For a period of 13 weeks, a group of more than 20 youth representing five local schools met at Prairie Lake Park in Des Plaines to learn the very difficult task of public speaking.
This free class, sponsored by the Optimist Club of Des Plaines and Optimist International, culminated in a state championship that was held in Peoria April 30.
The boy and girl, who are named best in state, each receive a scholarship of $2,500.
To get to the state championship is a challenging task. The orators had to first advance through a preliminary contest, where the top six finishers made it to the club final.
On April 8, the club had its contest and the top finishing boy and girl were selected to compete in a regional event April 16 in Oswego. The winners of that event competed in the final.
The first- through third-place winners of the Des Plaines girls' contest were: Zaira Perez, a fifth-grader from Plainfield Elementary School in Des Plaines; Nicole Del Re, a seventh-grader at Winston Campus in Palatine; and Falen Solomon, a third-grader at Plainfield Elementary.
The boys' winners were: Matthias Kokur, fifth grade, Plainfield Elementary; Sergio Danny Lozano, fifth grade, Plainfield Elementary; and Jimmy Del Re, fourth grade, Winston Campus.
The theme of this year's speeches were "If I Were Leader of the Free World, the First Issue I Would Address Would Be…"
Special guest Paul Meinecke from ABC-7 news presented the winners with their gold, silver and bronze awards and recalled how he himself had participated in the oratorical as a youth in Rock Island, and that it made him so nervous he could only do it once.
"Public speaking is one of the most common fears people have," said Ruth Del Re, contest chair and Optimist vice president.
"But these kids can do it. The self confidence and presentation ability they gain as they progress from the first night to contest night is amazing. At the end of our training, these kids, many of whom are only in third grade, can give their four- to five-minute speech without referring to notes and with appropriate gestures and pauses.
"My husband and I joined this club because we volunteered to be judges at an Oratorical event one year and were amazed at the level of ability, and the dedication of community volunteers that take time from their own schedules to work with kids."
Teachers and principals of schools the contestants attend report that participation increases leadership and writing ability, in addition to presentation skills.
The Optimist Club of Des Plaines was chartered in 1954 and is one of more than 50 Optimist Clubs in the state and 2,000 in the world.
In addition to the oratorical, they also participate in a statewide essay contest, sponsor free movies at Lake Park in the summer, a kite fly, fishing derby, golf tournament, financially assist youth sports and Scouting and host other events.
For details, visit dpoptimist.org.