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D.A.R.E. Essay Winners Recognized

Gabriel Benjamin brought the audience to its feet — and a tear to the eyes of his listeners — after reading his award-winning essay at the 12th annual D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) recognition program May 15 at the Dalton Convention Center.

“I will never do drugs because of all I have lost, and I hope you won’t either,” the Tunnel Hill Elementary fifth-grader wrote in his essay. “I am lucky to have a father who chose me over drugs, but I know there are some children who are put into foster homes with strangers and will never see their real family ever again because of drugs, either because they can’t quit or they’re in jail for a very long time.”

Benjamin’s essay was honored as the best out of the hundreds written by this year’s D.A.R.E. graduates from 13 elementary schools in Whitfield County.

“Can you imagine the courage that it takes to write an essay like this when you’re 10 years old?” emcee Terry Phelps asked the audience after listening to Benjamin read his essay. “Wow! Great job!”

Benjamin (who has since turned 11 in February) and the other school-level winners were recognized and treated to a buffet lunch by the Kiwanis Club of Dalton and the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office.

As first-place winner for the county, Benjamin received a wooden plaque and a $100 cash prize. Arianna Garcia of Westside, the second-place winner and recipient of a plaque and $50 cash, was not able to attend the program because she has transferred to a school in another county. Tina Quintanilla of Cedar Ridge received a plaque and $20 cash for her third-place essay.

Other school-level winners who were recognized during the program — with family, school officials and Kiwanians looking on — included:

  • Amaya Cruz, Eastside
  • Rachel Mason, Cohutta
  • Rylie Pinson, Pleasant Grove
  • Shea Poe, Beaverdale
  • Sandra Ramirez, Varnell
  • Litzy Reyes, Dawnville
  • Danahi Reza, Dug Gap
  • Abby Stanley, Antioch
  • Tristyn Sutton, New Hope
  • Octavia Woodward, Valley Point

E’lan Watson, who won the D.A.R.E. essay contest in 2010 while at Varnell Elementary, returned to talk about how D.A.R.E. has continued to influence her life, even as she is slated to graduate from The Baylor School in Chattanooga this month and head to Auburn University in the fall where she plans a double major in Spanish and business analytics.

“This time seven years ago I was sitting in this room about to read my D.A.R.E. essay for the county competition,” Watson recalled. “When I won I was of course overwhelmed with feelings of pride and joy and excitement because I accomplished something that was so important to me. I wanted to win primarily because my older sister won two years before me.

“But now I realize that my D.A.R.E. experience was much more than a contest,” she said. “D.A.R.E. has been an extremely important part of my life. It’s more than a program about substance abuse; it teaches important life skills like decision-making. It has completely altered the way I make decisions and approach situations.”

Jarrod Wright, a student at Southeast Whitfield High School, spoke about his role as a state representative for the youth advisory board for the D.A.R.E. program and offered words of encouragement to the fifth-graders.

“As you go through your life, things will get tough and you’ve got to make sure that just because you wrote an essay doesn’t mean that you’re automatically drug free,” Wright said. “You have to make that promise to yourself and keep going with it all the way through your whole life, really.”

Sheriff Scott Chitwood said that during the past 26 years, the D.A.R.E. program has reached more than 26,000 youngsters.

“As I said at graduation, are we making a difference? I think so because if we save one life, that was worth it,” he said.

The sheriff thanked Whitfield County Schools Superintendent Judy Gilreath and the schools for allowing the D.A.R.E. instructors to come onto their campuses and teach the D.A.R.E. program. He praised the school-level winners, saying “these are products of the Whitfield County school system. These are outstanding young men and women, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

D.A.R.E. instructor Sgt. Tammy Silvers said the program “is all about the kids, and them putting forth that effort and making that commitment to us that they’re going to stay drug free and they’re going to make good choices in their lives. That’s going to lead to a good track in life.”

(Editor’s note: This essay, which was judged best out of hundreds written by Whitfield County fifth-graders who took part in the D.A.R.E. program, was written by Gabriel Benjamin of Tunnel Hill Elementary. It is run unedited.)

By Gabriel Benjamin

My name is Gabriel Benjamin. I am 10 years old. I know drugs are bad because I have lived with them. This is a 5 paragraph essay about Drugs, Bullying, and Responsibility.

My father and mother were addicted to methamphetamine for a long time. During this time they lost everything including me. I was 3 years old when my mother and father split up. My dad wanted to stop taking drugs and my mom didn’t so she took me and we moved to an apartment. She had a boyfriend who sold drugs living with us, and social services came and took me away from her and placed me with my aunt Mary for almost 4 years.

In this time my dad was trying to get clean and do what the court system wanted him to do to get me back. It took him 2 years to complete the steps. That included legitimization or proving I was his through DNA testing, going through parenting classes and nurturing classes, DUI School, and completing his probation. In this time I couldn’t see my dad unless I was with my aunt to visit but he moved next door to me and every day I got off the bus I’d sneak over and visit him until my aunt got home from work, then I’d run around the house across the field to her house. Sometimes I’d get in trouble.

My dad loves me and is a good dad. He did everything he had to do to get me back and now has full and permanent custody and I live with him and my new mom.

I’ve only seen my real mom once in 6 years. She tells me she loves me but won’t get clean for me or to see me. The last I heard she was living in abandoned houses until I saw her at Walmart. She was really skinny and couldn’t hold still and made no sense when she talked.

I will never do drugs because of all I have lost and I hope you won’t either. I am lucky to have a father who chose me over drugs but I know there are children who are put into foster homes with strangers and will never see their real family ever again because of drugs, either because they can’t quit or they’re in jail for a very long time.

My dad said drugs give you a false sense of reality. You feel great when you’re doing them and don’t care about anything except getting more of the drug. You stay up for days and begin to hallucinate and see things from your mind shutting down. You lose a lot of weight and some people look like skeletons with skin. The drug can change the rhythm of your heartbeat forever, your heart can explode in your chest also, and affect you having children in the future.

Have you ever had the feeling that you were being made fun of and being bullied? Well I’ve had the same feeling. This paragraph is about bullying. The definition of bullying is being mean and making fun of others. It also means beating others up. Well let me tell you a story on how I was bullied. One day I was playing with my “best friends” and they said they were stronger than me and I said no you’re not and after that they said wanna bet then I said sure because I thought they were going to arm wrestle me and then they ran at me and starting beating me up calling me a chicken because of my skinny bones and I was scared but then I got up and defended myself then I said if I do this I am no better than them.

Have you ever had to do a project and forget to do it or have you ever wanted a dog and didn’t feed it? Well I have. This paragraph is showing Responsibility. The definition of Responsibility is taking care, keeping things in shape, doing your chores every day, and also it means being Responsible smart and delicate. Let me say something about Responsibility. It is a very important thing in life. It controls everything including Drugs and Bullying. I Gabriel Benjamin promise to never do drugs or bully others. I Gabriel Benjamin will always be Responsible to everyone or everything. This is the end of my D.A.R.E. essay. Thank you. I hope you enjoyed.


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