Father’s nearly fatal accident is subject of senior’s winning essay on prayer

By Sam Lucero | The Compass | April 25, 2018

Writing is a passion for Notre Dame Academy’s Hannah Dercks

GREEN BAY — The near death of her father five years ago led Hannah Dercks to a renewed prayer life. The Notre Dame Academy senior, chief editor of her high school’s literary magazine, “The Muse,” put her experience into words for a creative writing scholarship contest in December and the essay was recently awarded first place out of 207 entries.

Hannah Dercks holds a photo of herself and her father, Dennis Dercks. Hannah, a senior at Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay, wrote an essay about praying when her father fell from a porch and nearly died. Her essay took first place in the Prayer Soup Scholarship Competition. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Winning the Prayer Soup Scholarship Competition award of $1,500 will help Hannah, 17, pay for her expenses at UW-Madison, where she will major in English with an emphasis in creative writing.

Hannah’s calling as a writer was evident at an early age. She and her family (parents Dennis and Jennifer and brother Elijah, 19) are members of St. John the Baptist Parish in Seymour. As a third grader at St. John the Baptist School in Howard, she started The Good News, a school newspaper. With the help of her mother, Hannah oversaw the publication of three editions.

“It was like the school paper, but it was the third-grade class doing it,” said Hannah. “I was just getting into writing and talking to my mom about it. A couple of kids were like, ‘Yeah, a newspaper. That would be kind of cool.’

“Then my mom said, ‘Let’s do it. She would stay up at night formatting the paper and helping me write articles,” Hannah recalled. “We just did it that year, probably because of all the work involved. It was a really cool experience.”

With ink in her blood, there was no turning back from writing. She was on her high school’s newspaper staff for three years before focusing on the literary magazine this year. While researching scholarship opportunities last fall, Hannah learned about a creative writing scholarship contest on prayer through Prayer Soup, Inc. From its website, prayersoup.org, the organization promotes experiences with prayer.

“Our philosophy at Prayer Soup is that, too often, the word ‘prayer’ is used in the narrowest of ways,” Ann Carr, Prayer Soup president, told The Compass in an email. “We believe that prayer includes all the ways people seek to experience meaning and connection with others.”

Hannah decided to write about her father, who fell some 13 feet from the family’s porch in December of 2012. He had been doing extensive renovation to the family’s home in Seymour. “He fell off the porch and when his head hit, it cracked the cement,” said Hannah.

He was rushed to the hospital and in her essay, Hannah described his condition.

“He plummeted to the cement, receiving nine rib fractures, six spine fractures and an epidural hematoma that devastated his brain, filled it with blood,” she wrote. “He would die. If, by some miracle he survived, he would be in a vegetative state.”

In what doctors described as a miracle, her father quickly recovered and was back home in about two weeks. “The doctors said there was no medical explanation,” said Hannah. “They couldn’t say why he was getting better. They were like, he should be dead or in a vegetative state, but he’s improving.”

It was during those two weeks that Hannah prayed for her father. In her essay, she described how she prayed:

“I have prayed since I was a little girl. I was brought up in a Catholic family, informed on the grace and the love God gave us,” she wrote. “But I’m not going to lie. Praying to the big guy in the sky is quite challenging …”

She said that traditional prayer wasn’t her “most popular option” and instead found a connection to God through her surroundings. “My impactful prayer experience happened as I fell asleep,” she said. “As I watched the snowflakes whirl and the lily (on a bedside lamp) dance, I eased into a prayerful, meditative state. It was oddly calming.”

Hannah told The Compass that she believes prayer is as individual as each person.

“I learned it’s not just saying a ‘Hail Mary.’ Definitely, that’s great and I still do that, but there’s other stuff you can do in addition,” she said. “Like sometimes just sitting there and thinking, maybe just watching and letting it relax you and calm you down and let peace wash over you rather than fighting it. That could also be another way of letting God’s grace in.”

Hannah said that her father’s accident changed her life.

“If my father never fell, I know I would not have discovered how instrumental silence can be for the healing of the soul,” she wrote. “When things get hard, so hard that I feel my heart shattering inside, I close my eyes and remember the night when the sweet snowflakes danced and the lovely lily twirled just for me.”

Before submitting her essay, Hannah showed it to her mother and father.

“I had Mom read it because she’s like my writing inspiration and my first English teacher,” she said. “I showed it to my dad and he was touched by it and thought it was really nice. … You could tell he was honored that I even chose to write the essay about him.”

Other people who have read her essay say Hannah has a bright future.

Carolyn Brown, Hannah’s creative writing instructor at Notre Dame, said she wasn’t surprised by the quality of her essay. “What stunned me was the depth of her insight, her appreciation of prayer and God’s goodness, her understanding that prayer can’t be defined with a dictionary definition,” said Brown. “I learned a lot from this ‘student’ of mine.”

“My goal as a writer is to leave people with this feeling, this message, to move them,” said Hannah. “I just want the people who are reading to feel something and be moved by it.”

Read Hannah Dercks’ winning essay at this link.

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