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Listen to a Life Contest
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Listen to a Life Contest Grand Prize Winner
Congratulations to Alexandra Matthews, 14,
and her grandmother InSook Carlin, 80
Listen to a Life Story Contest Grand Prize Winner

Alexandra is a grade 8 student at Columbia Middle School in Berkeley Heights, NJ. She's interested in a variety of activities including skiing, music, swimming, and painting. She enjoys writing "because I can express myself in different ways." Interviewing her grandmother and writing the contest entry gave Alexandra insight into her grandmother's perseverance and strength; she has always admired her grandmother.

Donna Marcy, a Grade 8 English Teacher, has entered her students in the Listen to a Life Story Contest for many years. The contest is integrated into her curriculum. She's seen firsthand how the contest genuinely connects generations and how much students learn about the lives of grandparents and grandfriends. Even when students enter with a grandparent they're close to, the interview and writing process strengthens the relationship and brings it to a different level. Donna notes that often sports get all the attention; a contest like this one gives students interested in writing a chance to also be recognized.

Here's Alexandra's winning entry…

"Wake up, my darling. It is time to go."

My grandmother, 13 at the time, threw off her covers, stumbled out of bed, grabbed her bag and ran after her father. Her siblings followed, all ready to leave their home. "Goodbye, mother. We will see each other again."

As InSook kissed her mother's cheek, she felt a warm tear brush her lips. "Be strong, my daughter." Those words have never left my grandmother.

Now 80, my grandmother lives in New York, traveling to see her family, enjoying the life she has built. This does not mean she forgets her past. At night, when the rain pounds hard on her windows, she remembers her life as a child in North Korea. She would sit around the dinner table silent until spoken to, and help her mother clean and cook. She also remembers fleeing her childhood home. The experience scarred my grandma, leaving a permanent mark.

That night back in North Korea, my grandmother was forced to push herself to lengths no child should have to. Her family scaled a metal fence, and ran away from their community. Racing to a waiting boat my great-grandfather had procured, they met a river. When InSook swims, she can hear the crash of the water on the shore and the cold water slowly filling her lungs. That is why my grandmother does not swim.

Years have passed. My grandma lives the life she was always meant to live, with her children and grandchildren. Those scars fade as each day goes by, but some experiences will never leave my grandmother. The rushing tides, the choppy waters, and the never leaving, but fading, scars.

I will never forget what my great-grandmother said to my grandmother, "Be strong, my daughter." She is strong, indeed.

Listen to a Life Contest Legacy Award Winners
Mollie Chalberg, 16, and grandfather Frank Chalberg, 79, Minnesota


The lake was quiet, just how Frank liked it. He cast out his line into the water and sat down, waiting for fish to bite. The water and sky were calm, the best weather you could hope for. The only storm that existed was his father.

Frank's father, Lawrence, was a strict man; working on the railroad during the day and drinking every night. Lawrence abused his son and alcohol. Frank received beatings he didn't deserve, but couldn't do anything about.

At the age of seventy-nine, my grandpa vividly recalls childhood memories. His eyes watered as he told shocking stories, leaving me wondering how a father could treat his son this way. When Frank was a boy, he found a passion for fishing – an outlet for his emotions. The lake was where he would go when he was desperate to be completely alone; where silence replaced screams.

He will always remember his uncle being his hero, giving him strength to look forward to a bright future, and promising things would get better as time went on. And they did.

At twenty-four, Frank fell in love with the beautiful girl down the road in Culver, Minnesota. When he met Carol, he opened the door and his heart to her; in 1961, they were happily married. Frank's life brightened with three children, five grandchildren, and fifty-five years of marriage.

Frank came from a harsh environment, but he never let it get to him. Ever. But he couldn't have done it alone. He thanks his uncle for strength, his fishing for silence, and his wife for love. My grandpa inspires me, saying no matter where you come from or what your past was like, it's your choice whether or not you let it determine your future.

Morgan Behrend, 10, and grandmother Darlene Smith, 62, Wisconsin


My grandma has always focused her life around loving and caring for others. When she was younger, her family wasn't very wealthy. My grandma, her four brothers and two sisters didn't get many items for Christmas. They usually only got a few nuts, and other small things in their stockings.

