By EMMA MILLS
At home, Sarah Shreve is a typical 9-year-old girl.
She laughs and plays with her sisters, exchanges secrets with her best friend, and dreams of becoming an art teacher.
And when the opportunity presented itself for her to win $10,000 in a national video contest for her elementary school in Lone Oak, Sarah, with the help of her mother, used her passion for art and the outdoors to create a one minute video short that has quickly landed her as a front runner for the grand prize.
But there is one thing that sets Sarah apart from the children she’s competing against — at home is the only place where Sarah freely speaks.
At an early age, Sarah was diagnosed with selective mutism, a severe social anxiety disorder that leaves those who suffer from it vocally paralyzed with fear when in public, rendering them unable to communicate with anyone other than the most trusted of individuals and in the safety of a familiar place.
“Doing this video was a huge step for Sarah in overcoming her phobia,” her mother, Melissa, said. “It took a lot of courage for her to decide to make it, knowing that there was the possibility that thousands of people from around the country would be hearing her speak.
She wrestled with a lot of anxiety during the process, but it was something she really wanted to do for the good of her school and so she pushed through it.”
The national contest, designed by Scotties Tissue to promote their environmentally-friendly paper company and tree planting campaign, prompts children in grades 3 through 5 to make a video explaining why trees are important to their community. The grand prize winner of the contest will win a cash prize, an iPad and a trip for four to either the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park.
But the real kicker for Sarah and her mom was the promise of an additional $10,000 to go toward the elementary school, as well as a tree-planting event to beautify the campus.
“Not only would the money make a huge impact on our little school, but even just having some trees outside in the front lawn would make a wonderful difference in the atmosphere,” Melissa said, noting that they probably wouldn’t have entered the contest had it not been for the difference it could make for Lone Oak Elementary.
“My school is truly wonderful, I think you’ll agree; we have a few shrubs, but we need some trees,” Sarah said in her video, shouting and waving her arms from a high tree limb.
While the video paints a picture of an excited, outgoing and playful schoolgirl, for most that have ever met Sarah it was a side of her they never knew existed.
“When I first showed the video to Sarah’s principal, she was absolutely speechless,” Melissa said. “Sarah has been at the school for four years and it was the very first time she had ever heard her voice.”
Knowing that Sarah, in her own way, needed the mental support of her classmates, Melissa encouraged her to let them see the video, as well.
“That was possibly the biggest hurdle; the idea of her classmates seeing that side of her made Sarah really nervous because of her anxiety,” Melissa said. “At first, she begged me not to let them see it, but I didn’t want to enable her fear; I wanted to help her face it. So I sat down with her and told her about how all of her classmates would be so proud of her for what she had done and would be so excited to hear her voice.”
After a few tears and a lot of thought Sarah agreed, so long as she could sit next to her best friend while the video was being shown in class.
“It might seem small, but it was an incredible step for Sarah to make,” Melissa said. “A year ago, she couldn’t have done that. This video has really been a huge source of therapy for Sarah in dealing with her disorder.”
In January, Melissa and Sarah received the news that, out of the thousands of contest entries submitted from across the country, Sarah had been chosen as one of twelve finalists.
From there, the Lone Oak community began a small grassroots campaign for daily votes, largely promoted through social media, that skyrocketed Sarah to the first place ranking, where, after a brief slip to number two, she has mostly remained for the past several weeks.
“The support Sarah has had from our little community has been truly overwhelming,” Melissa said. “The parents, teachers, even the students here truly care about their school, and there’s power in that. To see just a small community come together like we have to try and beat the odds, it’s an incredible thing to be a part of and I feel like it’s really made us grow closer in our school and in our town.”
Even if the votes fall short in the end, Melissa said, for her and her daughter the journey has been worth a thousand words.
“I have seen so much growth in Sarah just in these last couple of months,” she said. “I told Sarah ‘I’m proud of you, no matter what. You let your voice be heard, and look at the difference it’s made so far.’ In a lot of ways, we’ve already won.”
To vote for Sarah and Lone Oak Elementary School, visit www.scottiestreesrock.com and follow the prompts on the front page. Voting is limited to one vote per day, per email address. All votes must be submitted by Feb.15 at 11 p.m.
As of Monday afternoon Sarah remains in first place, but the rankings will not be updated again until the winner is announced. Less than 5,000 votes currently separate the first and last place contestants. Sarah and her family also encourage voters to 'share' the website link and her story with their followers on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.