HOUSATONIC - Joe Grochmal has discovered he has a way with words.
In eighth grade, he got a class writing assignment to enter the local Veterans of Foreign Wars' "Patriot's Pen" essay contest. Not only did he win first place and an acing grade for the class, but the assignment also sparked his love for history, writing and oration.
Grochmal has since gone on to hone his skills in the VFW's "Voice of Democracy" essay and speech contest for high-school-aged students, winning both his high school and county divisions for the third consecutive year this fall.
Last week, the Monument Mountain Regional High School junior found out he won the Massachusetts competition.
In March, he'll head to Washington, D.C., as a national contest competitor.
When Grochmal got the news, he said, "I was blown away." He's been working on his response to the essay prompt, " Why I'm Optimistic About Our Nations Future," since he got it last June.
He said he realized after his first two bids for a state qualifying essay, that he couldn't just write a history report.
"In order to relate to people, you have to write a personal story," Grochmal said.
His winning essay and speech was inspired by a story his grandmother told his family.
Her father was an immigrant from Poland who moved to Housatonic to work at the Rising Paper Mill. Then, the Great Depression hit.
"My great-grandfather and his co-workers, mostly recent immigrants in search of the American Dream, united and accepted fewer hours and a pay cut in order to ensure that everyone would retain their job at the factory; selfless actions done for overall good," Grochmal wrote in his essay.
To compensate for this loss, his great-grandfather would ride his bicycle daily from Housatonic to Alford to pick apples and sell them to help feed his family.
"Through his hard work and sacrifice, my great- grandfather not only got his family through the Great Depression, but also helped his community and his new nation weather the terrible storm. The American Dream is real, but it takes the hard work, perseverance and sacrifice of men like my great-grandfather and his coworkers [to achieve it]," Grochmal wrote.
Grochmal, himself, also put in a lot of hard work to achieve his own dream of going to the national VFW competition. For example, he and his father converted an upstairs closet in their home into a "quiet room," sound-proofing it with blankets and pillows, and moving a desk into it so that Grochmal could focus on writing, speaking and recording his essay for the contest.
"I have been Voice of Democracy Chairman for 11 years. This is the first Berkshire County state winner I have seen. VFW District 9 (Berkshire County) veterans are very excited about reaching this level of competition," said Arnold M. Perras, commander of VFW Post 448 in Pittsfield.
Perras coordinates school division contests around the county with John Bubriski contest chairman, and Michael T. Casey, commander for VFW Post 8183 in Housatonic.
Grochmal lives in Housatonic with his parents, Ann and Joe Grochmal, and sister, Olivia, a first-year student at Wellesley College who previously placed fourth at the state level of the 2010 Voice of Democracy contest.
Grochmal said he was spurred to excel in the contest, in part, to beat his older sister in the competition.
"There was a little bit of that sibling rivalry, but I think participating in the contest also stirred my love of American history and growing love for politics and the political field," he said.
Grochmal said he hopes future contest entrants will also find a long-term interest in politics and government through working on their speech.
"Now, as we're getting older we're actually starting to feel the impact of government policy, and the future is suddenly not so far away as it once was," he said.