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Listen to a Life Contest
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Listen to a Life Contest Grand Prize Winner
Congratulations to Madison Winston, 10,
and her grandfather Dr. John Henry Winston Jr, 87
Listen to a Life Story Contest Grand Prize Winner

Madison is a grade 4 student at Saint Mary's Hall in San Antonio, TX. She collected a lot of information when she interviewed her grandfather, and worked through several drafts to create a concise and compelling story using a first-person narrative. She learned a lot about both her grandfather and the time in which he grew up.

Tess Alfonsin, Madison's teacher, has helped her students enter the Listen to a Life Story Contest for many years. The contest is integrated into her curriculum. She believes in the importance of sharing intergenerational stories, especially since there seem to be fewer opportunities to do so in our communities and everyday lives. The contest is a "great opportunity to connect children with older adults to learn about the stories and lessons from their lives."

Here is Madison's winning entry…


My story begins on August 7, 1928, in the segregated Deep South.

I always dreamed of becoming a doctor, even though this was nearly impossible for Blacks. My grandfather encouraged me to follow my dream. Along my journey, I would battle Jim Crow.

I grew up in my family's small rural community, Madison Park, outside Montgomery, Alabama. I vividly remember hooded KKK members crowded into cars driving through and yelling racial slurs while gunshots pierced the night air. I will never forget the look of hate.

Undaunted, I graduated from Alabama State Teacher's College and earned a Master's from Columbia University. I did not want to teach, and enlisted in the Air Force. Being Black, I could not enter as an officer or become a supervisor. Assigned to be a cook, I worked under a supervisor who had finished high school. I decided then I would strive to help all people as a doctor.

But first, I had to gain the right to vote.

Before the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Black people had to pay a $3 poll tax and pass a test to vote. The first time I went to vote, a White registrar told me my test was to recite the Constitution. I began: "Four score and seven years ago… all men are created equal." The registrar was impressed. I got to vote because of the Gettysburg Address!

I graduated from Meharry Medical School and was Montgomery's first Black board-certified surgeon. My career spanned 50 years. The sole surviving doctor who treated the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marchers, I have witnessed Jim Crow's defeat and the election of the first Black President.

There is still much work to gain equal rights for all people. I did my part. Will you?

Listen to a Life Contest Legacy Award Winners
Peter Tomhave, 15, and grandfriend Kathleen Leck, 51, Minnesota


It is said traveling is the greatest eye opener. For my aunt, Katey Leck, this proved accurate.

Moving to Kenya in her junior year of college in 1980 did more than just expose her to vastly different cultures – it opened her eyes to issues often overshadowed here in America.

She had looked forward to college with the itch to experience something new, but after two years she realized something was missing. The urge to see the world drew her in. After many challenging meetings and interviews with several international committees, she found herself in Kenya, working on a government study for the Kenyans. Little did she know the grand surprise in store for her.

The smell of beef stew wafted up until it caught the attention of Katey's keen nose. As the sun beat down on the yellow-worn stone, throngs of small kids weaved between her legs. This was a common occurrence for my aunt, living with her host Kip Keino, his wife, and their twelve adopted children – orphans, all of them.

These twelve children were their pride and joy, each brimming with joy and happiness. They knew nothing about computers or iPhones; yet they seemed to meet each day with an unparalleled bliss.

As Katey thought of her home far across the vast ocean, she couldn't help but realize how lucky these kids were. Held down by nothing, their roots stretched into the rich soil of contentment. Without the constraints of materialism, comparison, and jealousy, they were able to enjoy the paradise in which they lived.

These children provided the single most important lesson for my aunt: those who seem to have the least, end up with the most. With shelter over their heads and joy in their hearts, they lived life by one word – simplicity.

Aisling O'Connell, 13, and
grandfriend Fiona Carolan, 53, Massachusetts


Most of us believe that we have our future in place. For example, I know after middle school I can continue on until college. Eight years seems like a long time before I have to worry about deciding what I want to do with my life, so I do not worry.

