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Lifting Up Westchester Announces Student Essay Contest Winners

Lifting Up Westchester Announces 2023 Student Essay Contest Winners (Contest Explored Connections and Misperceptions Between Mental Health and Homelessness)

White Plains, NY—March 21, 2023—Lifting Up Westchester, a non-profit agency committed to helping individuals experiencing homelessness and hunger achieve self-sufficiency, announces the winners of their sixth annual student essay contest. Open to all students attending school in Westchester in the 7th to 12th grades, this year students were invited to think about the connections between, and misperceptions about, mental health and homelessness and how we might end the stigmas attached to both.

The essay contest was established in 2017 in memory of Beth Massey Rubens, a 40-year resident of Scarsdale and a lifelong teacher, tutor, and mentor who had a love for language arts.

Students were asked to consider that mental health impacts how we think, feel and act and how we cope with life. Mental health also influences how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Family illness, job loss, divorce, not doing well in school, being bullied, hunger, poor housing and becoming unhoused are just some of the things that can trigger mental health issues. This can result in emotions such as anxiety, depression, or loneliness. “With a nationally increased focus on the importance of mental health, this year’s topic clearly struck a chord for students,” said Anahaita Kotval, CEO of Lifting Up Westchester. “Students shared deeply personal stories about their own challenges with mental health. But as they researched the underlying causes of homelessness, they learned that mental health issues are not the primary cause of individuals becoming homeless. With this knowledge, many of them suggested ways to help end the stigmas attached to both mental health and homelessness so that we can all work toward a better future for everyone.”

A panel of 49 judges reviewed the essays to select the ultimate winners. First, second and third place and honorable mention cash prizes will be awarded in each of the three grade groups: 7th and 8th grades, 9th and 10th grades, and 11th and 12th grades. An ESL category was also established for any student from grades 7 through 12 for whom English is a second language.

Winners for the 2023 Lifting Up Westchester Student Essay Contest include:

7th and 8th Grade

1st Place: Laura Leshaj, Eastchester Middle School
2nd Place: Cadence Kappel, Pelham Middle School
3rd Place (tie): Jacob Souza, Irvington Middle School
3rd Place (tie): Kate Bevan, North Salem Middle/High School
Honorable Mention: Ezra Shuf, Highlands Middle School
Honorable Mention: Emily Kasoff, Irvington Middle School
Honorable Mention: Rafe Goodyear, Pelham Middle School

9th and 10th Grade

1st Place: Le Wang, Edgemont Senior High School
2nd Place: Isabella Vembenil, The Ursuline School
3rd Place: Haley Berger, Briarcliff High School

11th and 12th Grade

1st Place (tie): Agnesa Rraci, Woodlands High School
1st Place (tie): Kristen Luther, Woodlands High School
2nd Place: Honesty Woods, Peekskill High School
3rd Place (tie): Natasha Pereira, Scarsdale High School
3rd Place (tie): Stacy Di Maulo, Alexander Hamilton High School
Honorable Mention: Lamyaa Hamid, Peekskill High School


1st Place: Risa Goji, Keio Academy
2nd Place (tie): Rena Maruyama, Keio Academy
2nd Place (tie): Rika Ishii, Keio Academy


About Lifting Up Westchester

Founded more than 40 years ago, Lifting Up Westchester is a 501(c)3 nonprofit providing life-changing support to people who have lost their housing or are struggling to meet other basic needs. Each year, Lifting Up Westchester works together with over 2,500 men, women, and children experiencing homelessness and hunger to build a more secure future for them and their families. We are united by one, bold and unwavering belief: that stable housing is the foundation on which human wellbeing and advancement is built. When people have a secure, affordable home, they can focus on advancing their education, health, and employment.

For more information about Lifting Up Westchester, please visit, or connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Contact Lauren Candela-Katz at or (914) 949-3098 | ext. 9737.

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