Each year, more than 125,000 students in grades 6-8 nationwide enter the Veterans of Foreign Wars Patriot’s Pen youth essay contest. Through their writing, kids are encouraged to examine America’s history, along with their own experiences in modern American society, by drafting a 300- to 400-word essay, expressing their views on the year’s chosen patriotic theme. This year’s theme is “What Freedom Means to Me.”

I am extremely proud to share that my daughter, Ally, was chosen as the Patriot’s Pen winner for the state of Oregon. I cannot put into words what this experience has meant to her and to me, as her mom. It’s become about much more than written words on a page. Through this process, she has been able to read her essay publically, several times in front of veterans from our local VFW post 3965 and at the organization’s state conference in Newport, Oregon.

She has met many of the men and women she writes about in her essay, those who served our country to ensure our freedoms. That experience alone is priceless.

It’s with great pride that I share her essay:

What Freedom Means to Me

By Ally Warner

Freedom is defined as the state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint. But freedom means much more to me than a simple definition in the dictionary.

My grandpa served in the U.S. Army, risking his life and making sacrifices alongside other men and women in uniform so that I can go to school, choose what kind of music I listen to, wear the types of clothes I want and be able to dream that anything is possible if I try hard enough.

To me, freedom isn’t just about having rights. It’s about using those rights and the opportunities we’ve been given to leave a lasting mark on our communities, our country and our world. We must not take it for granted because people have laid down their lives to defend it, and continue to do so in order for us to keep it.

Freedom is the core of everything we do, everything we say and experience. This country was formed around a constitution that came from the thoughts and ideals of a diverse group of people. They wanted every man, woman and child to be able to live a life of opportunity. But it was never easy and freedom is always threatened. Sometimes, I think we forget that.

I am lucky to live in a place where I can grow up to be anything I want to be, where I can make a difference in the lives of others and where I can leave my mark on a world where someone, somewhere, is always threatening to take that freedom away.

Our late president Ronald Reagan said it best: “Freedom is never more than a generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the blood stream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”

In order to protect our freedom, we must first acknowledge that freedom isn’t free. The price is paid by men and women who are willing to put everything on the line. For that, I say thank you to the people who have given so much, so that I can have so much.