"The ground shakes, churches, buildings, hospitals and homes fall to the ground like popsicle sticks ... angry Earth brings death with every crack and with every crack the stolen generation falls. The children whine, the children cry, the children die."
Ayanna Besson, of Lakeview, wrote these words in memory of the many people, including some of her own relatives, who were impacted by the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. Her poem, titled "Do You Hear Us?" (Click on the video above to hear the full poem.) recently won a gold medal at a national competition hosted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Besson and three other Lakeview teens -- Kai Lancaster, Denzel McKenzie and Sophia Powell -- competed against more than 500 students from around the country in this year's Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics, held in Texas in early July. Known as the "Olympics of the Mind," the program highlights high school students who demonstrate talents in various areas of the sciences, the arts, and business.
Phyllis Tinsley, co-chair of the Nassau-Suffolk NAACP, explained that the ACT-SO program was started nearly 30 years ago by civil rights activist Vernon Jarette.
"He had a vision. He wanted to have an Olympics ... and he saw this vision with our young, black kids in our communities," Tinsley said. "They are young, they are gifted and black, the cream of the crop."
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To qualify for the competition, each teen had to win a gold medal at the Long Island ACT-SO contest held in mid-April in their respective categories (Besson in Poetry, Lancaster in Dance, McKenzie in Contemporary Music Instrumental, and Powell in Medicine and Health).
Besson, who recently graduated from Long Island Lutheran High School at the top of her class and will be attending Susquehanna University in the fall to study biology and fine arts, was not the only local student to medal in Texas.
Powell, a Uniondale High School graduate, won a silver for her project, which she explained, analyzes a component found in curry. "I'm working on that as a potential cure for food allergies," says Powell, who is bound for Union College, where she will study biomedical engineering.
The four Lakeview teens also traveled to Texas with two other contestants from Long Island's Town of Islip NAACP Branch, Nayram Gasu, a Brentwood High School graduate headed to the University of Albany; and Krystal McLeod, a graduate of St. John the Baptist High School who will study political science and international relations at New York University. Gasu earned a silver medal at the national competition in poetry, and McLeod, a bronze in oratory for an original piece she wrote.
"It was basically about how discrimination and prejudice is plaguing our society and what we out to do to make a difference," said McLeod of her piece, which told the story of a young girl who committed suicide because she was constantly bullied for looking different. (Watch her perform the piece by clicking on the video above.)
The contestants worked for months to perfect their projects and were provided mentors to coach them along the way. Through fundraising efforts, the Nassau-Suffolk NAACP was also able to pay for all the students' travel expenses and for McKenzie to stay a few extra days to participate in the rest of the NAACP's national convention as a youth delegate.
This opportunity allowed the rising senior to network with his peers from around the world, including many already in college, learn more about issues affecting African Americans and hear from some famous people such as Vice President Joe Biden, presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Judge Joe Brown.
"The main theme of the convention was 'Your Power, Your Decision.' It was geared to increase voter turnout on election day," McKenzie explained.
"It was a lot of fun," he added. "It turned out to be a great experience."
All the medal winners also received an iPad, courtesy of State Farm Insurance, and scholarships that ranged from $1,000 to $2,000.
It's already time to start thinking about the 2013 ACT-SO competition. If you'd like to learn more about how your son or daughter can enter, contact Phyllis Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.