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Listen to a Life Story Contest Grand Prize Winner



Jessica Becker, 17
and her grandfriend Kurt Pretzel, 94

Jessica is a grade 11 student at Arrowhead Union High School in Hartland, WI. Her composition class teacher, Becca McCann, encouraged students to enter the Listen to a Life Contest.

Jessica spent a lot of time crafting her entry. "I wanted to share this amazing story. The underlying theme is gratitude and fear. Through this experience, I learned that history always has two sides and I learned about a level of selflessness beyond what many people could imagine."

Jessica has broad interests – she's an Eagle Scout, in the high school book club, in Arrowhead's National Honor Society chapter, and on the robotics team. As part of the robotics team, they created a robot named Stitch that launches baseballs, like a mini catapult. Stitch was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch last year at a Milwaukee Brewer's game!

Here is the winning entry Jessica submitted…

"Tomorrow we leave at six am. Be ready."

The uniformed men march to the next house. I'm clutching the folded uniform and the gun they handed me, grappling with what I do now. I ask my mother.

"Go to the man next door. Ask him what to do. He will know better than I do." She looks down – tears run down her face.

I go to the elderly man next door and I tell him everything: what they said, how scared I was, and that I had no idea what to do next.

I can't run, can I? It's the Nazis, of course not. I won't survive in the war. My brother died and he was much stronger than I am. I don't know what to do. A whole life I haven't even begun to live flashes before my eyes. A bigger wave of panic and fear hits me. I haven't lived yet!

"I'll go instead," says the elderly man.

"What?" All my thoughts stop.

"Tomorrow – I'll go instead of you. Give me what they gave you."

Is this going to work? Do I have another choice?

The next morning he arrives at our door in the uniform, holding the gun. I stand there breathless. This can't be real.

"Go upstairs and hide." He points to my younger sisters, "Take them with you. Be quiet. They can't know you are here."

Through a small window, I watch the uniformed men come to the door. I watch the elderly man leave with them. They gather all sorts of men from different houses in the village.

A year later, the war ended. My village was liberated.

Over time, those that survived came home. I never saw the elderly man again.

Six years later I left Germany – and I started my life.



Jackson Clark, 16
and grandfather James Clark, 72, Wisconsin


And there it was. That dreaded letter: "JAMES CLARK – UNCLE SAM WANTS YOU."

It's ironic that the one and only time the United States has ever done a military draft, they make it sound as though you did something special to earn that honor.

As the days went by after receiving that letter, the tension rose. The more you think about it, the worse it is. The less you think about it, the happier you are. Problem is – you can't stop thinking about it. As you're being involuntarily ripped away from your family and from your life, what are you supposed to think about?

Soon enough they put you in the local high school gymnasium and you're with other people going through the same thing. The same dread. The same pity. The same involuntary ripping away.

Before you know it, you're being shuffled out of the gymnasium. "JAMES CLARK – MARINE CORPS." They take you in an airplane and send you to San Diego. You get a new routine – new bed, new clothes, a new home.

You train for the Marine Corps, going as hard as you can every single day just to get rewarded by the commander screaming at you. No matter what you do, he screams at you.

You finally get a break. You head home for the summer. What do you do? You visit your family and try not to talk about it. It's on everyone's mind, all the time.

Soon enough, before you know it, you're getting back on that plane to San Diego to finish your training. Getting screamed at again. You feel as though you never really got to say goodbye.

Then you're back on a plane. Fist clenched. Ticket in hand. "JAMES CLARK – MARINE CORPS – VIETNAM."

Lily Scott, 14
and grandmother Sandy Scott, 79, California

Grief. It comes in waves. You try to push it down, but it resurfaces. It becomes bottled up until the glass shatters and emotions spill over like a tsunami.

When her husband died, gone too soon, there was no way my grandmother could hold everything in. The sorrow was the most powerful emotion she had ever felt, tearing through her body and suffocating her so she couldn't breathe. She would cry, howl, scream, and throw objects. She cried so much that her eyes refused to release anymore tears of hurt and pity and fear.

My grandmother had a choice to crawl into the sorrowful abyss, or choose to be happy – embracing her new life and cherishing the memories of him. She remembers telling herself, "You can be happy without him; maybe not as happy as if you had him, but you can still be happy."

My grandfather loved spending time at the ocean. His booming laugh echoed around the little cove where he would play with the dancing waves and make friendly conversation with any person there. My grandmother says she can still feel him because he is found in the water, in the sun twinkling off the cascading waves, and in the peachy hues reflected at sunset. And he is found in the eyes, grins, and personalities of our family.

