedoms and liberties that those less fortunate can only dream of having. It takes the most resilient of people to leave comfort for the benefit of others. I am very grateful to have witnessed sacrifice, honor, and service firsthand through my dad’s service…..He provided an excellent example to follow while growing up and continues to do so today. Those values will never leave him or his fellow veterans.”
Flaherty’s essay covers the sacrifice veterans make for this country, the devastating effects of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the lifelong after-effects of war and why Veteran’s Day should be celebrated more than it is.
Flaherty pointed out that, “Veterans do much more than put on their uniform and go to work. Veterans serve their country, not because of something they had been promised. They did not serve to lift themselves or obtain a place of honor. On the contrary, their service comes out of a place of honor they hold within themselves. Their bravery, compassion, and dedication make what they do and what they have given up all the more important. This selfless drive shared among veterans is truly the greatest form of love. Whether it is a love of one’s country, a love of one’s people, or a love of what is right, this powerful active love is what drives good to be fought for. It is what keeps the truth from being compromised.”
In addition to the $500 check, Paulis gifted each winner a copy of Normal Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (“You’re going to be going through a lot in life, especially with college, there are ups and downs and I always want you to think positively.”), a journal (“…sometimes you may want to take notes and think about your experiences in college.”) and a pocket-size book containing copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (“I don’t think they teach enough about this in school nowadays”).