Novi teen wins local round of America & Me Essay Contest

By: Charity Meier | Novi Note | Published April 17, 2024

 Gabriel Taverner, 14, of Novi, takes a photo with his hero, his grandmother Benita Puzzuoli, of Canton.

Gabriel Taverner, 14, of Novi, takes a photo with his hero, his grandmother Benita Puzzuoli, of Canton.

Photo provided by Michele Taverner


NOVI — A Novi teenager won the local round of the 55th annual America and Me Essay Contest, sponsored by Farm Bureau Insurance, with an essay depicting his grandmother as his hero.

Gabriel Taverner, 14, an eighth grade student at St. Paul Lutheran School in Northville, named his grandmother, Benita Puzzuoli, of Canton, as his personal Michigan hero in the approximately 500-word essay. He said she was just recently given the all-clear following a battle with acute myeloid leukemia, but throughout her battle with the disease, she never stopped following the Lord and helping others.

“I chose her because she really impacted my life even though she wasn’t feeling good,” Taverner said. “She was very strong. She was very valiant. She taught me lessons even though she was going through a hardship of her own.”

In his essay, Taverner spoke of how Puzzuoli taught him to have a strong faith in God even in the hardest times.  He said that despite her illness she always has a positive attitude and puts others before herself. He stressed that his grandmother equipped him with “the wisdom of God, which gives a peace that surpasses all understanding.” He said her favorite verse is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”

“When I face the difficulties of this world, I know that this verse can be an anchor to my relationship with Christ, and it’s extra special because it is a treasured verse of hers,” Taverner wrote in his essay.

“When my only grandson, Gabriel, announced he was entering a writing contest at school, I never dreamed the topic would be about me,” Puzzuoli said. “Most importantly, what impressed me even more than his writing skills was his strong faith in God. He has been a huge part in the process of my recovery, and I’m so honored and grateful to be his grandmother.”

Taverner said he was surprised when he found out he won the local round of the contest, especially because his essay was so Christ-centered; he thought it might have been overlooked.

“Frankly, I thought that if it said it was about Christ or something, that they wouldn’t do it, but I was surprised how the Holy Spirit worked in them and they took it,” he said.

Taverner’s teacher, Angelique Chopp, said that in her 25 years of teaching, Taverner is the first student who wanted to enter this contest.

“Middle school kids are funny like that. If they don’t have to write, they don’t want to write. But Gabriel loved it,” she said.

Taverner said he was excited to participate in the contest. He said he loves writing and doesn’t see it as something that he is forced to do. He described writing as a way of expressing oneself in an artistic way, which allows him to use a vast variety of “zesty” words.

“Some people look at it as something to do — a duty, like in high school you have to write. It’s not something they look forward to, but I think the whole process researching or in this case with the experience depending on what it is, I think it’s just important to know the meaning of what you are talking about, and if it means a lot to you, then you should enjoy writing it,” Taverner said.

He said he saw the contest as an opportunity to express his joy and love for his grandmother while letting other families who are afflicted with cancer know that they are not alone.

“I was hoping for a positive impact (on others), definitely, because it’s easy to lose hope,” he said. “But you got to know that there is a savior that can pull you out of it, and here’s an example. And real-world examples definitely help.”

Taverner was one of several thousand eighth grade students from nearly 200 Michigan schools to participate in the 2023-2024 America and Me  Essay Contest. The contest encourages Michigan youngsters to explore the greatness of America and its people, according to a press release.

As a local winner, he was presented with a certificate from the state and a plaque with his name on it to hang at the school. His essay advanced to the state competition, but it was recently announced that he didn’t make it into the top 10 who will receive recognition in Lansing next month, along with a cash prize.

“If I had 25 Gabriels, I would have the best class ever,” Chopp said. “He is extremely patient. He’s extremely polite — always polite. I’ve never heard him say a mean thing, and this is middle school; like, these kids are brutal to each other. Not Gabriel. … He’s mature, he’s kind, he’s considerate. He’s not making fart noises like the other kids do. He is a remarkable young man. Truly one of a kind.”

“We are really proud that he is a finalist, but most especially that he chose his grandmother to write about and has shared her faith and his own in the process,” said his mother, author Michelle (M.D.) Taverner. “I think they are both such an inspiration for others in that way.”