05/17/2011 01:07 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2011

A Pat on the Back That Will Last a Lifetime

This week I got to hang out at the Air New Zealand lounge at LAX to see off a bunch of hugely excited kids leaving on a trip to London. Four girls and four boys, ages 11 and 12, from various LA Unified elementary schools.

They were going to Europe because they had won an essay contest conceived by LA's Best, the best afterschool program in the city, and Brit Week, which highlights the many British contributions to cultural and business life in California.

The kids had to read a classic British novel... Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland, Roald Dahl's Matilda, King Arthur, and Harry Potter, among others. Then they chose a character and wrote about why they most identified with him or her.

It was a voluntary program in their afterschool book clubs, called Joy of Reading. There were over 450 submissions. None of the children knew what the prize was going to be ahead of time. Along with Henry Winkler and Jane Seymour, I had the honor of being one of the judges (after the essays were narrowed down by other more qualified smarties). It was tough. The essays were personal, thoughtful, funny and well written.

The kids really examined themselves... one girl talked about being a survivor, like Ben Gunn in Treasure Island, another girl had courage, like Matilda, and was able to tell her friends she wouldn't do something that she knew was wrong, a boy identified with Long John Silver because of his struggles between his good side and bad side, and another boy wrote of being sneakily skillful and a brave spirit like Mr. Fox.

LA's Best serves more than 28,000 elementary school kids, nearly half of them English language learners in some of the most economically challenged communities in Los Angeles.

This program was designed to promote literacy. It surely did that. All of the kids had big fat books to read on the airplane. Their imaginations were soaring. Nobody had to tell them to smile for photos. Their parents were proud. The counselors and sponsors of the event were proud. I was proud. Everyone was.

It's rare that young children are so majorly rewarded for their academic and personal achievements. And why not? A pat on the back can go a long way in encouraging a kid to do great things. A trip to London is a pat that will be felt for a lifetime.