500 For 500 Essay Contest invites Massapequa’s Class of 2022 to weigh in
The act of voting is something central to Dr. Cynthia Paulis’ patriotism. The Massapequa Park resident and two-time mayoral candidate has fond memories of her late mother taking the future military veteran behind the curtain of the voting booth, solemnly showing her the levers behind polling and how important this act was to maintaining democracy. It left enough of an impact that when she went to vote during the two times she ran, Paulis brought pictures of her parents into the voting booth with her. Furthermore, part of Paulis giving back is her sponsorship of the 500 For 500 essay contest, a competition in which a male and female Massapequa High School senior submits an essay of 500 words or less addressing a theme Paulis provides with both winners in line to each receive a $500 scholarship.
Last year’s winners were Julianna Lovett and Christopher Flaherty, who addressed the question, ‘Why are veterans important to this country?’ This year’s subject rests firmly at the polls—”Why is it important for you to vote in an election?” With everything going on in the most recent post-presidential cycle, where the legitimacy of fair and free elections are being subjected to misinformation and massive voter disenfranchisment laws are being implemented at the state level, Paulis felt it was crucial to remind students about the importance of participating in a plebicite.
“I’m such a news junkie and I’m always watching it,” Paulis said. “I find a lot of people are on Tick Tock or all this other [social media]. But do you read a paper? Do you pay attention to the news? Do you really know what’s going on? And while they know their rap stars or other celebrities, I find they are not so involved [with being citizens].”
The 500 For 500 essay contest was started six years ago when Paulis decided to do something when former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling at the beginning of games when the National Anthem was being played (“That just drove me crazy”). The first year’s theme was, “Why are you proud to be an American?” and since then, 10 students have received $500 scholarships. For Paulis, this personal initiative was inspired by the personal experience of having won a similar contest when she was a Class of 1971 senior.
“It was an oratorical competition and the topic was, ‘Why Is the Constitution Important To This Country?” she recalled. “[The American Legion] was so good to me. I got a $100 savings bond. And having graduated in 1971, back then that was a lot of money and $100 really went far. I never forgot that and thought that someday when I was rich, famous or infamous, I wanted to give back to the students.”
The competition kicks off on Veterans Day and the deadline to submit essays is Jan. 30, a date Paulis picked so this written challenge doesn’t fall between the cracks during the holiday season. The contest averages about 22 entries, a number the sexuagenerian veteran would like to see increase. Results are announced in February on George Washington’s birthday. The idea of paying this kind of civic engagement forward, particularly to students at Massapequa High School, stems from the real-life impact Alexander Rae Baldwin, Jr. had on her. In addition to being the late patriarch of the Massapequa Baldwin acting clan, he was also a social studies teacher at the school who counted Paulis as one of his students.
“Mr. Baldwin was such a nice guy,” Paulis said. “I remember my father was in the hospital when I was 15 and we didn’t think he was going to live. I think it was an essay competition the village had and [Mr. Baldwin] came to my essay competition because he knew my father wasn’t there. This is the kind of guy he was. You ask anyone who graduated from Massapequa High School and had Mr. Baldwin and I guarantee they had a Mr. Baldwin story because that’s the kind of guy he was. If you didn’t have a parent because they were sick in the hospital, then he came in as the parent off the bench. This is what is important. I’m trying to plant seeds of patriotism and trying to teach why voting is so important.”
In addition to the $500 scholarship, 500 for 500 Essay winners also receive a copy of Normal Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, a journal and a pocket-size book containing copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. And while past ceremonies were held at Massapequa Park Village Hall and Massapequa’s American Legion Hall 1066, Paulis is seeking out a new venue for the 2022 ceremony. As someone who twice ran for office in the middle of a pandemic and saw firsthand how dirty, rough and tumble politics could be, Paulis is adamant about conveying how crucial it is for young people to be civically engaged, particularly when it comes to exercising their right to vote.
“This contest is my simple way of trying to carve out a message that we always have to keep this the idea front and center that democracy is really important and that’s what this country is built on,” she said. “[And to stay on guard] when you start seeing the erosion of democracy in this country by people that are corrupt.”