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Ten-year-old Erin Stark was born in the United States. So were her parents and grandparents.

The fifth-grader at Bellevue’s Enatai Elementary School doesn’t have her own immigration story, but she can talk about her friend, Aaron, who emigrated from Korea, and her own ancestors who came from Ireland.

“There’s just a lot more people than just a basic everyday American,” said Erin, of Bellevue.

The stories she’s heard inspired a poem titled, “What Would You Miss About Immigrants If They Didn’t Come to America?,” which she entered in a writing contest sponsored by the American Immigration Council. The contest
invites fifth-graders to submit a writing entry based on the theme, “Why I am Glad America is a Nation of Immigrants.”

Erin’s poem won first place out of more than 5,000 entries. Her reward is an all-expenses-paid trip to San Francisco, where she will read her winning entry at the council’s
annual benefit dinner on June 28.

Erin’s poem started as an assignment in Monica Chun’s fifth-grade class. Chun assigned her students to ask their relatives at home a question: “Who was the first person in our family to come to America?”

In a classroom with both Native Americans and first-generation Americans, the answers varied. Some students had ancestors who came on the Mayflower. Erin’s ancestors immigrated during the potato famine in the mid-1800s.

“In fifth grade you don’t ask [your parents], ‘Who was the first person to come to America?’ ” said Chun, herself a descendant of missionaries in Hawaii. “So they really enjoyed finding out about their families.”

When Erin started writing her poem, she said, she thought about the different things immigrants bring to the country.

The first line of her poem is “Would you miss the food?” and mentions pot stickers, spaghetti and crepes. In the next stanzas she asks the same about holidays and art.

“She talked about the things that are important to a fifth-grader: food, dance, family; everything that makes up a culture,” Chun said. “To me, that said it all. When they come to a country, they don’t just bring themselves. They bring their culture, their food, their dance, their ways of saying things.”

The American Immigration Council, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based immigration advocacy group, has held a writing contest for the past 16 years, according to Claire Tesh, senior manager for the council’s community education center. Guest judges this year included Henry Cejudo, who won an Olympic gold medal in wrestling in 2008, and Gerda Weissmann Klein, a Holocaust survivor who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Erin liked her poem, she said, but she wasn’t expecting to win the national contest.

She’s been practicing her speech in front of her classroom and trying to get used to a new expander put in her palate to widen her jaw. It’s been making it hard to say certain words. She’s getting excited for the trip.

“It’s not often you get an assignment that wins a trip to San Francisco,” her mother, Marie Stark, said. Erin’s grandfather wrote a book of poetry, and Marie said she was proud her daughter is continuing the tradition.

Erin is looking forward to summer vacation and wants to start writing a story. She likes fiction the most. She paused and considered what she would write about next.

“Maybe I’ll even write about immigrants.”

Paige Cornwell: 206-464-2517 or