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Listen to a Life Contest
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Listen to a Life Contest Grand Prize Winner
Congratulations to Madi Ashmead, 8,
and her grandmother Mary Beth Kemen, 63
Listen to a Life Story Contest Grand Prize Winner

Madi is a grade 2 student at Bay Harbor Elementary School in Green Bay, WI. She was very interested to learn about her grandparent's "group home," as she didn't know much of the story before. She not only loves her grandmother – but also reading, writing, art, running and dance!

Nicole Smith, a Gifted and Talented Specialist in the Howard-Suamico School District, helped Madi and other students enter the Listen to a Life Story Contest. Students learned interview techniques and note-taking skills, interviewed each other and Nicole, and then did the real interviews with grandparents/grandfriends. Says Nicole, "I was so impressed by the quality of work of 8-10 year olds. They took the project so seriously – and learned so much! Definitely an authentic writing experience and memorable project for everyone."

Here's Madi's winning entry…

It takes a lot of strength and effort to make a group home a success. A few years after they got married, my Grammy and Grandpa, at the ages of 24 and 25, took on a very big project. It was something I never would have guessed that they would have done – they started a group home.

It takes a ton of work to have a group home for kids. They had six to eight kids in their group home all at the same time. The tough work didn't stop there; each child had some sort of challenge. The challenges ranged from autism, to Down syndrome, to fetal alcohol syndrome to being mentally delayed. It was loads and loads of work. The amazing thing is my Grammy and Grandpa had loads of fun doing it!

They took the kids to different places such as the amusement park, the zoo, swimming, skating, the park, restaurants or shopping. The boys loved to ice fish with my Grandpa and the girls enjoyed shopping with my Grammy.

When the kids were ready to go to school, they attended a school for kids with special needs. They learned everyday skills such as tying their shoes. They also had classes like I do now, such as art and gym.

It wasn't just the kids who were learning – my Grammy and Grandpa received an education too! They learned that love is bigger than disabilities. They also learned you can become a family no matter what you look like or how smart you are. My Grammy and Grandpa had one of the best times of their life with their different kind of family!

Listen to a Life Contest Legacy Award Winners
Matthew J. Drake, 16, and grandfather
George Hicks Sr., 81, Maryla

Struggles were awaiting George Hicks, a black male born into a family of farmers in rural South Carolina in 1934. George's parents instilled in him principles of independence, justice, and hard work. At the tender age of fourteen, his father died, leaving him as the man of the house. The same shoes he wore yesterday, the shoes of a child, instantly became the shoes of a man. With childhood at an abrupt and premature end, George overcame insurmountable obstacles on his road to success.

No stranger to hard work, he farmed the land and dreamed of owning his own farm. "I wanted to own a percentage of this earth," George says. He had little time for the natural diversions of a typical teenager in the 1940s. One hot day, hooded by the cloud of Jim Crow Laws, he became jaded with constantly being cheated by a white landowner. Believing that hard work had merits, he stood with his mother and publicly proclaimed to the landowner, "We demand justice. We'll no longer be cheated." Risking his life for his beliefs, he walked away unharmed.

This life experience taught my grandfather that working hard was important, but standing up for oneself was just as important. He worked various jobs and created small businesses to fund his dream of acquiring land for his future farm and to ensure that his children were well educated. His motto is, "Work hard and stay on the right path, and in the end you will be rewarded."

My grandfather, George Hicks Sr., who has lived over eight decades, is a veteran, a husband, a father, and a living piece of American history. Today, George Hicks is one of the largest farmers in South Carolina. He continues to be a champion of hard work and righteousness.

Nikhil Narvekar, 12, and grandfather Sumant Narvekar, 80, Texas


My grandfather and I sat in the Gandhi Memorial Park, watching the alluring sunset. I turned to my grandfather to exclaim about the sunset when my words suddenly died on my lips. My grandfather was focused intently on the statue of Mahatma Gandhi, as if it had reawakened a long-forgotten memory.

It was January 30th, 1948. In Bombay, everybody was frozen in shock. Someone had shot Mahatma Gandhi. The city that never sleeps came to a grinding halt that day. The news ignited a fire that no one would forget, especially my 12-year-old grandfather.

