Contestants and organizers of the Falls Church Rotary Club’s speech contest pose during the event. (PHOTO: NEWS-PRESS)Dedication, strength in face of adversity, and community service were among the topics discussed at the Harvest Moon Restaurant on the evening of Feb. 22, as three area high school students stood in front of a crowd of their parents, teachers and strangers to speak on a perennial issue: leadership.

Bringing home top honors at the competition was Bishop O’Connell High School senior Becca Spellerberg. Spellerberg’s speech related her experience teaching children with disabilities to ride horses in the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program.

The theme of the speech competition, sponsored by the Falls Church Rotary Club, was “Lead the Way,” and for the contestants, the task at hand was to convince the judges that he or she would make the future better through “leadership … interlocked with high ethical standards, truthfulness, fairness and understanding.” They then presented a speech on a situation in which they learned the value of leadership and how they might use these lessons in the future.

According the organizer Joe Scheibeler, the Rotary Club puts strong emphasis on the virtue of service and finding leadership through serving others, and they find it important to know that the next generation will continue to uphold these ideals.

Spellerberg says that her leadership will come from taking what she has learned from the program — a positive attitude, a willingness to take on all challenges without complaint — and apply these lessons to her adult endeavors. Demonstrating these traits is important to the Rotary organization, as its dictum “service above self” was to be an integral part of each of the orations presented.

Other contestants included George Leef, a Thomas Jefferson High School junior, who spoke on the importance of a leader being able to take risks. He used the example of Ronald Reagan speaking out against the U.S.S.R. as an “evil empire” as a moment of exemplary leadership. His focus on demonstrating leadership against harsh odds, even somewhere as simple as the classroom, helped him receive second place.

Johnny Barona, a senior from Falls Church High School, presented a speech on his discovery of the essence of leadership while growing up in a difficult family situation. Johnny used the lessons learned from a mentor to become one himself at a safe house for troubled teenagers and runaways. His ability, he stated, to empathize with them and be an example caused these teens to see him as a leader, even when he did not see it yet in himself. He now plans to work to open his own shelter.

Scheibeler described the students as “the best speakers we’ve seen in three years.”

The winner of the contest will compete on March 22nd in an area speech competition, and the winner there will continue on the finals at the District level, where first prize is $1,000.