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One Chicago middle school student walks his neighborhood scared that one day he'll be mistaken for a gangbanger. Another watched as a friendly basketball game escalated to a young man being held at gunpoint.

These and other encounters with youth violence were the subject of nearly 1,000 poems, essays and other writings by students across the city, all submitted in the 17th annual Do the Write Thing competition. A Tuesday night ceremony at the University of Illinois at Chicago honored the 100 finalists whose submissions conveyed personal experiences with violence and offered solutions.

"We don't tell them what they have to write," said Robin Hulshizer, chairwoman of the writing competition. "Some write a poem or a play. We don't judge on grammar or capitalization. It's all about the meaning of the words on the page."

Organizers selected two winners, eighth-graders Damian Flores of Columbia Explorers Academy and Fabiola Paloma of Hurley Elementary, who will be flown to Washington, D.C., to represent Chicago at the national competition.

An except from Fabiola's winning poem, "Last One Standing," reads:

Waking up, stepping out with fear. Around the corner, bullets can interfere.

I see my three friends, they say hello. The fourth one didn't make it home.

Our minds are set, we need to survive. But I'm thinking further of how to get out alive.

Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, whose 15-year-old daughter Hadiya was fatally shot in Chicago in January 2013, spoke to the finalists Tuesday night, noting that they and Hadiya had similar ambitions.

"When she was in middle school she created a video against the violence and gang activity," Cowley-Pendleton said. "Only four short years later, to be murdered by a gang member. … We don't know how much time you have, but with the time we do have we should make it worthwhile. ... I encourage each of you to continue to build from what you've done today."

The writing competition is an outgrowth of the National Campaign to Stop Violence, which helps young people in Chicago and in more than 50 other U.S. communities examine the impact of youth violence in their lives.

tbriscoe@tribpub.com

Twitter @TonyBriscoe

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