SOMERS, N.Y. - The Northeast Westchester Rotary Club and students of various grade levels, races and socioeconomic backgrounds from all over New York and Connecticut were united May 18 at John F. Kennedy Catholic High School over one love: pizza.

The pizza party was in celebration of the Rotary Club’s 11th edition of “On My Mind,” a compilation of spotlight student writing from New York and Connecticut schools. This year’s edition is the largest yet. The book houses the works of 175 students from Somers, North Salem, Bethel, Conn., Brewster, the Bronx, Manhattan, Mt. Vernon and the Catskills.

Rotary members Martin Ashley and Stan Herz-Pearlman began the tradition 11 years ago when Herz-Pearlman first got the idea.

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He called several schools and gathered the students’ writing. With Ashley’s publishing experience, they were able to organize the pieces and have them published, bringing Herz-Pearlman’s idea to life. The first publication included student work from just four schools. Now, the publication welcomes more each year.

“It’s a tremendously broadening experience. What we’re really succeeding in doing is bringing a very diverse population together,” Ashley said. “They’re listening to each other, they’re eating pizza together. They represent the future of our country and seeing them work feel good about it.”

The pizza party preluded a presentation that included a few words from several Rotary members, a speech by keynote speaker Alex Portera and readings from some of the student authors.

Portera is a former Wall Street management consultant who left a lucrative career to satisfy his dream of learning about other cultures. He quit his job in 2014 and participated in the Mongol Rally, a 10,000-mile drive from London to Mongolia, with two friends. The journey was documented and now the three men are currently filming, blogging and podcasting their adventures around the world as “The Nowhere Men.” 

Portera recently returned from Argentina and took the time to speak to the students about finding their passion. Rotary member John Katzenstein said this was the reason behind choosing Portera as the keynote.

“We wanted someone to motivate and inspire the students,” Katzenstein said.

During his presentation, Portera encouraged students to take ownership of their passions and get behind the steering wheel of them, rather than simply “finding” their passion, as most young people are vaguely instructed to do.

“I’m sure you get asked all the time, especially going into college, what is your passion,” Portera said. “I don’t think all that many people do know. There’s a better question you can ask yourself: How do you create your passion?”

Portera instructed students to find something they are both good at and enjoy and then “get really good at it.”

“It turns out you can get very passionate about that,” he said.

Portera, who is from Greenwich, Conn., has traveled the world and noted that the socioeconomic backgrounds of some students may mean that not everyone can find their passion through travel.

“I was privileged to travel,” he said, “But my message isn’t specific to travel. You can learn it anywhere.”

After Portera’s speech, a student from each school shared their writing and then their teachers said a few words.

Somers High School teacher John Murphy congratulated all of the students who participated and encouraged them to continue their work.

“I’ve been teaching creative writing for a long time and the writing is impressive,” he said.