For the past 15 years, I have had the privilege of judging high school nonfiction, and more recently adult nonfiction, entries in the Trumbull Arts Council's literary writing competition. Each year, I have been blown away by the quality and depth of the writing and the sensitivity in these pieces.

This year was no exception in a contest that draws more than 500 entries in various categories. I faced the usual challenge of finding an honorable mention, second- and first-place prize winners from about 14 entries in my categories, and no matter how many years I've been judging in this competition, I still make those decisions with trepidation and worry that some angry writer may come up after the ceremony and chastise me for not choosing his or her work.

Happily, that has never happened, and the winners have walked away smiling even at the honorable-mention level. My biggest regret every year is that we can only give three prizes and the quality of the writing is consistently so good that I've often tried to offer at least two honorable and two second place winners.

Judges don't know the identity of the writers as they are judging pieces. We don't learn the winners' names until the morning of the awards ceremony, which was last week. And these writers are so creative with their copy that I often don't recognize that one writer has written two winning pieces.

For example, one of my winners this year, Wendy, won honorable mention in one category and second place in another. I believe Wendy is a Fairfield resident, but in any case, she is part of a Fairfield writer's group that meets regularly at the downtown library. And the leader of the group, Louise, was right there in the audience, cheering Wendy on.

Her pieces were touching and warm. One was about her discovery of her dad's roller skates on the 20th anniversary of his death and her euphoria at learning that he was an avid skater in the '30s and '40s.

The other, written in a more lighthearted tone, was about a week at the shore that the author spent many years before with a rambunctious nephew. At the beginning of that week, a wave had knocked Wendy down, and she lost her glasses. After she'd designated her nephew as her eyes for the week, she noticed a real positive change in his behavior, and she even found her glasses.

We spoke briefly after the ceremony, and Wendy said the rambunctious nephew was about to become a dad and had turned into a wonderful guy.

My first-place winner turned out to be a good friend and business colleague, Tanya, whom I hadn't seen in several years. Her touching story of how her physically handicapped granddaughter conquered the big bus that took her to school daily moved me to tears and was a clear first-place winner for me.

I found myself choking up as I finished my last excerpt from her piece and I gave Tanya a big hug as I handed her the winning first-place check. Of course, we also spent some time after the ceremony catching up on the gaps since we'd last gotten together. What a wonderful surprise that was for me.

As I said in my opening remarks that day, "Reading these authors' pieces gives me even more incentive to make my writing the best quality it can be, and I thank all of them for that."

This competition has special meaning for me, especially as I hear excerpts from the winning pieces by student writers who have taken the risk to share poems, fiction and nonfiction pieces. Some of them are no older than third grade.

Writers address subjects like suicide and the deaths of loved ones from illness or disease; addiction, domestic violence, bullying and so many other tough issues. Their work has often taken my breath away.

And the judges with whom I share the stage annually are among the most talented writers I've ever met and are so modest. One of my colleagues, Tony Abbott, is a talented children's book writer and one of the most down-to-earth people I've ever met.

Almost all the others have written books and magazine articles like I have and are happy to make the time every summer to read the entries from the 500-plus authors who submit their work annually to the competition.

Overall, I consider myself very lucky to be part of this competition and the 100-plus parents, family members and friends who join us each year continue to validate the importance of writing creatively and writing well.

Steven Gaynes "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at stevengaynes44@gmail.com.