My aunt also lost track of the time she had. It was only in her last year of university that she realized she did not, in fact, have all the time in the world to decide how to lead her life.

It was a seemingly normal Tuesday for my aunt, a day like any other. As she walked by a notice board at university, she caught sight of a sign saying that there was need for a home economics teacher at a small school of young girls. My aunt knew that she wanted to do something with teaching, so she took a leap and decided to look into the job.

As she pulled up to the address, she was confused. It was Mountjoy Prison, a jail in Ireland. She nervously went inside for her first day. Although it was a new experience for her, she ended up loving it. She felt she was making a meaningful difference in people's lives, and was able to inspire people to change their old ways.

How different her life would be if she had decided to not go into that prison. What would have happened if she had given into the fear and left? She told me that you have to take risks and trust yourself. Otherwise, you will never truly live your life.

As I look towards my own future, I will remember these words and do my best to live by them in every way I can.

Courtney Lange, 17, and
grandmother Katharina Lange, 91, New York

In 1945, during WWII, my grandmother was drafted into the Luftwaffe to be an airplane mechanic. However, while completing her training, German forces were retreating from the advancing allies, and were often targets of bombing and strafing runs by allied planes.

My grandmother recalls many incidents when the trains came to a halt and the soldiers would be forced to run into the fields or woods in order to seek shelter from the incoming fire. It's hard to picture my now 91-year-old grandmother, who gets out of breath while walking around the house, dodging bullets.

Prior to the end of the war, my grandmother was captured and placed in a prisoner of war camp run by the British. Fortunately, her capturers had a reputation for treating their POWs humanely, providing adequate food and shelter. After three months in the camp, my grandmother was released, given a small amount of money, and told to go home.

She spent several weeks walking, and sleeping in fields at night, in the hopes of eventually reuniting with her family. When she finally returned home, she witnessed the devastation her country had experienced. The nation was in complete ruins, food was scarce, and jobs were extremely hard to come by.

Though stories about the so-called American Dream were abundant throughout Germany, my grandmother had no desire to leave the country. However, my grandfather had a different opinion. With constant pestering, he was able to convince my grandmother that a better life awaited them across the ocean.

In December, 1956, the boat docked in New York City. Though my grandmother was initially "disappointed and unimpressed," they both proceeded to work hard in hopes of making a better life than what they had left behind.

Hannah Wahl, 13, and grandfriend Ken Halliday, 54, Texas


Ken has been around ever since I remember. As my godparent and my neighbor, he has had a very big influence on my life. But I had no idea what his life was like before he came to Dallas, Texas.

Ken was born in a small town in North Dakota. His father died when he was 13, and his single mother raised him herself.

The worst part of his life was middle and high school, where he was constantly bullied because everyone suspected he was gay. But he persevered and was able to go to college at the University of North Dakota.

Once he got there he joined a fraternity where, surrounded by people who supported him, he was able to become his true self. He became openly gay at 24 when he was in Law School. He moved to Dallas in 1987, and a year later he started working at a law firm where he is still working today, 30 years later. He met his now husband 21 years ago, and they were finally able to marry last year when gay marriage became legal in all fifty states.

Today, Ken lives in a nice house surrounded by friends and is looking forward to retiring and moving to Provincetown. This goes to show that no matter how hard your life is now, if you work through it, things will get better.

I like to think of it like a butterfly. At first you are a little caterpillar going through the motions, but not really understanding anything. Then you are a chrysalis, tucked in your own world reflecting on everything around you. When you finally become confident in yourself only then can you become a butterfly – and spread love and hope through the world.

William Scribner, 12, and grandfather David Clark, 69, Maine

"What was your most struggling experience?" I asked Grandfather.

"Well, um…" my grandfather mumbled back in response. The clock ticked louder and louder as I repeated the question.

"What was your most struggling experience?" I repeated.