That was all she needed to be happy.

One year, my grandma's dad took her Christmas shopping for her siblings. They could only shop in the clearance aisles. After they checked out the items, someone stole the bag. The kids didn't get many items that Christmas either.

That was all she needed to be grateful.

Another year, my grandma noticed that her dad was secretly making something. She was used to not getting many presents, so she didn't think it would be anything for her or any of her siblings. My grandma was very curious so she asked her dad what he was making, and he told her it was a window. Finally it was Christmas, and the "window" was revealed – which was actually a chalkboard for the kids! Everyone that Christmas was happy, and no one took that present for granted.

That was all she needed to be thankful.

My grandma would play house when she was younger. She would pretend to be a nurse, and construct nurse hats out of old newspapers. My grandma didn't have the dress-up clothes like I do, but that didn't matter.

That was all she needed to be joyful.

Even though she wasn't very wealthy with money, she still had a lot. My grandma knew that material items were not as important as her relationships and memories throughout her life.

That was all she needed to be rich in heart.

Vaishnavi Vasudevan, 12, and
grandmother Ramraj Chelliah, 76, Texas


Imagine early 20th-century India, with a system of socioeconomic segregation, also known then as the "caste system." Outcasts, the "untouchables," always did the crudest of work; other classes did not want to be seen near them.

One day, a girl decided to go with her heart against this social divide. That was my grandmother.

On a hot, summer day, my eight-year-old grandmother was walking to school and noticed how some of her classmates would come to school looking hungry and pale. She passed this thought off, thinking it was nothing. Later during lunch, she noticed her friends didn't eat more than an old banana, and maybe a small roti, Indian bread. She pitied them, and decided she would do something about it. That afternoon, after classes were over, she invited them to her home and offered them food.

When she brought her classmates over, her parents realized that they were of the "untouchables" caste. My grandmother's parents were worried about what their daughter's actions would do to their reputation, so they decided to stay out of it.

My grandmother fed her friends well, and saw the smiles on their faces as they ate. She, at the time, thought what she had done was just a normal act. But, as she grew older, she realized she had overcome the long-used caste system.

After her friends left, her parents realized what she had accomplished. They realized how being unaware of the system allowed their daughter to do great things to help her community, without the selfish weight of a ruined reputation overpowering her selfless actions.

I asked my grandmother what she learned from this experience. She replied, "Letting society define the limits of what you can do limits how much you can do to help those around you."

Ilana Hutzler, 14, and grandmother Linda Stewart, 73, Florida


For as long as I can remember, my grandmother has told me, "It's always important to be Jewish." When I was younger, I assumed she simply meant that I had to go to temple on the holidays. But the more I talked to her, the more I realized how important Judaism is to my grandmother.

Linda Stewart was raised in the small town of Warren, Pennsylvania. There was a sign that read, "15,505 friendly people welcome you to Warren." Out of these 15,505 people, only 30 families belonged to the synagogue. Being Jewish wasn't a simple feat. Since they could not afford a full-time rabbi, the shamas led the services except on particular holidays.

However, this struggle to be Jewish brought the congregation closer together. On Sukkot, a Jewish harvest festival, it is customary to shake the lulav and the etrog. An etrog is a lemon-like fruit, and the lulav is a collection of palm, willow, and myrtle branches. To uphold this tradition, the shamas would visit all of the Jewish families at their homes to shake the lulav and the etrog.

One of the hardest parts of upholding their religion was keeping kosher. Most large supermarkets today carry kosher foods, or foods that abide by Jewish regulations. However, the nearest kosher market to Warren was in Pittsburgh, four hours away. On every trip to Pittsburgh, they would buy an entire half cow to hold them over until the next visit.

Admirably, this struggle did not hinder their devotion. My grandmother still describes getting dressed up in shiny, new shoes and a new dress each Passover.

My grandmother taught me to uphold my values, no matter how difficult it may be. Although it is easy today, I will always remember how important it is to be Jewish.

