“I thought I was dreaming!” were the first words uttered by Durelle Ward as he came on stage to accept his first place award at the ‘Do the Write Thing Challenge’ Dinner Celebration.

Durelle, an eighth grade student at Pittsburgh Public School’s Sterrett Classical Academy, was chosen as the top male student along with the top female student Nina Nelly Kowalewski, a seventh grader at Obama International Studies Academy. The thought that these two were chosen from among 1,399 students who submitted anti-violence writings led to the disbelief that Durelle experienced as his name was called.

PROUD WINNERS—Judge Dwayne and Joy Maxberry Woodruff with proud winners Nina Nelly Kowalewski and Durelle Ward.

Stepping forward in a dark suit and crisply ironed shirt with matching tie, most befitting a young man who would stand before the August Wilson Center auditorium filled with students, parents, teachers, principals and noted public officials, Durelle shook off the wonderment to confidently read his winning essay. Kowalewski, who followed Durelle, read her fictitious account of a teen who was often bullied and then paralyzed in a violent encounter. She ended her writing with the teen asking the question, ‘wouldn’t my life be different today, if I had taken a stand and told an adult?’

The “Do the Write Thing Challenge” is an initiative of the National Campaign to Stop Violence, which gives middle school students an opportunity to write about the impact of violence on their lives. It also gives teachers the opportunity to engage students in classroom discussions about violence and students are encouraged to make personal commitments to help reduce/eliminate violence.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Max Baer, Judges Kim Berkeley Clark, Kathryn Hens-Greco, Tom Flaherty, Livingstone Johnson (retired), stood in a receiving line with Judge Dwayne D. Woodruff and his wife Joy Maxberry Woodruff, who served as co-chairs of the Pittsburgh DTWT, to congratulate the students. Councilman Doug Shields, Philadelphia Judge Paul Panepinto, Evan Frazier of Highmark and Winifred Torbert of UPMC rounded out the congratulators.

The dinner celebration emceed by WQED’s Chris Moore, was hosted by Highmark and the laptop computers awarded to Durelle and Nina were donated by The Center for Inclusion at UPMC. Of the 1,399 students who participated, 110 students were honored; the top two male and female students at each of the 28 schools within the Pittsburgh Public and Woodland Hills School Districts.

Ellen Burns, Esq., Lou Ransom Jr. and Lauren Williams of Judge Woodruff’s judicial staff coordinated the essay receiving and distribution process, the essay judging process and much of the event arrangements so that the students enjoyed a memorable and first class experience. Clerical and PR support was provided by the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

Durelle and Nina will join other National Ambassadors from each participating city to be honored this summer at the 2011 DTWT National Recognition Week in Washington, DC, where they will meet with national policymakers and discuss youth violence issues. A book of all the student writings will be placed in the United States Library of Congress. Their respective teachers, Patricia Pugh Mitchell and DeLacey Green, are invited on the all-expense paid trip funded by national sponsors; Southwest Airlines and the Kuwait America Foundation.

In addition to Highmark and UPMC Center for Inclusion, the local students received prizes from the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Pittsburgh Pirates, Giant Eagle and Manchester Bidwell Corporation. Additional offers of support are desired and can be made by calling the Court of Common Pleas at 412-350-0377.

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