Despite the pain she felt after losing her husband, my grandmother decided that she would focus on the positive things in her life and find the beauty in small moments, as my grandfather did and would have encouraged her to do. Ultimately, my grandparents passed that on to my father, and then to me.

So now, when I see the sun glinting off the crystal peaks in the water, not only do I see beauty, but I see him.

Alexandra Potter, 14
and grandmother Roberta Potter, 81, Maryland


My paternal grandmother, Roberta Potter, was born in 1942. She is the second child in a family of six children.

When she was born, her parents were anticipating a boy who would be named Robert Jr., after her father. They were surprised when it was a girl – and got creative by putting an "a" on Robert!

They were poor, but able to live in a single family home with a yard for the family dog, Snowball. Her neighborhood was all Black and self-contained. They had very little interaction with people outside of their neighborhood. The neighborhood had an elementary school that was all Black. However, she took the city bus to a high school where Blacks were in the minority.

The majority of the students were Jewish and it was a cultural shock. Fear of being Black gripped her for the first time when she heard about the death of Emmett Till and saw a picture of his body in a magazine. She also remembers going to Girard, Kansas to attend a funeral. Her aunt was refused a drink of water at the soda fountain in a dime store – she was told "We don't serve colored people." These two incidents are seared in her memory.

She then determined to show the world she was "somebody," not just a "colored girl." She finished college, married, and had three children. She became a teacher and tried to instill a sense of self-worth in her students. She determined education would be her ticket to equality. She ingrained in her children and grandchildren that, "Nothing can stop you from achieving success but you."

She says, "Education was my passport to the future, so prepare today." Remember defeat shouldn't defeat you!

Kenton Chan, 15
and grandmother Sophia Chan, 87, Hawaii

Knock. Knock. Knock. Three sharp raps echoed through the pristine white room. Heart hammering against my ribs, I anxiously walked toward the door. For months, my husband and I had worked tirelessly to start a medical clinic, and I could scarcely believe it… I was about to welcome our first patient. I twisted the doorknob and yanked open the door.

"Good morning!" I exclaimed with a beaming smile. Across from me stood a tall man with pale skin and thinning flaxen hair. His beady eyes flashed with surprise, then something else. It was a look I knew all too well. As an immigrant, I could never seem to outrun racism. The man curled his lips into a contemptuous sneer.

"Does the doctor even speak English?" he disdainfully scoffed, and slammed the door in my face. The jarring thud rang dejectedly in my ears. I closed my eyes and slowly exhaled into the stifling silence.

"Rise above," I whispered fiercely to myself, drawing strength from my people's powerful legend of the fènghuáng – like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

Over the next few months, my husband and I faced rejection and racism, hurdles and pitfalls, setbacks and failures. Yet we forged ahead, endeavoring to be gracious, build understanding, and hold on to our dreams.

Before long, word began to spread about our reliable expertise and heartfelt care. In a single year, our clinic grew to serve more than a hundred patients. In a single decade, our clinic grew to become the most prominent healthcare facility in the district.

No matter how often doors seemingly slammed in my face, this is what I would remind myself: "Never let adversity shut the door to your dreams. Never let it keep you down. Instead, like the phoenix, rise above – and soar."

Santiago Toscano Peláez-Prada, 10
and grandmother Marta Peláez, 75, Texas

See that picture above your head? That cute little thing is me back in 1954 when I was living in Bogota, Colombia.

The world as I knew it was my house, my family, the mountains that surrounded me, arepas, and almojabanas. My life was grand, but it became even grander when one day, in 1954, my dad announced that he had bought us our first TV! It was the very first TV ever sold in Colombia and it was going to be mine, all mine (well, not really, but I liked to think so).

I will never forget the day that it arrived. My dad brought it home and unveiled it. The TV didn't look like much at first, just a brown sturdy box with some knobs on one side and holes on the other. But when my dad turned one of the knobs, I realized this was a magic box!

I heard a SWOOSH and then a POM POM, and suddenly the glass on the TV illuminated. Then a black and white screen appeared. It was beautiful. It looked like a black-and-white blizzard of tiny little flurries. Then my dad turned the knob again and I couldn't believe my eyes… inside the box, captured behind the screen, were people dancing and moving about.

"Cómo es posible," I yelled out. How could it be? People from another time and place were on my TV. They were in my room. They were there with me. Talking to me. It was incredible.