Danielle Barry, 18, and grandfather Richard Barry, 87, Missouri

I was always known as grandpa's girl. My grandpa has shared many of his life experiences with me. He shared the good and the bad stories so that I may learn from him.

My favorite story is a love story. It was between 1940 and 1950 when my grandpa was in the army. He left his sister and girlfriend behind to be in the military.

One night, he and a few of his buddies had a free night. They decided to go to the roller rink at the town they were in. They got on their skates and they were about to enter the rink. That is when my grandpa saw this beautiful girl. When he saw her across the skating rink he leaned over to one of his buddies and told him that he was going to marry that girl. Of course his friend thought he was joking. His buddy reminded my grandpa of the girl he had at home. My grandpa didn't listen. He knew there was something about the girl at the rink that was different, but he didn't even know her name.

So my grandpa went over and started talking to her. That night he wrote a letter to his girlfriend at home telling her that it wasn't going to work out with them. He knew the girl at the rink was the one he was going to marry.

A few weeks later he sold his Harley Davidson motorcycle and bought a ring. My grandpa and grandma were together for a little over 50 years before she passed away.

Now my grandpa is in the last stage of Alzheimer's disease. He couldn't tell you what day it is or even what year it is, but he can still tell you the date he got married.

Reed Alexander, 10, and grandfather Kyle Alexander, 63, Wisconsin

In 1964, my Grandpa Kyle was eleven years old. He played baseball every summer and watched professional games. One of his favorite hobbies was collecting baseball cards. He had collected a lot already, but he was trying to get all of his favorite players.

One afternoon, he rode his bike to the store where he got his cards. When he got there, the shelf was bare. If the stock was out, he would ride to the big IGA grocery store. In the smaller store, they kept the baseball cards right by the cashier. But at the bigger IGA, they had longer aisles; the cards were hidden from the cashier's eyes.

At the time, he really wanted a Mickey Mantle card. It was one of the few he didn't have. He walked back to the aisle with the baseball cards, praying that he would find it. When he got there, packs were strewn all over. Some kid had been digging through them. One pack was wide open. On top was the Mickey Mantle card!

My Grandpa's younger self looked around. The cashiers couldn't see him and there was absolutely nobody in the aisle. It was just one card. He could just put it in his pocket and act like nothing happened. That's the card he really wanted and it was only an arm's length away.

He wrestled with the question, "Should I take it?" He wanted to grab it. But he didn't. Instead, he walked out, upset with himself, mad that for those few seconds he had thought about stealing it. He left the card there, sitting on top of the pack.

What he learned from this experience was that, even if nobody is watching, and you could do something without getting caught, you still need to listen to your conscience.

Miriam Rokowsky, 10, and grandfriend Sara Cohen, 75, Ohio

I got to know Grandma Cohen through frequent visits to my house. Grandma Cohen is an elderly woman who would tell me many stories about her life while my mother would serve her cake and coffee during her visits. Grandma Cohen is not my grandmother, but I feel like her grandchild.

While Grandma Cohen was pursuing her career, she met her husband, Dr. Steven Cohen, in a college class. She got married, settled in Cincinnati and later Cleveland. Together, they had eight children! While she spent most of her days and nights taking care of her family, she continued to work in her field of medical technology.

Grandma Cohen lived the life she dreamed of, for many years, until one morning, as she crossed the street outside of her home, she was hit by a car and seriously injured. At first she was in a coma for weeks and the doctors did not know if she would survive. Slowly, she awoke and began a long and difficult recovery. She worked so hard to regain her abilities. With much support and help from her close family and friends, she became more and more independent.

Though she could no longer work and the accident permanently affected her brain, especially concentration and memory, she never let this discourage her. She spends her time focusing on all the positive parts of her life, especially her loving husband and children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She studies religion and reads many books.

Grandma Cohen loves helping other people. She volunteers at community events whenever she can. My mother met Grandma Cohen at a charity event to benefit sick and elderly people. I am so glad that my mother started inviting Grandma Cohen to our home because she has taught me so many wonderful lessons.

