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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 9, 2011

Voorheesville brings home trophy
Returning victorious, like Odysseus to Ithaca

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

After years of working together, Voorheesville middle-school students captured first place in this year’s Odyssey of the Mind World Finals.

The five kids were honored by their town board last night and will be recognized by the state legislature next week.

Two of the winners, Alex Relyea and Ben Mackay, started with the Odyssey of the Mind team as first-graders. They were joined the next year by Lydia Parker, and the following year by Sadye Goldfarb. Erik Patak joined the team this year for its grand finale.

Although other Voorheesville teams have won regionally, this team broke new ground with a first-place finish at the World Finals, held Memorial Day weekend at the University of Maryland.

Their long-time volunteer coach, Jean Mackay, Ben’s mother, described the scene at the closing awards ceremony. Over 850 teams from across the country and around the world paraded, Olympic-style, each with the flag of their country.

“There were 15,000 people in this huge arena,” said Mackay. “They called the sixth-, fifth-, and fourth-place winners, then the third and second.”

Voorheesville was not called.

“The anticipation was tremendous,” said Mackay. “When we weren’t called, the kids looked at me and said, ‘We didn’t get it.’” They prepared themselves to accept defeat.

Mackay, who knew two of the three category scores, figured the Voorheesville team had to be in the top five for its division. There were 19 divisions based on five different problems, and categories for elementary school, middle school, high school, and college teams.

“I said, ‘”I wouldn’t give up yet,’” recalled Mackay. “They called our name and the whole section of New York teams erupted.”

The team members brought their giant trophy home to the middle school.

Winning ways

The team was tasked with picking a character from classical literature to lead tourists through three locations. They chose Amelia Bedelia — Peggy Parish’s endearing character who takes figures of speech literally to comic effect.

“It played to their verbal skills,” said Mackay.

They portrayed Amelia as a bookworm, leading a tour of bookworms literally through a book, illustrating how reading opens new worlds.

Being bookworms, they visited the Big Apple. They also visited Papua, New Guinea, and finally the Kingdom of Words, which was made of black and white word art.

The kids, on their own, constructed a six-foot pop-up book, guided by Erik Patak who has a hobby making pop-up books — small ones.

“They were intrigued to see if they could do it on a scale of six feet,” said Mackay. Ben Mackay wrote Northco Signs, describing the challenges, and the group took a trip to Northco to pick up tips.

“They have to do all the work themselves; the coach just helps them stay focused,” said Mackay.

She started her coaching duties when her older son was involved in Odyssey of the Mind. “He wasn’t playing sports,” she recalled, “And, while I can’t coach soccer or baseball, I love creative and academic pursuits.”

The kids also fashioned their own costumes, with a great deal of flair. Traditional tribal outfits from Papua, for example, were made of atlas pages, hula hoops, and garden stakes.

Each played his or her part to perfection. Lydia Parker was Amelia Bedelia. Alex Relyea and Ben Mackay were tourist bookworms.

Ben was a bookmark with a take-your-time, keep-you-place attitude, said his mother, while Alex was a page-turner — a girl in a rush. Since trash items had to be used, their costumes were made out of worn-out book pages.

The problem also required that someone play the guard of a worthless item. Sadye Goldfarb played the Early Bird — as in “catches the worm” — guarding the end of the book, because she didn’t want to give it away. Erik Patak played Papa, which Amelia confused with Papua, leading to hilarity.

The group performed ninth out of 64 teams. “We felt we had to leave a strong impression on the first day,” said Mackay. And they did. One of the judges commented, “You blew my head off!”

In addition to the performance, the kids were judged on style. And, in a third category, they had to do some spontaneous problem solving.

One of the highlights of the trip, Mackay said, was the pairing of the Voorheesville team with a team from Beijing, China. Five middle-school students and three teachers from China spoke limited English but were able to communicate in other ways.

“The kids had to figure it out,” said Mackay.

The Chinese children brought beautiful pens and pins to exchange for the New Yorkers pins and T-shirts. One evening, the kids played Frisbee and simple circle games together. “They stayed late into the night with one another,” said Mackay. “It was wonderful to watch.”

They cheered each other’s performances and parted as friends.

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