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EMS Student Wins Essay Competition

Laura LeshajAn Eastchester Middle School student was recognized for her writing skills and civic-mindedness this week, as eighth grader Laura Leshaj was announced as the winner of the 6th Annual Lifting Up Westchester Student Essay Contest.


On March 14, Leshaj learned that her submission, “The Importance of Mental Health,” had taken home the top-prize in the county-wide event, a development that came as something of a surprise to the middle schooler. 


“I love reading and writing and I think I’ve always been a pretty good writer,” said Leshaj. “But I was really shocked and happy to find out that I had won, because I’ve never really won anything like this before.”


Lifting Up Westchester is a local organization that works on behalf of those who have lost housing or access to basic needs. Their annual competition is open to Westchester students, grades 7-12. This year, the assignment tasked entrants to reflect on the connections and misperceptions associated with homelessness and mental health. Leshaj’s essay touched on alarming statistics regarding homelessness on a global scale, and how the stereotyping of homeless individuals can often exacerbate already dire situations.


Her advice? Look beyond the stereotypes and try to put yourself in others’ shoes. 

“One thing I found doing my research is that many people are not likely to listen to a homeless person’s story or give them a chance,” she said. “So to put that knowledge in front of people is so important.”


Thomas Pfingst, the school-wide guidance counselor at EMS, applauded Leshaj’s essay and said that her heartfelt submission exemplified the ideals that middle school faculty and administration hope to instill in students during their three years at the school.


“It was absolutely incredible, it’s a message that I hope strikes a chord,” said Pfingst. “Empathy is such an important thing in this world and to see Laura speak so deeply to that really means a lot.”


Leshaj’s accomplishment, which earned her a $500 prize, will be recognized at the Lifting Up Westchester Awards Ceremony and Luncheon, which is scheduled for Sunday, March 26. But the eighth grader admitted that while the accolades are nice, her true intention was to shine a light on an often-ignored situation and inspire others to reflect on their own biases. 


“Empathy is key because each generation learns from the one before it,” she said. “My goal was to get people to realize how important that is.”