Jack Raiz, 10, and grandmother, Phyllis Bruno, 61, New Jersey

My nonna has always been a special person in my life. I never knew that at my age, she lost someone very special. At the age of 11, my nonna suddenly lost her father. It was a real game changer in her life; it created challenges she could never have imagined.

At first she couldn't overcome it. It took years for her to realize that she could be either a victim or a victor. She chose victor! She said to herself, "This is your life; make a choice to make it better, because no one else will."

She did face great challenges though. When her friends were hanging out or playing sports, she worked to help save money for clothes, or extra things she wanted. She was impressively tough. She never cried about the things she couldn't afford. While her friends went to fancy stores, she was proud of her handmade prom dress. She says, "I never lost sight of the fact that as hard as life was at times, there was always someone who had it harder."

Understanding how important education is, my nonna managed to pay her own way through college and get a degree in education.

All of these experiences have made her the person she is today. Now she helps those who struggle because she has the ability to do so. When she started teaching she made a promise never to judge or assume anything about a student. She believed that every student should be treated with respect and deserved a fair shot. She has worked to instill in her children and grandchildren the priceless value of kindness and empathy for others, as you may never know their personal story.

Teigen Tremper, 16, and grandfather James (Jim) Mills, 89, Montana

"Look up at the moon," he said, and she did. And he kissed her. Behind the worn-down high school's peeling paint, mixed with the rambunctious whoops of a basketball game, underneath the moon, a boy kissed a girl as simply and tenderly as could be.

A boy, a troublemaker, wearing worn clothes, oldest of one of the poorest families in Endeavor, Wisconsin. A boy by the name of Jim Mills. That was the boy who kissed a girl.

A girl, a good student, youngest of thirteen, a farm girl with a respectable daddy and a brother playing basketball. A girl named Anita Grubba. This girl, kissed Jim Mills back.

"I do," he swallowed four years later. And she kissed him, again. Being stirred around on the windy church rectory steps, punctuated with the clapping and joy of family, avoiding the doubts of her parents wondering how long they would last, Jim Mills kissed her back. On March 24, 1945 he kissed her to become a husband. In October, 1945 he kissed her to leave.

"I love you," she said. And he said it back before he left on a bus that smelled like old cigarettes that led to boot camp. Years tore themselves across his back, but wherever Jim was stationed she followed. From Virginia, Brooklyn, Puerto Rico, sometimes spending months apart. "We made it through by keeping in contact through letters, and loving each other."

74 years since that first kiss, he is sitting, smiling, a few feet from her. Gone is the poor boy, the distance apart, and any doubts. He sits in a home that smells like fresh bread and love, with 89 years worn on his skin, and everything to show for it. "Loving each other is the most important family tradition."

Isabel Considine Hogben, 8, and
grandmother Donna Jean Hogben, 76, California


Medicine can perform miracles. That's how I met my grandmother.

Two years before I was born, my grandmother only had three months to live. She had a disease in her lungs. Her hair was graying, she was very pale, and she had to breathe with an oxygen tank.

In 2005, in the middle of my uncle's birthday, a nurse called my grandma during the party. They had found a lung donor. Someone died, and they took his lungs, froze them in a cooler, and flew them in a helicopter to a hospital in New York City. In the middle of the party, my grandparents left, and my grandfather drove my grandma right there.

She had to be brave. Everyone was extremely worried. Sometimes a patient's body rejects the new lungs immediately. Upstairs in the operating room, the doctors gave her a spinal anesthetic. "They kept me mentally occupied," she said, by talking to her till she fell asleep with soothing words.

Dr. Joshua Sonnett performed the surgery. He cut a hole in my grandmother's chest, took out her lungs very quickly, put in the new lungs, and stitched up her skin. Then she rested for a long time.

Her body accepted the two new lungs. The surgery was successful. Everyone was so relieved!

In order to recover, she had to work hard. She had to be active and walk up and down the hospital halls even when she was weak and didn't want to.

It's been ten years since my grandmother got her new lungs. She is alive and well, and she got to meet me when I was born two years after the surgery. When I asked her what she learned, she said, "Medicine can perform miracles. I met my granddaughter!"

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