My grandfather, rubbing his head responded, "I was 8 years old and my father was away again drinking. He had not been home since Friday. It was Tuesday now and my mother had not stopped crying since the day he left. I remember the look on my mother's face when he called and said he wasn't coming back."

"Months passed and we didn't have the money to pay our bills. We were living on the street. It was the dead of winter. We walked to my Gram's house in the middle of a blizzard, so we would have a place to stay. I can still remember the bitter cold on my nose and my frozen cheeks."

"Finally, spring came. It was April, and my grandmother gave us money to buy a small trailer. Life was still hard though. My mum was working full time and we had to feed ourselves. My mother would come home and take the liquor out of the freezer and drink herself to sleep. Until one day it got way out of hand. My mother began abusing us for no reason. My brothers and sisters waited until my mother had to go to work and left. I left a note to my mother that only said, I love you."

"My Aunt Dannah took us in and the years passed. I had not seen my mother for 32 years when my aunt told me that…" He choked and started again, "She had passed away."

"At the day of the funeral, all I had to say was, I love you."

Miri Lawrence, 14, and grandmother Carolyn Daugherty, 70, Ohio

"No matter what, I'd rather be in a tornado than a hurricane every time."

"Why's that, Mia?"

"Because in a hurricane, there ain't nowhere to go."

When my grandma was four, she lived through something terrifying. The danger that came so close to her was burned into her mind.

She was staying with her parents and her Grandma Austin. They lived in Missouri. It was a dilapidated house in the middle of the countryside – right in tornado alley.

Mia loved that house: out in the middle of nowhere, with Grandma Austin's meals and the breeze that played with the grass. Grandma Austin let Mia sleep in the dark, cozy back room with her parents. Mia loved how the quilts smelled like lemongrass.

One night, a storm shook the house. Mia drifted in and out of sleep. In the middle of the night, she woke up to find her parents leaning with all their force against the back door. Lightning flashed and thunder cracked the sky. The flimsy door trembled like it, too, was terrified of the storm. It threatened to swing open and let the storm inside. But they held it back.

Her parents told her to sleep. Mia obeyed, scared to say anything. But she didn't sleep right away. Mia was hoping, praying that they all got through the night.

The next morning, they awoke in their own beds, realizing how fortunate they had been. A tornado had touched down and taken out the chicken coop next to their house, then jumped over the house itself. It touched down on the other side, taking with it everything in its path. Mia knew that her family was lucky to still be there – but they wouldn't be if Mia hadn't kept her hope alive.

Emma Prentice, 13, and grandfather Ken Walters, 68, Nebraska

Some families spend their vacation standing in lines at Disney World, or flying across the country. The goal is often to visit and experience as much as possible in as short an amount of time as possible.

But bigger isn't always better. For example, my grandpa's most cherished memories are of simple fishing trips with his family.

My grandpa always enjoys telling me about trips he took with his family in the summer. He recalls the hot sun on his skin as he and his siblings sat on the bank, anxiously waiting for a fish to bite. They would do this every afternoon, sitting and listening to the splash of the water and the birds chirping, with the best sound being laughter and conversation.

No one was in a hurry to leave the lake. No one complained of boredom. In fact, the only time anyone left was to use the outhouse! They would fish late into the evening, until the sun went down and the darkness approached. The walk back to the cabin was frightening for his little sister, so he held her hand the whole way. If anyone was lucky enough to catch a big fish, everyone looked forward to enjoying Mom's homemade fish dinner.

The routine each day was the same. The goal was simple. The pace was relaxed.

I believe this is why my grandpa says to slow down and appreciate the small things in life. As a child, my grandpa enjoyed the anticipation of catching a fish. As an adult, though, he realizes the experience was more than just fishing. He has taught me that a fast-paced lifestyle isn't the only way to find happiness. Sometimes the best moments in life are when we slow down, take a deep breath, and enjoy the simpler things.

