Profile: Huron’s Abdul Kizito wins local Optimist International Oratorical Contest

When Abdul Kizito heard about the Optimist International Oratorical Contest, he thought he might give it a try. Little did he know he would go ahead and win the local version and pocket $500 in scholarship money.

“I was confident I could give a good speech, but I knew there would be other kids giving good speeches, too,” said Kizito, a 16-year-old Huron High School junior. “At first, I struggled with the thought that I wouldn’t be good enough, but I got over that and, as it turned out, I made a good decision to compete.”

The Optimist Club of Ann Arbor put on the local contest for Washtenaw County students under the age of 18. Speeches at the local level were delivered March 18 at the Pittsfield Township Learning Resource Center, with a $500 scholarship going to the winner, $300 to the runner-up and $100 to the third-place finisher.

Students wrote their own speeches and they were judged based on content and presentation by Washtenaw Circuit Court Judge Tim Connors, County Commissioner Dr. Felicia Brabec and Livonia Franklin English Teacher Victor Holman.

“It was a great experience, and it really helped boost my confidence to deliver my speech in front of those judges,” Kizito said. “I really think a lot of kids have the ability to give good speeches, but they might not have the confidence. I find that the more you do it, the more confident you become.”

Susan Baskett, Abdul Kizito, Aaron Garrett, Tony Fata and William Hampton.

In addition to the $500 first prize, Kizito won the right to compete at the Zone level on April 21. Had he won there, he would have moved on to the District Competition, then Regionals, and then the World Championship held at Saint Louis University where up to $22,500 in scholarship money was up for grabs.

But, Kizito ran into some stiff competition at the Zone level and he didn’t progress on to the District competition. Still, he doesn’t regret entering the Oratorical Contest.

“I was excited to compete,” he said.  “I’ve been in the Debate Club, the Student Government Club, the Ethics Bowl Club and I liked all of them, and all of that experience helped me when giving my speech. Model United Nations helped, as well.”

Kizito was quick to point to Ann Arbor Optimist Club organizers for their support, particularly to Club President William Hampton and Optimist Club member Susan Baskett.

“They both were great,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough.”

For their part, Hampton and Baskett shared Kizito’s sentiment.

“As they prepare for their future, many of our local students need experience expressing their thoughts and opinions to an audience,” Hampton said. “The Oratorical Contest challenges them to do just that.”

Baskett said it wasn’t easy for the judges to pick a winner, particularly with the excellent speeches given by second-place finisher Aaron Garret, third-place finisher Tony Fata and other competitors.

“I spoke to one judge and they said that Abdul’s delivery put him over the top,” said Baskett, an Ann Arbor Public Schools Board Member. “His diction, enthusiasm and content were all excellent.”

The theme of all the students’ speeches was “Where Are The Roots Of My Optimism?” and each student had various angles from which they attacked the subject. Kizito, who plans to go into law after high school, said that early failures in his life helped ironically became the root of his optimism.

One passage is particularly poignant: “Failure is the root of my optimism. We have all faced difficulties, we have learned from them, grown from them but most of all the fact that we have survived demonstrates a strength in us.”

Kizito, a native of Uganda, says his love of poetry – both writing it and reciting it – helped him when crafting and delivering his speech.

“I’ve been good at poetry every since I was a kid, it’s something I just love to do,” he said. “I took some of that low-key skill into my speech writing and presentation. It’s not something that really comes naturally, but I don’t struggle with it. I am becoming more comfortable with it the more I speak in public.”

Kizito indeed was comfortable giving his speech. Comfortable enough to come home with a $500 first prize.

“I didn’t expect to win,” he said. “I was just going to compete.”