He could remember even the smallest details of the day: Stones that flew through the air, pelting the fronts of innocent stores. A mother tried to console her crying, fear-ridden children. The shouts of protesters filled the air, screaming against the injustice of it all. The agony of millions, trying to cope with the loss of a great humanitarian, was palpable. It was pure catastrophe.

Overwhelmed, my grandfather tried to understand what had happened, but no one was there to answer his questions or console him. So, he turned to the only person he had: himself. That day, my grandfather found the strength within himself to overcome a tragedy that had crippled a nation of millions. A young, innocent boy became an adult capable of coping with sudden conflict. He had endured something no child should go through, but had managed to emerge from the pain.

Now, my grandfather is a changed person. Over his lifetime, he has faced many tragedies, but they have never stopped him. His life serves as an example for me. No life will ever be without its share of challenges; but the thing to remember is that there is nothing so great that cannot be overcome.

Xinyi Tan, 14, and grandfather Junfu Wang, 83, Tennessee

In the midst of war, my grandfather's village was being attacked. Chaos was raging around the terrified little boy huddled out of sight. The foreigners were raiding the villagers' homes, flaming torches in hand, and robbing them of what little they had. The villagers were tortured for information about army plans and, after destroying everything in sight, the intruders burned the whole town to the ground.

My grandfather, Junfu, watched as the flames engulfed his hometown.
After the havoc subsided, Junfu shakily ventured back to the place where his home used to stand. He was gripped by grief to find his mother lying in the smoldering ruins of his house. Now, along with the deaths of his three older sisters, my grandfather had lost his mother at the age of three.

Junfu lived with his father until poverty and suffering caused his father to die. Completely alone and orphaned at the age of ten, Junfu had to learn to take care of himself. He wandered around the village begging for food, trying to survive on his own. While other ten-year-olds were in school, my grandfather was struggling to suppress the grief and the loneliness that enveloped him. The realization of his gruesome conditions was overwhelming, but Junfu worked hard to put everything behind him and to start a new life.

I know that there is nothing I can't overcome when I am reminded of my grandfather's struggles. Junfu survived the death of his entire family and conquered the ever-present struggles of hunger and homelessness when he was only a little boy. My grandfather's incredible strength through all the poverty and death and sorrow will always be with me, giving me the courage and the fortitude to face anything.

Lizzie Brown, 12, and grandfather David Prior, 69, North Carolina

War can tear people apart, but my grandfather is a survivor.

Thousands were drafted into the Vietnam War, and I can almost feel the pain of having to leave someone you love behind. Elaine Prior had to remain in Rhode Island as my grandfather was drafted, taken to a battlefield without choice with meager chances of returning. A thousand miles away, he was learning how to fight while someone he trusted with his life was learning how to live.

The days must have been endless ordeals as he longed to see the woman to whom he was engaged. It was a trial of life, testing the resilience he had never needed to use before and pushing him to the limits. He moved constantly, traveling everywhere from California to Japan as he was prepared for war.

Years after he was taken into this arduous training, he found himself with one week to do whatever he wished. The brief calm in the storm allowed him to return to my grandmother and get married. There was no time for celebration or festivities, just the sealing of two hearts before the winds picked up and the hurricane of life tore my grandfather away again. But the one week of peace, the short pause in hectic lives, would forever remain as a source of bright optimism in a dark time.

After my grandfather fought in the Vietnam War, he returned to his home and his wife with nothing more than a handful of honor. Despite this, my grandmother was overjoyed. Soon she gave birth to my uncle and mother, children whom my grandfather remained fiercely protective of to this day, 45 years later.

The storm of war threatened to rip away the future of my family, but that future is made of stone.

Anna Albrecht, 10, and grandfather George Playton, 76, Texas

Listening to my grandfather explain to me about his life is like having a wave of the 1900s and early 2000s roll on top of me, making me close my eyes and visualize every moment as crisp as water. George Playton has a lot to say about the world. So if you ask for an opinion, you'll get one. My grandfather was born in Greece, but his life wasn't all fun and games.

