High school seniors Alejandra Huezo, of Bel Air, and Malik Tyler, of Joppatowne, were honored as the 2014 Humanitarian Award essay winners for Harford County Tuesday.
Alejandra, 18, and Malik, 17, were the respective first- and second-place winners in the writing contest, which is sponsored by the Harford County Human Relations Commission.
They were honored Tuesday during the county's annual Joseph Bond/Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Awards Luncheon, which was held at the Water's Edge Events Center in Belcamp.
Dr. King, who was assassinated in 1968, led the fight to end racial segregation for black Americans and establish legal civil rights protections.
The late Mr. Bond served as the head of the Harford County chapter of the NAACP and worked for racial equality in the county.
"These men were not simply dreamers," Sylvia Bryant, manager of the Office of Human Relations, said during her welcoming remarks for Tuesday's luncheon."They turned their ideas into actions."
Bryant asked the elected and appointed officials who attended to "take a few minutes" to speak with the contest winners.
"They are the 2014 Humanitarians for Harford County, and we want to encourage them and inspire them to continue the pursuit of their dreams," she said.
The high school seniors who entered the essay contest were asked to write about a quote from Dr. King: "We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation," contained in his historic "I Have a Dream" speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1963.
The contest entrants had to describe how they would improve their communities based on the sentiment expressed in Dr. King's quote.
"I completely agree with him, but opportunities don't fall from the sky," Alejandra said, reading from her first-place essay. "You need to work for them to happen."
The Bel Air High School student moved to the United States with her family from El Salvador several years ago and has lived in Harford County since 2012.
She wrote about how she took the challenge of dealing with the differences between the Salvadoran and American school systems, and turned it into an opportunity to learn.
"I took them as an encouragement," she said.
Alejandra said she told herself: "Now you can learn more about the culture; now you can pursue your happiness, your future."
She also wrote about dealing with her family's first move from El Salvador to Georgia and then from Georgia to Maryland.
"I was angry with my parents because they made me leave everything I was used to, again," she said of the move to Harford County. "I didn't like the idea of having to adapt to a new place for a second time."
Alejandra said she acclimated to the county through socializing and getting involved in school and community activities.
She volunteered with the LASOS Inc. nonprofit organization, whose name is short for Linking All So Others Succeed, which provides assistance to non-English-speaking families, as well as at-risk youths and literacy services for adults, according to the organization's website.
"I felt good there, helping those kids who reminded me of myself," she said.
Alejandra also worked as an intern with State Farm Insurance, where she learned to "develop a professional attitude."
"I will always encourage younger kids to follow their dreams, because everything can happen if you work for it to happen," she said.
Alejandra received $250 in scholarship money from the Human Relations Commission and was presented with an oversized check at the luncheon. Malik received $100, according to Bryant.
Malik, a student at Joppatowne High School, did not read his essay. He said afterward that it was about how the community could help young people who do not have both parents in their lives.
He said he wrote about "how I'm blessed to have both parents in my life."
Craig, Judge Curtin speak
Dr. King's quote about the "insufficient funds" also came up in opening remarks from County Executive David Craig and the luncheon's keynote speaker, Harford County Circuit Court Judge Yolanda L. Curtin, the first Hispanic to sit on the Harford County Circuit bench.
Curtin, a native of Cuba and resident of Jarrettsville, joined the court in November.
Craig introduced her, and touched on Dr. King's quote in his remarks.
"He [King] didn't just mean money," Craig said. "He meant people . . . he meant us as people, that we need to work together to make sure the citizens can have what all of us can have."
Curtin was born in Cuba in 1966; her parents fled the Communist regime of Fidel Castro to seek better opportunities for her and her sister.
The family moved to Spain, and later settled in Nevada. Her father died when they were living in Las Vegas. Her mother took her two small children and moved to New Jersey, where she later remarried.
Curtin reflected on the community she was raised in.
"In this community I was reminded every day of the value of receiving an education, and that challenges in life should never be viewed as obstacles, but rather as opportunities, opportunities to make things better not just for me but for others," she said.
She also reflected on the many mentors she has met during her legal career, who "embodied the words that Dr. King shared on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; they made me believe in the endless opportunities for me, and they too helped me realize my potential."
Curtin said she works to carry on the tradition of mentorship.
"If I can inspire and help at least one other person to seek out the many wonderful opportunities our nation and community has to offer, and they in turn inspire and help others to do the same, then I have had a quite small but quite meaningful role in ensuring that Dr. King's dream continues to live on," she said.
Other events honoring Dr. King
The Harford County branch of the NAACP is hosting its ninth annual Martin Luther King Celebration titled "A Legacy of Service," at Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace on Monday, Jan. 20, the official Martin Luther King Holiday. The event will honor the late former South African President and activist Nelson Mandela.
The breakfast will begin at 8:15 a.m. with a program following. Rabbi Gila Ruskin will be the speaker at the event. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children under 12. For tickets call 443-528-5036
The Harford County alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. is hosting a day of service to honor King by serving chili lunch on Saturday, Jan. 18, at Welcome One Shelter in Belcamp. The service day begins at 11:30 a.m.
Libraries honor Dr. King
Harford County libraries are also joining in the observance of Dr. King's birthday.
The Edgewood branch is hosting MLK Day Trivia on Wednesday, Jan. 15, the civil rights leader's birthday, for elementary school age children.
The branch will continue its Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration into February, Black History Month, with a living history presentation by Bill Grimmette "The Olde Storyteller," said Pam Taylor, assistant branch manager at the Edgewood library.
Participants will hear stories about Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass and other black leaders.
The Aberdeen branch is hosting an "I Have A Dream" story time on Sunday, Jan. 19, from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.
The story time is open to all ages, said Conni Strittmatter, librarian at the Aberdeen branch. She said librarians will read different books about King or his ideas and ideals discussed in his "I Have A Dream" speech.
Afterward, participants will use crafts to create "their dream for the world," Strittmatter said.