Spirit of MLK lives in young speech competitors

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The kids are poised, well-spoken, and ready to take the stage at the 23rd Foley Gardere Martin Luther King Jr. Oratory Competition.

This year, 12 students from HISD schools will compete.

"I'm actually feeling excited knowing that I can go there and do the best I can and represent my school," Emmanuel Akukoro, from Valley West Elementary, said.

Emmanuel wants to be a nurse just like his parents. He's been preparing all year long.

"I've been studying and reading a lot of books, research about Martin Luther King Jr., writing speeches, and practicing in the mirror," Emmanuel said. "I've done so much stuff physically and mentally to be able to prepare for the speech."

His speech will center on the power of learning and knowledge, something no one can take away.

"Children need to keep that education up, because without education, you can be whatever you want to be when you grow up," Emmanuel said.

Annoria McDuffie from Pleasantville Elementary is also competing.

"My strategy is just to not be monotone, focus, focus, focus, and just not be afraid," she said. "And I know I can win this if I do my best."

She says she's made a lot of sacrifices to be in the competition.

"Not going to cheer, not going to dance and staying after school, practicing my speech at home, at church, anywhere I can practice my speech to get it down pat," Annoria said.

And then there's little Chrisette Wigfall.

"Your hopes must help you tunnel through the mountain of hindrance," she yelled, practicing her speech.

Chrisette has an incredible story of resilience.

"All I have to do is read the lips so I can understand a whole lot better," she says. "The first thing the kids noticed about me was I had a hearing aid and they would always ask, 'What's that?' and I would say, 'It's my hearing aid.'"

Born hardly breathing and tongue twisted, Chrisette had to attend a special school for the deaf. She says Martin Luther King Jr.'s story is her real-life testimony, even at just 10 years old.

"When I was born, I was born with a hearing impairment, but my parents did not let that define me," Chrisette said, "Just as Dr. King was born in the world but he was considered a second-class citizen, but he didn't let that define him."

And no one is more proud of these kiddos than their coaches, teachers and parents.

"I'm very proud, she is a determined little girl, she's been trying for this since first grade," Tracy Wigfall said.

"She's been working incredibly hard," Deshunda Loft said. "I will say, before the Christmas break, she did not know her speech entirely."

"It's really rewarding because we get to teach them a part of their history," added Erica Rudolph.

Organizers say every year they're left stunned.

"These are fourth and fifth graders, they have all these bright lights, all these people are crowded, auditorium, media, etc., and it's just really amazing how well they do," said Claude Treece, chief administrator, partner and event chair. "Having been doing this for 23 years now, the first contestants are now in their mid-30's."

The stage is set and Friday morning these kids will deliver their riveting speeches, knowing they are Dr. King's dream.

"What I want to tell kids is never let all of your problems stop you," Chrisette said. "Just do what your dreams and what your heart is telling you to do, and my grandmother keeps reminding me of a conscious voice that is inside of you. Follow that voice."

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