It was September 11, 2001 and my grandfather was at his office in Florida, which is where he lived at the time. He was just having a normal day at work. An attorney cried, "Look!" pointing at the television. Everybody turned to look at the television, including my grandfather. Horror struck their faces as they saw what happened. An American Airlines plane was crashing into the first tower in New York City! At first my grandfather thought it was an accident, but when another one crashed into the other tower they knew they weren't safe anymore. My grandfather had to see his once secure country lose its safe reputation. Everything that people thought was safe suddenly became unsafe.

We all have unenthusiastic birthdays. My grandfather's was when he turned fifty. He realized that there was less time to be with his family and less time to live than was behind him.

My grandfather told me that he used to see his grandfather sitting on a bench watching the sunset all alone. He would walk up and ask, "Why are you here all alone?" The reply, "An old man like me is never alone. He's always with the company of the younger man he used to be."

Hearing my grandfather talk is the most amazing thing in the world. His life is definitely a life to remember.

Emaan Ayub, 13, and grandfriend Edmund Kasperski, 66, New Jersey

Edmund Kasperski woke to the sound of shuffling and quiet murmurs outside his door. The nine-year-old looked around the loathsome cement walls that kept him confined like a beast. This was his life for nine months – in isolation for polio, the dreaded disease that could have changed his life forever.

When I usually ask people what they want to be when they grow up, I get the typical answers: doctor, lawyer, engineer, or fashion designer. When I asked Mr. Kasperski what he wanted to be when he grew up, I did a double-take at his response: "I wanted to be a man of character, integrity, and honor."

Mr. Kasperski is certainly a very caring person. When he graduated from college, he wanted to become a teacher for the handicapped because he had experienced what young people with disabilities go through. He has also gone on to become a martial arts instructor and an anger management counsellor.

Mr. Kasperski's most influential life experience was coping with polio, an infection that can cause breathing difficulty, joint deformity and, in extreme cases, death. "I was in isolation for nine months and I was one of the first six people cured of polio in New Jersey." Clearly this had to be the most stressful and scariest time of his life. And, as a boy, he became wary of strangers and had difficulty trusting people.

Interviewing Edmund Kasperski revealed not just facts about his life, but life lessons that have had an impact on my life. I learned what it means to be truthful, honest, and kind to others. Mr. Kasperski concluded by telling me that "a successful life is a fulfilled adventure." He lives a fulfilled, adventurous, and successful life.

Sara Komatsu, 13, and grandfriend Vasile Petrutiu, 56, Florida


Vasile Petrutiu, my ballet instructor, had always been someone to learn from, not learn about. With one interview, my view of him changed entirely.

Born in Transylvania, Romania, he took his first steps toward his ballet career at an early age. What he didn't know then was that it would be his ticket to freedom from the Communist country.

After graduating from ballet school at the top of his class, he joined the Classical and Contemporary Ballet of Romania as a principal dancer. With this company, he toured around the world, including Canada. It was there that he made one of the biggest – and riskiest – decisions of his life: he defected from Communist Romania.

Mr. Vasile recalls experiencing nightmares every night, always looking over his shoulder for informants who were following him, and fearing he might not ever see his loved ones again. But the opportunity outweighed the risks.

In America, he quickly gained fame for defecting, and for his talented dancing. He danced all over the country with famous companies such as the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Tulsa Ballet Theatre, and more. He was even asked to be part of the world-renowned American Ballet Theatre. However, he turned it down because he knew the board wanted a puppet to control. He wanted to have freedom, the freedom to control his artistic vision. He stayed true to himself even with the temptation to join the prestigious company.

Mr. Vasile was wise enough to take risks and opportunities when they came, but he also stayed true to himself his whole life. He has become a successful director and founder of Central Florida Ballet Academy, and currently focuses on passing on his knowledge and skill to young dancers like myself. He is someone to learn from, indeed.

Jade Fisher, 17, and grandmother Anne Fisher, 80, Maryland

The sun had barely peeked out from behind the boundless mountains in quiet Pleasant Grove, Utah, when Grandma was up to heave him off the bed. With her as guide, he slowly stumbled his way, clutching stability bars, to the bathroom.