Rebecca Wolfson, 16, and grandmother, Jane Kim, 72, Maryland

As my Halmoni and I sit in Coastal Flats, we watch the purple plastic fish hanging from the ceiling. Her whole life, my Halmoni has been a fish swimming upstream. Late nights studying laminated menus have now resurfaced from her slowly fading memory.

On July 4, 1971, my Halmoni and Haraboji emigrated from Seoul to Los Angeles, leaving behind my ten-month-old mother in Korea. A month later, they moved to Philadelphia. Poor, yet thrifty, they rented one room in a widower's house for $40 a month. The very next day, they began seeking employment.

My Halmoni was hired as a waitress at Casa Conti, an Italian restaurant. To get the job, she conducted an interview entirely in broken English with the owner.

She reveals to me, "I said that I had limited experience waitressing in Los Angeles, but that I was a quick learner."

"Well, did you have any experience?" I ask. She looks at me deviously and just laughs.

The defining moment that highlights her dedicated character is the way she went about "studying" waitressing. With very little English comprehension, she knew it would be nearly impossible to understand the orders. With her boss's blessing, she took home a set of menus, which she studied every night. She looked up each word in the dictionary, and practiced the pronunciation over and over. After ten months of waitressing at Casa Conti, she was promoted to serve at banquets.

"New menu, but more tips," she reminisces.

A devout Christian, she sends in her weekly blessing "Hallelujah! Proverbs 24:16 – for though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again."

She says, "When [Haraboji] and I immigrated, we were fearless and resilient. We fell many times, too many to count. Yet we rose again. We never thought of staying down defeated."

Abby Johnson, 16, and grandmother Ginny Gelineau, 67, Minnesota

I've never really been "in the know" on relationships. And now, at the magical age of 16, I'm a stumbling fool at such things. I have a bucketful of questions, and an introverted personality keeping me from asking any of them. But while talking with my grandma, I managed to slip one in: "Mamah, what was dating like for you?"

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the 1960s, young teens had relationships by all going together to the movies. First, to start a relationship a boy told your best friend that he likes you. Your best friend then urged you to confess you like him, too. When Saturday night came around, you were a "couple" – in other words, you sat together during the movie.

As an older teen, you started really going out on dates. In fact, my mamah went on, if you went out at all it was supposed to be a date. The boy picked up the girl, had to meet her parents, and dropped her off afterwards. If you went on a second date, you were considered a couple. The guys were always expected to pay, which Mamah and I agreed was too bad. Some guys probably wanted to go on a date but didn't have money.

I wonder, would I have had an easier time with dating back then – since it seems that boys did more of the work? In honesty, though, I like the idea of being first to ask someone out. And I don't want to expect a man to always pick up the check.

I appreciate many of my struggles. If only appreciating them made them easier.

Maegan Benavidez, 18, and grandmother Marilyn Bowers, 62, Texas


After talking and asking my grandmother many questions in hopes to inspire my essay, I was helping her change the sheets on her bed.

It was then I asked her this question "MeMe, why are we changing your sheets again? I mean they are not dirty and we just changed them last night?"

Her reply was not what I expected.

Growing up in the small town of Dalby Springs, TX, the second oldest of seven children, my grandmother remembers her mother struggling each day to complete all the daily chores of the family. Bathing was chore in itself. So my grandma would often help her mom wash the younger children. Filling a large tub with warm water heated from the stove, she began with the youngest child. After all the younger ones were bathed, it was then my grandma's turn. She took a bath in the same, and now "dirty" water, that her siblings had just bathed in.

Before bed, the children often had to make several trips down the long dirt path to the "outhouse" or restroom. Without shoes on their feet, they would return with dirt covering their feet and in between their toes. It was impossible to keep them dirt-free.

Sharing a bed with her younger siblings, my grandmother remembers the gritty feel of dirt every night on the sheets. She always told herself that when she had a home of her own, she would have clean sheets every night.

This is why she takes time every single night before she slips into bed to complete the act of changing her sheets. A bed with dirty sheets is unacceptable. If you or I were to stay the night, I can guarantee your bed, too, would be "dirt free!"

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