Malika Shoker was named the first place winner and Jhaala Curry as second-place finisher in the Ceres Rotary Club's annual student speech contest.
The top two speakers move on to the Rotary's area contest to be held in Ceres on Friday, Feb. 9. Shoker was presented with a $125 check and Curry $100.
Jessie Ceja, the Rotarian in charge of the contest and the youth program for the club, said the decision was difficult because all contestants did well.
Honorable mentions went to Central Valley High School senior Brenda Diaz, Ceres High sophomore Grace Parsons and Argus High sophomore Mary Coen. All three each received a $50 prize.
Third place went to Whitmore Charter High School senior Hannah Kelley, who was awarded $75.
Each student was asked to speak on the topic of "What Does Making a Difference Mean to Me."
Coen said making a difference is having a social impact on people and improving lives of many. She explained the good feelings that come from volunteering, noting that she helped out at La Rosa Elementary School, the Boys and Girls Club of Modesto and mentoring at Foothill Horizons camp above Sonora.
"When I do community service it makes me feel good because it means I am teaching the kids, helping them," said Coen. She said after helping one student for three weeks she saw her improve her skills writing her name, giving her to idea to become a kindergarten teacher. Mary said her own struggles in school were overcome when Mrs. Hailey, a middle school teacher "believed in me and helped me to achieve better grades."
Jhaala Curry explained how she wants to take the California High School Proficiency Exam for early exit from high school. "How can taking this test help me make a difference in my community? I want to take this test because I want to further my education at an early age and show this world that this generation has the capability and the capacity of doing so much more than society tells us we can."
Curry said all people can capable of making a difference through "small actions" like "one word can start a friendship, one smile can brighten someone's day."
She spoke about how the Rotary Club has made a difference in its 112 years.
Brenda Diaz said making a difference means having courage and time to devote to worthy causes. She related how striving for success in school meant getting rid of toxic friendships that were steering her in the wrong direction, getting rid of distractions and negativity.
"Just like I have decided to focus on my education, Rotary helps other individuals focus on theirs by building schools, teaching adults how to read or giving students a safe and healthy environment to learn in," said Brenda. "See, education is the foundation that you need now in life."
Grace Parsons explained how she saw a poster that read, "It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness" and decided that she wanted to be the one to make a change toward the positive. She explained that "you can't live life just caring about yourself."
"I learned that lighting a candle can allow everyone around you to be brighter. If you light your own candle, you can light someone else's candle. It's a chain reaction, a domino effect of brightness and bright."
Grace explained that she helps the freshmen how to march on the field, helps the sophomores with chemistry homework, and judge essays.
"Being a part of the band helps me become a part of something much larger than myself because the type of environment I help to create there, they take it with them to their other classes, they take it with them for life. They start to learn to treat others as they would like to be treated."
Malika Shoker noted how the Rotary Club supplies clean drinking water to poor communities worldwide.
"People may feel it's futile in trying to contribute to some large cause on their own. I was one of those people ... but I don't there's ever been a point in my life where I've been more mistaken."
Malika said she involved in the campus' Protecting Health and Slamming Tobacco (PHAST) club has allowed her to change her views about making positive changes. She said she interacted with sixth-graders to help them realize there are healthy alternatives to using tobacco products.
"It reiterated the powers of perspective and influence," said Shoker, who wants to become an English teacher.
Hannah Kelley said she and her family volunteers at Opportunity Camp to help foster children. She explained how a near drowning of two children gave her pause to ponder her own future, "what I could do, what I want to do and how to make life meaningful to the people around me."
She came to realize "there are many ways to make a difference if all you do is keep your eyes open. There are many more ways to help if you're prepared as well."
Later that year she became a lifeguard to be prepared as well as became a camp counselor. But she said "I don't want to stop there - I've long considered being an overseas missionary but I want to be prepared as well. Now, I'm considering medicine. Over the course of the past year I've been volunteering at a local hospital and much to my surprise, I've discovered that I enjoy the hospital atmosphere ... it really makes me feel like I'm making a difference."
She finished, saying "Just like Rotarians, I want to fill a need in this world, and I want to start putting service above self."