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Duke Ellington Student Wins National Essay Contest

10/17/2012, 6:33 p.m.

Duke Ellington School of the Arts junior Maya Wesby doesn't have much free time these days. The 16 year old serves as a high school drama critic, international youth leadership advocate and she recently penned an award-winning essay on childhood obesity.

Maya's essay, Defeating the Barriers of Physical Activity, earned first place honors out of more than 200 nationwide submissions in the 2012 Congressional Black Caucus Spouses Essay Contest. Although Maya doesn't battle with childhood obesity, she didn't have to look far to find her source of inspiration.

"When I was very young, my classmates would tease this particular girl in my class," said Maya, an honors student. "It wasn't specifically because she was overweight, but her weight made her an easy target for them. I just wanted to speak for kids like her."

The Congressional Black Caucus honored Maya during its 42nd Annual Legislative Conference in September. Along with accolades, Maya received a $1,500 check and a laptop computer.

She had the opportunity to discuss her essay during one of the panel's issue forums. Maya addressed a number of obstacles mentioned in her essay that young people are faced with that prevent them from leading active, healthy lifestyles. Before a panel of well-respected nutritionists, Maya talked about the pressing need for reducing fees for sports camps, making physical activity a habit during teen years and eliminating socioeconomic barriers to fitness facilities.

"I was particularly impressed with Maya's fresh ideas, expressed in her carefully researched and well-written essay on childhood obesity," said D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), 75. "Maya is already showing she is fully ready to think through tough issues and even advise members of Congress on ways to grapple with them."

Despite the recent recognition that Maya has enjoyed because of her essay, the theatre major said that a career in creative writing or nutrition isn't necessarily in her future.

"I am more interested in social work," said Maya, who lists Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania among the schools that have piqued her interest. "I'd like to [study] law, social sciences or discover more about history."

Maya's father, Keith Wesby, said that his daughter showed an interest in reading and writing at an early age and that her passion for the two remains just as strong today. While he and her mother, Adrianne Todman, are no longer together, he said that blueprint for academic success that the two charted for Maya has instilled in her a zest for knowledge and a love of learning.

"We're very proud of her and have tried to lead by example," said Wesby, who lives in Northwest. "We pushed education at home to a great extent. She grew up with both of her parents reading to her and helping her with her homework. That particular family structure has been imperative to her educational and social development. These are the fruits of that labor, and we are very proud of her."