Young offenders compete in talks about overcoming adversity

Juveniles win prizes, applause with speeches in Maryland high court

November 24, 2009|By Andrea F. Siegel | Baltimore Sun reporter

One by one, the dozen teenagers ambled up to the podium Monday, looked nervously around the filled courtroom and cleared their throats.

Then, each delivered a brief speech about overcoming challenges and facing controversy, in the 15th annual oratorical contest for youths in the care of the Department of Juvenile Services.

"I didn't come here to win first place," said Ricky, as the group waited for results of the judging. "I came here to show appreciation for my dad. ... I love you, Mom and Dad."

But he did win first place, describing his father as someone who "has a heart to help and a mind to succeed."

As Ricky spoke, his father wept. Ricky told the crowd that his father spent 12 years in a maximum security prison and then turned his life around.

Inspired by his wife, who now owns a vocational school, Ricky's father became a successful businessman, founded a nonprofit boxing center for his community and is the consummate family man.

"My dad, he is the ultimate man," Ricky said outside the courtroom.

The Baltimore Sun is not identifying the youths, who are juvenile offenders.

The competition, run by Juvenile Services and the state Department of Education, allows the teenagers to air personal thoughts on a theme, which this year was prompted by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words on the importance of how one faces challenge and controversy.

"They get the opportunity to express themselves on a topic in a place where they would have no opportunity to do it - except under other circumstances," said Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals.

The contest takes place in the high court's courtroom, lending a formal atmosphere. Those who participated Monday were finalists at internal competitions at their residential facilities, and all received trophies.

The youths said they worked steadily for more than a week to write, rewrite and practice their speeches. Some said they were surprised how much thought and work went into a talk that lasted just a few minutes.

Subjects focused heavily on love of family, the realization that the sometimes felonious lifestyle glorified by rappers isn't so great, and personal achievement.

"I went over it like 100,000 times," Wayne said of his talk, in which his widowed mother, who is HIV-positive, was the centerpiece.

"She's my biggest hero and doesn't let her illness get in the way of being the best parent she can be, considering she's a single mom," he told the audience.

Afterward, his mother said she did not know until Monday morning that she was in his speech alongside King, light bulb inventor Thomas Edison and Abraham Lincoln.

The examples that all of them set have inspired him to succeed over adversity, Wayne said.

"I will be the master of my future," he said.

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