PALMETTO -- Nathalie Kabongo-Chavez and Alex Kumar won over a crowd of 200 and five judges to win the 2012-2013 Martin Luther King Speech and Essay Contest.
The finals competition, which originally challenged more than 300 students months ago to address the topic, "Race: Are We Really So Different?" was held at the Palmetto Youth Center Thursday night.
Nathalie, a ninth-grader at Lakewood Ranch High School, triumphed over nearly 15 other high school finalists Thursday and 128 other entries, claiming her first place prize of $150, a Dell laptop computer and printer.
Alex, a sixth-grader at Nolan Middle, beat out 14 other middle school finalists and 191 other entries and earned the same prizes.
Both Nathalie and Alex delivered speeches that were personal, engaging, passionate, well-written and insightful, said Patricia Johnson, chairwoman of the MLK Speech and Essay Contest Committee.
Nathalie got a head start by actually putting some brain power into what she would wear to the finals, which attracted many parents and other family members, including her mother and father, Jean Kabongo and Rosa Kabongo-Chavez. She chose white pearls with a simple dress printed with thin, horizontal lines in white, yellow, brown, red, blue and green.
"When I put it on, I thought of cultural diversity," Nathalie said of the dress that combines colors that are significant to her father, who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo and her mother, who is from Mexico.
She said after the event that she had another secret weapon -- public speaking pointers from Teri Grimes, a teacher at Lakewood Ranch High.
But it was Nathalie's personality that seemed to take over when she hit the podium.
"Why has race been such a huge problem in our world?" Nathalie leaned into the microphone and asked the crowd, somewhat like comedienne Joan Rivers saying, "Can we talk?"
"We are confused by difference," Nathalie said. "Different. Differ. Such a strong word, yet with a simple meaning. To us, when something, or someone, is different, we think of them as weird and unusual. ... Being different simply means not being the same as you. But, no, it does not mean better than you."
Alex was just as personal in his own way, telling the crowd about one of his favorite books is by Dr. Seuss and is called, "The Sneetches."
"You know the story about the Star-Belly Sneetches that acted like they're better than the Plain-Belly Sneetches," Alex said in his speech. "The Star-Belly Sneetches believed they were superior just because they were born with stars on their bellies. I remember thinking, "What? How does having a star on your belly make anyone better or more privileged -- this is so unfair.
"Later, when I learned about Dr. Martin Luther King in school, I realized that just like the Plain-Belly Sneetches, he and many African-Americans were judged and treated unfairly for something so trivial, the color of their skin."
In the high school division, MacKenzie Yaryura of Southeast High took second place and $100. Third place and $75 went to Mollie Rainwater of Lakewood Ranch High and Honorable Mention and $50 went to Samantha Grimes of Southeast High.
In the middle school division, Stevie Lee Romero of Nolan Middle took second place and $100. Third place and $75 went to Miriam Schmoll of Sugg Middle and Honorable Mention and $50 went to Benjamin Varah of Nolan Middle.
The judges for the event included the Rev. Ted Tillis, the Rev. Stan Pavkovich, Freida Bellamy, Lillie Covington, Joan Krauter of the Bradenton Herald and Patricia Johnson.