Students may enter this year’s Voices of Democracy competition by getting an entry form from the high school counseling office. Top prize is $30,000. The deadline is Oct. 30.

“Students compete by writing and recording an audio essay on the 2019-2020 theme: ‘What Makes America Great?’ Scholarship amounts vary in value but there is one grand national prize of $30,000,” said Karen Sharp, Fort Pierre. She is the auxiliary state president of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Her husband, Dennis, is the state commander.

About how many years has Voices been going on? “It was established in 1947. I have been involved with the program on the local, district, department (state) and national levels since 1992. I can’t say for sure, but my guess would be that South Dakota and Pierre VFW Post 2038 have been promoting the program since 1947.”

Is the theme different every year? “Yes. It is selected by the National VFW Commander. The themes are always patriotic in one way or another. It is always very interesting to see how each student approaches and develops the theme in their essay. Previous themes have been 2015 – Why Veterans Are Important To Our Nation’s History and Future; 2016 – My Vision for America; 2017 – My Responsibility To America; 2018 – Our Hope For The Future; and 2019 – Why My Vote Matters.”

Who are the judges? Each chairman on each level selects the judges. Some are VFW and Auxiliary members, teachers, speech or oral interp coaches, journalists, lawyers, judges, clergy, retirees, homemakers, etc. I always tried to get a diverse group. When my husband and I were chairmen on whatever level, we never judged. We found it more interesting to hear what the others who were judging thought of the essays, and didn’t want the appearance of any pressure from us as the chairmen. Judging criteria: Originality — 30 points (show imagination & human interest); Content — 35 points (clearly express ideas in an organized manner); Delivery — 35 points (Speak in a clear & credible manner).

What are the rules? Students in grades 9-12 are eligible. The students create a three- to five-minute essay, which they then make an audio version on a CD/flash drive. They also submit a typed version to the local participating VFW Post by the deadline.

When are the results? “The local entries are then judged, and the winner is forwarded to the District level, and that winner is submitted to the Department (state) level. The SD Department winner is announced the end of January during the SD VFW Legislative Conference in Pierre. There are five District level winners who are brought to Pierre for an awards luncheon and announcement of the winner during the Legislative Conference.”

How are the winners honored? “We bring the students in on Sunday evening, take them to supper and an evening of getting acquainted. Monday morning is usually spent touring the capitol building, meeting the Governor, Supreme Court Justice, possibly a tour of the DCI building, meeting the Attorney General. After the awards luncheon, we try to take the students back up to the capitol to be introduced in the House and Senate at the beginning of session. Former Attorney General Marty Jackley once said that it was a truly unique experience for the students to meet dignitaries from all three branches of our state government in one day.

About how the numbers: students and scholarships? ”Each year, nearly 40,000 9-12 grade students from across the county enter to win their share of more than $2 million in educational scholarships and incentives awarded through the program. The national first-place winner receives a $30,000 scholarship paid directly to the recipient’s university, college or vocational/technical school. The scholarships range $1,000-$16,000, plus the first-place $30,000. The first-place winner from each Department (state) wins a minimum scholarship of $1,000 and an all-expense paid trip to Washington D.C. Locally, VFW Post and Auxiliary 2038 gives a $200 scholarship to the local winner. We get entries from Riggs, Stanley County, Sully Buttes, formerly Harrold, and home-school students.

Who have your previous winners been? ”Without having to look through a lot of records, I can recall Betsy Valnes and Mary Johnson from Riggs as being local winners, and we have also had winners from Stanley County, Sully Buttes, Harrold and home-school students.”

Anything else you can add? “Working with the students and veterans with this program for almost 30 years has been extremely rewarding. The veterans continue to serve, and the students show us that we are going to be in good hands in the future,” said Sharp.

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