Student’s Experience of Poverty Wins Rotary Speech Competition

Story by Peggy Hodgsen Kremer

Yirialis Diaz Mercedes’ stirring account of family life below the poverty line won first place in the Rotary Club of Cincinnati’s 4-Way Test Speech competition on Feb. 29.

The competition challenges high school students to hone public speaking skills while incorporating the Rotary’s 4 Way Test – the ethical standard that calls on Rotary members to assure that everything they think, do or say is the truth, is fair to all concerned, will build goodwill and better friendships and will be beneficial to all concerned.

The DePaul Cristo Rey high school sophomore told a deeply personal truth, about her early years in Puerto Rico, where children went to sleep to the sound of rainwater falling through a leaking roof into in buckets and where her parents often went to bed hungry so their children wouldn’t starve.

Diaz Mercedes will represent the Rotary Club of Cincinnati at the regional 4-Way-Test speech finals on March 10 at Wright State University. That competition draws high school students from across Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky.

Diaz Mercedes is the daughter of Eric Diaz and Alba Mercedes-Ramirez of Westwood, who moved to the US mainland and settled in Cincinnati. Her parents continued to struggle, working multiple jobs so the children’s memories would be better than their own.

“Almost 13% of Americans live in poverty,” Diaz Mercedes said. Despite government supports, families continue to struggle with rising costs of food, housing and health care, and a social stigma that saps confidence and hope.

Diaz Mercedes, who plans to become a lawyer, called for better understanding and respect for the real individuals behind the easy-to-dismiss faces of poverty. She called for encouragement and better access to education, and fair treatment of people in low-income jobs who have limited alternatives.

“Things will not magically change overnight,” she said. “But we can slowly live differently to make sure that young children my age don’t continue to sleep next to worn out buckets of dirty rainwater.”

She was one of four finalists competing before an audience of close to 150 business and community leaders at The Transept event center in downtown Cincinnati.

Addison Miller, Junior from Wyoming High School, explored the real cost of low-cost trendy fashion and the human and environmental effects of what’s known as “Fast Fashion.” Miller is the daughter of Melissa Bowman of Wyoming

Quinn Ruthman, Junior from Walnut Hills High School, called for an overhaul of insurance coverage for mental health treatment, making it easier for young people to seek and get treatment. He is the son of Jerome & Laure Ruthman of Mt. Lookout.

Katie Claes, Junior from Archbishop McNicholas High School in Mt. Washington, spoke about her inside view of Asian-American discrimination during the COVID pandemic and historic roots of discrimination. Claes is the daughter of Jason and Donna Claes of Anderson Township.

Celebrity judges were WLWT Channel 5 News Anchor Megan Mitchell, Cincinnati City Council Member Victoria Parks and Olympic Gold Medalist Mary Wineberg. They were joined by Rotary member judges Sunnie Johnson-Lain of Mariemont and Mark Reckman of Wyoming.

The competition is the culmination of a five-month commitment by Rotary members who acted as coaches and mentors, working with students in the schools as they chose topics, honed speeches and held in-school competitions to choose finalists. 

“The passion of teenagers shines through in their speeches every year, giving us amazing insight into the minds of our future leaders,” said Laure Quinlivan, 4-Way Test Contest Chair.

Wyoming High School teacher Alli Wischer said the Rotary contest reinforces a key skill and moves a classroom lesson into real life.

“We know that no matter what the future holds, communication skills are essential in today’s world,” she said.

 “The Rotary speech is a wonderful opportunity for our students to hone their introductory speaking skills, obtain real world experience, tailor their message to a particular audience and network with mentor adults in the community,” she said.

All students who compete in the annual 4-Way Test Speech Contest receive commendation letters from Cincinnati Rotary and each of the four finalists wins prize money.