Then, walking patiently behind him, with her gentle hands wrapped around a taut transfer belt to brace him, Grandma directs him to his worn, blue chair and positions him comfortably before hooking up the ventilator and attaching his feeding tubes.

For every appointment with the doctor, whom they've come to know so well, Grandma loads his wheelchair and oxygen into the trunk of a faded forest-green car, and then trudges back inside to help him down the narrow one-flight of stairs, to his seat.

As Grandpa's health wanes, Grandma's time for herself plummets.

I often wonder how she can live like this, directing every ounce of her energy towards helping someone else. But she tells me, "I don't feel a burden. I'm happy taking care of my husband."

And although I sense a hint of weariness, I see a more abundant love in her eyes, in the way she snatches any opportunity to serve even the most unfortunate. When Grandma tells me, "All my life I've wanted to one day help in hospitals, care centers for older people...maybe play piano for them," I realize just how selfless she is.

While some leave a legacy of a plot of land or a million dollars, Grandma's legacy of service and love lives in her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and will continue to be passed on through generations to come. Through her example of self-sacrifice, I see that she lives her words: "You feel the most joy when you reach outside of yourself." And I will never doubt that.

Erin Kim, 18, and grandfather Dae Sul Kang, 83, New York

My grandfather believed he would be the third generation. The first generation tediously tills the raw earth; the second plants the seeds; and the third reaps the fruits of harvest. Watching his parents work tirelessly to provide for the family, my grandfather harbored dreams of success that would soothe his parent's scars of struggle.

Yet he found that dreams were much more elusive than they seemed to be, and the brutal doors of reality barred his colorful visions of a successful scientific career. Yet even then, when he eventually became a teacher, he never stopped believing that somehow he would discover that he was the third. But the people who really opened his eyes were his most valuable students; no sacrifice was too great for the sake of his children. Their happiness was his motivation, the fuel that brought the smile to his face and the confidence to his steps. He realized that it suddenly became irrelevant whether he was the third, first, or even the fourth generation because while he did not live up to his projected future, he lived through the success of his children.

My grandfather smiles, a soft glow lighting up his eyes as he rubs his slightly crooked finger, a lingering remnant of the time he protected my mother from a falling vase. He looks amused when I ask him if he regrets never being a scientist. In his warm voice, with an undertone of definite firmness, he replies, "Your happiness is the balm to my regrets. As long as either your generation or your mother's reaps the harvest, so be it that I am to be the poor farmer working at the field."

Nina McCormack, 13, and grandfriend Toby Santoro, 102, Maryland


102-year-old Toby Santoro

At 102 years old, Toby Santoro shows no signs of slowing down. A five-time participant in the New Jersey Senior Olympics (in the 95+ years category), Toby is already preparing for this year's September event.

Toby earns his Senior Olympic medals fair and square. When there are no competitors who are over 95 years old to compete against, he competes against people 20 to 30 years younger than he.

Born in 1913, Toby emigrated from Foggia, Italy to the United States when he was seven. He has lived through many of the most exciting historical events in the last century, including world wars, the Depression, the civil rights movement, the first walk on the moon, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, September 11th, the birth and death of his only child, and the death of his beloved wife 17 years ago.

A humble and kind man, he married the love of his life and cared for his family. He became a hairstylist in New York City and styled the hair of movie stars like Jayne Mansfield and Gloria Swanson.

Today, Toby remains a picture of vitality and strength. He has a great attitude and a funny sense of humor, as demonstrated by his shadow boxing entrance to his 100th birthday party to the music of the movie Rocky (while wearing boxing gloves, red boxing shorts, and a shiny gold boxer's robe). He's a local star in Caldwell, New Jersey.

My grandfriend is adamant that staying active (and never smoking) are the keys for unlocking the secrets to a long and healthy life. Bocce, bowling, golf, tennis, shuffleboard and table tennis (aka, ping pong), too. In life, he greets each day with gratitude and joy.

Toby Santoro – a winner and true Life Olympian.

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