With just the turn of a knob my world became bigger, greater, and louder. From that day forward, I kept those beautiful memories of my childhood in my head reminding me to explore more, feel more – and watch more TV!

Miya Mastrofini, 16
and grandfather Ganadev Sinha, 82, Ontario

Ears pricked in anticipation, a young Ganadev and his many cousins sit huddled together on one of Silchar's monsoon nights. They grin, knowing it's only a matter of time until – Thump! And again – Thump! Thump! The sound of the monsoon winds freeing ripe mangos from the trees outside. They race out, as their mothers protest. The kids return – soaking wet, but beaming with triumph. Sharing the fruit amongst themselves, Ganadev's chest swells. The coupling of sweet mango and the happy faces of his family creates a feeling he will remember for the rest of his life.

Time passes and higher education brings him 7,544 kilometers away to England. It was a worry-free life; lots of cricket and travel. After six vibrant years, he emerges with an engineering degree, and a love for The Beatles.

But at 25 years old, he knows he must return home to India. He gets a job, and takes on more responsibility. He starts a family of his own – he has two kids.

Work draws him away again; 2,384 km and a lucrative job in Oman. It's exciting, full of parties and vacations. However, home calls, with better schooling for his children.

But schools in India are socially competitive places. He looks 11,462 km away to Canada, so his children may have the independence to grow up without fear of failure. And so he starts anew, age 50, looking for a home and work in an unfamiliar place.

34 years later, he sits with his granddaughter, his children grown and successful. That feeling he had so many years ago with the mango tree is back. That feeling of being surrounded by people he loves. So many kilometers and travels, and Ganadev has finally found a place to put down roots.

Sigal Cutler, 13
and grandmother Talma Nassim, 72, New York

When Talma was seven years old, her family moved from Israel to Iran. It was a different life than she was used to: three floors up while she was used to being on the first, an unfamiliar language to learn.

While settling into her new home, Talma looked out the window to see a girl around her age riding a bike that she immediately longed to take for a spin. She called out to her mother that she was off to ask this girl for a try. When Talma reached the little girl in the street, their language barrier suddenly came into play. Motioning with her hands, she tried to sign out her request for a go at it. The girl agreed, and Talma peddled down the street and back to the girl who was waiting for her.

Talma and Parvin played together day after day, alternating riding up and down the street, over and over without saying a single word they could both understand.

Once Talma mastered speaking Persian, they learned things about each other. Talma was seven, while Parvin was eight. Talma lived in an apartment, while Parvin resided in a house. Talma was Jewish, while Parvin was not. Despite their apparent differences, they stayed best friends, spending every moment they could together.

The girls were thankful that they never let their language barrier stop them from becoming friends, because part of their stories would be missing without the memories they made together.

Talma and Parvin grew up, started their own families, and moved to the US at different times. But they made sure to stay in touch. Over sixty-five years later, Parvin and Talma are still close friends and reminisce about their lively times together that will never be forgotten.



Listen to a Life Story Contest GTB EcoLegacy Award

Maya Thiru, 11
and grandfriend Beatrice Olivastri, 72, Ontario

One summer morning in the 1960s, in the small town of Chatham, lived a teenage girl.

She woke up eager to start the day, and headed out onto the farm with her siblings. She was ready to help her mother, who grew up on a farm and now, with her own family, harvested and canned many fruits and vegetables. She picked delicious strawberries and tomatoes from the fields while her siblings joined in.

Suddenly, her mother deeply inhaled, put down her basket, and sat down on the grass. The girl put down her harvesting tools and went towards her mother. "Mother, what's wrong? Are you okay?" she asked.

Her mother inhaled once more. "I'm fine. I just feel a little unwell. I'm going to take a quick break inside the barn."

The girl nodded and headed back to the berry patches.

A few years later, the girl found out what happened to her mother on the farm. It was due to harmful pesticides that were used by many people. The effects of these pesticides weren't known to most people until years later. The girl also found out that her father was getting sick due to chemicals he used for his dry-cleaning business.

The girl was upset about how the pesticides had affected her mother and how chemicals hurt her dad. She was shocked that products like these were used on farms and in businesses, small and large. So, she decided to stand up for the rights of people and our environment.

Now, 60 years later, that girl is a changemaker. She is the voice of our planet. She makes this world a better place every day, and she is my biggest inspiration. Her name is Beatrice Olivastri, CEO of Friends of the Earth Canada.