HUDSON – A Hudson High School senior’s essay on her experiences with discrimination and how she faced it won her a $40,000 scholarship. 

Leah Messemer’s writing was selected as the grand prize winner in the "Stop the Hate" essay contest, sponsored by the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. She found out Thursday morning in a surprise presentation done at her home when she was told that her essay was the winner. The morning included balloons, a visit from several staff members from the Hudson schools, and a check presentation, all of which was recorded on video and posted online.

"I was really surprised," said Leah. "I was told they were supposed to be calling all the finalists to tell them about the prizes. My parents were in it, they were told I was in final four."

The contest has students in grades six and older to to write about discrimination they may have seen or experienced, and how they worked to combat it.

In addition to Leah’s award, the high school was given a $5,000 Anti-Bias Education Grant.

Leah said she plans to go to University of Southern Mississippi this fall to study forensic biology and microbiology.

In her essay, Leah described obstacles she faces due to hearing impairment. She said doctors who diagnosed her in fifth grade never determined why she started to lose her hearing.

"I discovered the bitter taste of discrimination when I initially tried out for travel volleyball," Leah wrote. "My hearing aids drew stares from players and coaches. Wordlessly, without evaluating my ability, the coaches led me to the farthest court and ignored me. Determined to make a team the following year, I decided to try out without wearing my hearing aids and my strategy worked."

Once she made the team, Leah wrote that she "proudly wore my hearing aids and gained the acceptance of my coaches and peers." However, she still ran into difficulties at times.

"During a volleyball game, a referee singled me out, yelling at me to remove my earrings," Leah wrote. "I patiently explained to him that these were hearing aids and I was entitled to wear them just like other players were entitled to wear their glasses."

Leah said in her essay that the "most shocking event" occurred one day in class.

"A teacher was asking students about their college plans," Leah said. "When my turn came I eagerly stated I planned to study forensic biology and later forensic pathology. ‘Well like that’s going to really happen,’ she snarled, ridiculing me in front of the class. Since I am an honors student, I was stunned by her response."

Leah said she learned to advocate not only for herself but for others. She volunteers for the Dane Foundation and Ms. Wheelchair USA, both organizations that support individuals with disabilities. She also is a hearing loss ambassador for her school.

"I visit younger students with hearing loss to give them a role model and to show they are not alone," Leah said.

Leah, who has studied American Sign Language for three years, plans to become a certified interpreter.

"I hope that people realize that those who are hard of hearing or deaf, they want to be treated the same as everyone else," Leah said. "Don’t treat us differently."

Intervention specialist Sandy Procaccio said that she has known Leah since fifth grade.

"Leah is a young woman who knows her mind," Procaccio said. "She has good plans for the future. She loves life. She’s not only a hard-working student but she is empathetic and compassionate to others. She is a well-rounded young lady."

Procaccio said she is glad teachers encouraged Leah to participate in the competition.

"She took it to heart and wrote a very powerful and very moving essay about the experiences she has had," Procaccio said.

Jamie Kosmin, one of Leah’s service learning teachers, said that this year Leah volunteered at Urban Vision, an after-school program mostly for the immigrant population in downtown Akron, and at Gardens at Liberty Park, a retirement home in Streetsboro.

"She’s very hard-working dedicated, enthusiastic, and an outstanding community servant," Kosmin said. "She is a super sweet kid. As her essay shows, she is a talented writer with a story to share. I’m glad she was willing to do that. I think she’s a great representative of Hudson High School and a great representative of the service learning program."

Other Hudson awards

In addition to Leah’s grand prize, three sixth-graders from the Hudson schools took the top three spots for their grade levels.

Students Eric Robinson placed third, Guneet Karra, placed second, and the first-place winner of $400 was Annabel Green.

Cathy Kantin, who is Annabel’s teacher, said this is the third year her students have participated.

"The contest ties in perfectly with the Project Based Learning we integrate with tolerance and diversity in our sixth grade curriculum," Kantin said. "At the beginning of the year, we teach students diversity traits and appreciation of others who are different.

"Later, some of the areas we focus on are religious intolerance, apartheid, and the inability of girls in some cultures around the world to get a good education. My focus is participating in the contest is to give students a voice to be an agent of change in promoting tolerance in our society."

Kantin said that Annabel is "a stellar student, not only in social studies, but in all academic areas."

"She is good natured, an insightful thinker, and has a keen sense of humor," Kantin said.

Noor Sleik, an eighth grader at Hudson Montessori School, took second place in her grade in the contest. Noor is a member of the Model UN at her school, an active volunteer and donates backpacks to new immigrants and refugees. She said she would like to become a lawyer, and eventually President of the United States.

For details on the contest, see www.maltzmuseum.org/stop-the-hate/contest/ online.

April Helms can be reached at ahelms@recordpub.com