Each spring, the American Legion Auxiliary selects a theme and issues an invitation to schools for students from grades three to 12 to participate. Teachers around the nation use the essay contest as a way of increasing the writing skills of the students.
Students this year were asked to write their essays entitled "My Letter to a Person in the Armed Forces." For Riaz, who was named the nation's winner this year for her age group, the challenge was putting herself in the place of the solider.
"I tried to imagine how he felt," she said when receiving recognition at a brief ceremony in Bayonne City Hall on Jan. 25.
The contest has five categories for various grade levels. So now, Riaz becomes one of five national winners out of essays estimated in the tens of thousands.
Brittany Buska, a fourth grader in Lincoln school, wrote an essay that won the regional essay contest.
Debra Nobel, state president of the American Legion Auxiliary, said this may be the first time that the same city had a national and regional champion in the same year.
Thousands of entries
Bayonne had more than 700 entries into the contest, and the state chapter said that last year, New Jersey saw more than 5,000 essays in its state-level competition.
Each spring, American Legion Auxiliaries across the nation sponsor what is called an Americanism Essay Contest. Forms are distributed to students from local schools for a local, state, regional, and if they are lucky, national championship.
Entries had to be between 300 and 500 words.
The essays this year were designed to offer encouragement to soldiers on the front lines - although local officials said kids did not have to agree with the war itself. The point was to show the troops that people here cared for them and what happened to them.
"This was to show our support," said an official.
The Auxiliary's Americanism program is designed to promote patriotism and responsible citizenship, by promoting American ideals and the principles of democracy. The goal of the Auxiliary's Americanism program is to educate every citizen on the fundamentals of American government, the Bill of Rights, and the value of active, informed involvement in the home, in the Auxiliary organization, and in the community.
To the troops
Vicky Anderson, chair of the Bayonne chapter of the American Legion Auxiliary, said both letters would have the names of the girls removed and then would be send to the troops overseas.
"This is quite an achievement," she said. "Sana is the national champion in her division. Brittany is the eastern regional champ of 13 states from Maine to Washington DC."
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