By Christina Calloway
PNT senior writer
K.C. Alatorre aspires to go to a good college and become an NBA player. The seventh-grade Portales Junior High student knows he only has a shot at his dreams because of the freedom he has to do so, and that’s what makes him a patriot.
Alatorre was one of 14 students honored Wednesday night at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9515 Voice of Democracy, Patriot’s Pen and Teacher Award dinner.
The students were recognized for their award-winning essays. The Patriot’s Pen contest, open to students in grades 6-8, asked students to write about what patriotism means to them. The Voice of Democracy contest question asked high school students why they are optimistic about America’s future.
Portales High School Counselor Carolyn Van Wettering was also awarded Wednesday for the Teacher of the Year Award.
VFW officials said nearly 300 entries were submitted from Roosevelt County students.
Alatorre was proud to be a winner Wednesday night.
“It feels pretty good,” Alatorre said. “It’s an honor to be an American.”
Key Note Speaker Chief Master Sgt. Paul Henderson, 27th Special Operations Wing Command Chief, said he read the submissions of the students to get a sense of what young Americans are thinking.
“Some of the nominees felt patriotism is to know what the words mean when you recite the Pledge of Allegiance,” Henderson said. “Also, when you put your hand over your heart, you feel your heart beating; you know that you are alive because of those that fought for you. Wow.”
Henderson said he found insight in the students’ words. He noted that patriotism is a feeling shared by all Americans regardless of race, gender or religious preference.
“Patriotism can mean different things to different people,” Henderson said.
Henderson said he joined the U.S. Air Force in 1984, but it was when he served in the Gulf War in 1990 was when he got his first “real sense of what American patriotism was all about” because of the cards, letters, care packages and support he received from home.
“No matter what individual viewpoints are of war or politics, our citizens will support our troops and I thank you for that,” Henderson said.
Lindsey-Steiner Elementary student Payton Santillanes was another winner of the Patriot’s Pen contest.
Santillanes said his essay, which won at the district level, talked about how to show patriotism and how freedom affects people.
Santillanes said his teacher had him do research and from that information, he said a few points stuck with him.
“It doesn’t require a purple heart to be a patriot,” Santillanes said. “You can be a patriot by waiving a flag or enjoying your freedom.”
Lauryn Wilbanks, also a Lindsey-Steiner student, said her essay talked about dedication and sacrifice.
Wilbanks said her stepfather, grandfather and great-grandfather are veterans, who she used as inspiration to pen her piece.
“It means a lot to me because we’re free because of them,” she said.
Patriot’s Pen award winners
• K.C. Alatorre
• Adelina Bonilla
• Asia Chavez
• Aymri Chavez
• Audrey Christensen
• Erin Jones
• Brittany Nichols
• Kirsten Tapia
• Emmalyn Vest
• Lauryn Wilbanks
• Payton Santillanes
Voice of Democracy award winners
• Kynzi Creighton
• Gage Fontenot
• Brandon Nunn