Cassandra Slade of Carbonear was 12 when her father died suddenly, but that experience led to her picking up a pen and start writing.
Now 17, Cassandra reflects on the events in her life that led to winning the provincial level of the Royal Canadian Legion essay contest and earning a trip to Beaumont Hamel in France for Memorial Day, July 1.
It all began with her father.
The writing begins
On Dec. 21, 2008, Cassandra got word her dad had taken a fall down the stairs and broke his neck. He was living in Ontario, while she and her mom lived in Carbonear.
“He was supposed to come home the 25th,” she explains during a sit-down interview with The Compass Feb. 18.
It was hard for Cassandra to process. She says her emotions were all over the place and she had trouble coping with the loss, until her mom Lynette suggested she put her thoughts to paper.
“That was when I began writing,” she recalls. “So since then, I put my heart and everything I have into writing.”
Cassandra believes that’s when she found her calling.
“I have a ‘dear dad’ instead of a ‘dear diary’ and express all my feelings that way.,” she says.
Now, in Level III at Carbonear Collegiate, she writes for fun.
Her English teacher Desmond Fillier encouraged her to submit her Remembrance Day essay for the contest. She never expected to win.
And the winner is …
An awards ceremony took place at the Royal Canadian Legion in Carbonear Feb. 13 where some 40 students from Carbonear to Bay de Verde were honoured with first, second and third place local awards in four categories of competition. The categories included colour poster, black and white poster, poem and essay in three categories, junior, intermediate and senior. There were also primary school categories for colour poster and black and white poster contests. There were some 1,000 entries in total.
Locally, Cassandra won third place in the senior essay contest. The local winners were then judged provincially.
When they announced her name as the recipient of the first place provincial award and the trip to Beaumont Hamel, it was an emotional moment filled with surprise and happiness.
“My mom started to cry before they had the first three letters of my name said,” she laughs, adding that she also shed a few tears.
Cassandra and two others — Cassandra Hogan from Cabot Academy and Madison Sparkes from Tricon Elementary — will have their first place provincial winning entries submitted to the national competition, along with the winners from other provinces.
Story behind her essay
There may have been a tragedy behind her writing, but Cassandra has more pleasant memories behind her essay.
In her essay, she wrote, “Growing up in a family of men who served in the Blue Puttees, The Royal Newfoundland Regiment, The British Navy and The Canadian Army made me realize why so many people sacrificed their own lives.”
She had the opportunity to meet two of her family members who served in wars — her great-grandfather the late Walter Russell of the British Navy who fought in World War II and her great-uncle Lewis Jones who fought in the Korean War with the Canadian Army.
Her great-grandfather, she learned, was a passenger on the H.M.S Avenger, an auxiliary aircraft carrier.
The vessel was sunk by a German U-boat in 1942. It was carrying 526 men at the time it was hit. Only 12 men survived, Russell was the only Newfoundlander.
Cassandra had visited him in Gander when she was younger and has fond memories of him that she relayed through her essay.
“I’m proud to reflect on the memories I was so lucky to be able to create with him,” she wrote.
The visits were often well planned out because Russell still suffered from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Cassandra explained the “shell shock” affected his life. When she or her father would knock on the door, he would sometimes hear it as guns or bombs going off.
She says she will always cherish the time they had together, and remember the stories he experienced from the war.
Her great-uncle Lew, as Cassandra calls him, is a proud veteran, who she only met a year ago.
Sometimes, she explains, a conversation would be taking place, and Lew would say something about Korea. But then, he would just go back to the conversation. She is proud to be his great-niece.
“Because of being lucky enough to meet these two men, I discovered the true meaning of a hero,” her essay explained.
She tells The Compass a hero is not always someone who wears a cape or fights crime. They are regular people who have done extraordinary things. People like "Uncle Lew" and "great-pop Walter" who fought for freedom deserve to be recognized.
“My heroes are two small town men from Gander, Newfoundland. Because of these two men I’ve learned a lot about life, war, why to remember and why people sacrifice their lives. But most importantly, I’ve learned the true definition of a hero,” her essay concludes.