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    Friday, January 27, 2023

    Preston student wins state VFW essay competition

    Preston Plains Middle School seventh grade student Delaney Phelps was named the winner of the state VFW Patriot Pen award this year. (Claire Bessette/The Day)
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    When her seventh grade English teacher alerted the class that the VFW was hosting a national essay contest titled “America’s Gift to My Generation,” Delaney Phelps’s brain started churning with possibilities.

    The contest was announced sometime near Sept. 17, Constitution Day. And Delaney, 12, and her 10-year-old twin sisters, Dylan and Devyn, had just watched the Disney movie “National Treasure,” in which historian sleuths discover a secret map was discovered on the back of the Declaration of Independence leading to untold treasures.

    With the Founding Fathers fresh in her mind, Delaney went to work. She read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights — not usually taught at Preston Plains Middle School until eighth grade — and it reverberated with her.

    “On one late summer evening on the 27th of May in 1787, a group of men known as our forefathers got together to create the greatest gift America has left my generation,” Delaney wrote, consciously using a similar style of phrasing those forefathers used. “Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, Jr., George Washington and many more patriots got together to create the greatest treasure our country has ever known: the United States Constitution. Not only is it the greatest gift America left for my generation, but it is the foundation of our unique and special government.”

    She continued by saying the Constitution is not just one gift but many gifts, enumerated through the Bill of Rights.

    “The Bill of Rights gives us the gift of freedom of speech, the right to worship as we choose, and the right to the security of our freedom,” she wrote. “Also, without our Constitution, social media would simply not exist because we may not have freedom of speech and there would not be the ability to post what you want.”

    She also argued that the current generation of Americans has the “duty and obligation to keep this living, breathing document alive and thriving so that many years in the future, we can pass this treasure on to the next generation.”

    Delaney and four schoolmates submitted entries to the Preston VFW Post 9452. Dozens of other entries came from other towns in the Connecticut VFW fourth district that encompasses all of eastern Connecticut. More came in from the other five VFW districts in the state.

    A group of anonymous judges at the state level read all the entries, and on Jan. 14, Delaney was named first place winner of the Patriot’s Pen contest for students younger than high school age. The high school Voice of Democracy top prize went to a student in Manchester.

    Delaney read her essay at the awards banquet at the Sheraton Hotel in Rocky Hill to the more than 270 people in attendance, including her parents, Amanda and Mark Phelps, PPMS Principal Ivy Davis-Tomczuk, English teacher Chris Pickett and Preston VFW Quartermaster James Martinez and Auxiliary President Pierre Pensis.

    After the applause died down, VFW officials also recognized Delaney’s father, who is a chief in the Navy.

    Delaney said she was nervous, but was well coached by her parents in her oral delivery, even though she entered the banquet not knowing she would be announced as the winner.

    Along with a plaque engraved with her name as the 2017 Connecticut Patriot’s Pen youth essay contest winner, Delaney received a cash prize of $350. Her essay is now among the thousands being reviewed nationwide in Kansas City, Mo., in the competition for national champion, said Ron Rusko, VFW state adjutant quartermaster.

    Rusko said he read all the finalist speeches for both the Patriot’s Pen and the Voice of Democracy contests.

    “I thought hers was great,” he said of Delaney’s speech. “She was really on target. ‘My gift to the next generation.’ I thought it was terrific.”

    Rusko said Connecticut has never had a national essay contest winner, the highest prize being fifth. He will learn if Connecticut entries surpass that sometime before the March 3 national VFW convention in Washington, D.C., when the winners will be announced.

    Whether or not she wins the national prize — first place is $5,000 — Delaney will be celebrated locally and statewide this spring, said Preston VFW Commander George Baldwin. The Preston post will honor Delaney and the town’s other four entries, eighth graders Clair Watrous, Marisa Wolfe, Joseph Smith and Julia Irvine, at the Memorial Day ceremony at the middle school. Delaney also will read her essay at the state VFW convention in Rocky Hill in June.

    Although Delaney is only in seventh grade, as the state 2017 winner, she will be ineligible to enter next year’s Patriot’s Pen contest, Rusko said. But she will be eligible again in high school for the Voice of Democracy essay contest.

    “I definitely want to enter again when I get to high school,” she said.

    c.bessette@theday.com

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