UNION, NJ – Kawameeh seventh grader Guy Francis took a short trip in a 75-foot tall tethered hot air balloon on Tuesday at Kawameeh Middle School in celebration of his grand prize win in the 14th annual PNC Bank “American Patriot Essay Contest”.

For the first time in the contest’s history, the first- and second-place finishers are from the same school as Judd Espejo, also a seventh-grader at Kawameeh, was runner-up.  Both Francis and Espejo are students in the school’s gifted and talented program taught by Larry Petras.

The contest, a statewide competition sponsored by the QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning in Association with PNC Bank, is for students in grades 2 through 12 throughout New Jersey.  This year’s essay contest was “What the American Flag Means to Me.”

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“For more than 200 years, the American flag has been a symbol of our nation’s strength and unity,” said Township of Union Mayor Suzette Cavadas.  “It’s been a source of pride and inspiration for millions of citizens.  It is these concepts that our two winners share and expressed so eloquently in their essays.”

After his ride, Francis, 13, said, “It was almost like being on a roller coaster.”  Francis said when he was in fifth grade he won a different essay contest, when he wrote about African Americans.  “I like writing,” he said.

“I feel honored,” said Espejo of his second-place winning.  “I just wrote what was on my mind and in my heart.”

The essay by Francis described the American Flag as freedom, particularly the freedom his ancestors attained going back several generations as his maternal great grandfather traveled 4,000 miles to flee the Nazis during World War II and his paternal great, great, great grandfather escaped slavery in North Carolina.

Runner-up Espejo wrote how his mother would not have been able to receive treatment to completely heal from stage 2 breast cancer had they been living in their home country in the Philippines.

Francis’ essay was selected the best among the thousands of essays received by a panel of judges comprised of PNC Bank and Balloon Festival staff and educators. The contest was held as part of PNC’s community outreach efforts through its association with the QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning.

Francis also receives a free ride in one of the 100 hot air balloons at the 35th annual festival, July 28-29-30 in Readington, along with VIP tickets for his family. Espejo and each of their 29 classmates, teacher, and school principal receive free tickets to the annual Festival.

Before the crowd, including Union County Freeholders Bruce Bergen and Vernell Wright, Union County Sheriff Joseph Cryan, Mayor Cavadas, their classmates, family and friends, Francis and Espejo each read their essay:

Guy Francis:

What does the American flag mean to me?

Well, it goes all the back to my ancestry.

My paternal great-grandfather had to flee

from World War II and the German Nazis.

He travelled on a ship across the seas

Over 4,000 miles to New Jersey.

My maternal great-great-great grandfather had to flee

From the horrible acts of slavery.

So, when I’m asked what does the American flag mean to me,

I think of the struggles throughout our history

And I think of my family and their bravery,

Coming to America, the land of the free.

Judd Espejo:

What do I think of when I think of the American Flag?

I think of the word ‘home’. 

As an immigrant, I am well aware of the differences between America and my home country, the Philippines. 

America is one of the few countries where, regardless of your gender, age, religion, ethnicity or sexual identify, you are still viewed as an equal.

Last March, my mother was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. 

In another country, my mother would not have been able to receive treatment and achieve complete healing.

Because of these reasons, I am forever grateful to call America home.