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Photo courtesy Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power PlantCristina Sommerkamp of Lettie Marshall Dent Elementary stands with her parents as she celebrates being one of the $50 winners in Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant Black History Month contest.
Hand-drawn posters of Oprah Winfrey, President Barack Obama, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Jimi Hendrix, Jackie Robinson and other influential black Americans line the walls at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant for almost a quarter mile — the longest span of artwork yet since the Lusby plant began its Black History Month poster contest 11 years ago.
While the event started with five local elementary schools and about 200 student entries, this year the plant received roughly 900 posters from grades pre-kindergarten through 12th grade at 20 schools in both Calvert and St. Mary's counties, plus some entries from local home-schooled students, said Arthur Simpson, the man who started the contest more than a decade ago.
"It's good to see the kids and the teachers keep coming back," Simpson said. "Some of the kids that have been here are in college now."
This year's contest chairman, engineer Clyde Thomas, said all of the posters received were "outstanding. We had a difficult time selecting the winners, but we got through it."
The winners received their oversized checks on April 15 at the plant. While the contest committee chooses the $50 winners, of which there were 46 this year, employees at the plant vote on the $200 grand prize winners. This year's grand prizes went to Christian Thomas and Nicole Curran of St. Leonard Elementary School, Sabrina Lin of Greenview Knolls Elementary, Adriel Godfrey of Southern Middle and Cayley Cormier of Patuxent High.
"This is my first time being an overall winner," said Curran, who took home first place in the second- and third-grade category. "I've won every single year, but I've never won $200 before. I have no idea what to do with it."
Curran's older sister, Amanda, is also a frequent visitor to the winners' event, having won twice in the past. "She's just here for moral support this year," said the girls' mother, Jennifer.
St. Leonard art teacher Jeniene Wishart said the school usually boasts a few winners each year. "The kids are wonderful. I think they're just excellent," she said. "They continue to come back each year to participate."
Beth Beighley, art teacher at Mutual Elementary School, said their plaque, which each school receives with the winners' names, is nearly filled to its capacity. "My students are the best," she said. "I tell every single class about it, and [Constellation Energy Nuclear Group, the plant's owner] gives a certificate to everyone, so that really reinforces if you don't try, you don't win."
Calvert Cliffs site Vice President George Gellrich said the 0whole idea of participating in the contest, aside from educating plant workers and visitors about black history by motivating and encouraging creativity among kids, is to "lift the spirits" of the 1,800 employees who pass through the halls every day during the month of February, Black History Month. Since that is when the plant performs its scheduled refueling outages for its nuclear reactors, the plant staff doubles in size.
"We line the walls with these posters and it lightens up our day," Gellrich told the students and their parents on April 15. "… I was very impressed. Several hundred people commented on how impressed they were with the work that you did."
This year's guest speaker at the awards ceremony was Carolyn Mattocks, a history teacher who wrote the book and educational program "I Can Do Anything."
She is also a member of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, among a variety of other professional organizations.
Mattocks said the theme for "I Can Do Anything" came about as a result of considering black Americans on TV, many of whom seem to only be in the entertainment or sports business. Her message to black students is that they can be anything they want, which she illustrated at the awards ceremony with a PowerPoint presentation featuring famous black Americans in history who were involved in a variety of professions.
The primary focus of her educational plan, which can be integrated into school systems, is on math and science, especially since 80 percent of the fastest growing jobs in the U.S. will require a math and science base, Mattocks said.
"We need to start ingratiating into our children's minds that they can have the ability to achieve anything," she said. "… Most importantly, it helps to uplift their self-imagery."
She added that she also plans to focus on empowering students of other races and ethnicities, such as Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Americans and whites, to reach their full potentials as well, mainly because the current economic times call for students to acquire more skills to enter the job market.
"It used to be a time when it was very easy to get a job, but that's not the case," she said.
In addition to taking home prizes, students and parents also received a complementary lunch and goody bags.