Ellie Jean Bakkedahl
Palm City, FL
Martin County High School
Gold Medal, 2014
The Congressional Award was not an easy goal to obtain, but I am proud of my achievements. The many hours I spent volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club, helping to improve the Belle Glade area, and the time spent at Citrus Grove Elementary School have all left lasting impressions on my life. These hours taught me the importance of reaching out to others for the sole purpose of improving the lives of those around me. The hours devoted to personal development which I spent practicing guitar and exercising to maintain a healthy body taught me how to set and accomplish a desired goal. In addition, the hours spent to achieve my physical goal which were accomplished on the volleyball courts showed me that through dedication and hard work, goals can be obtained. And let’s not forget the grueling hours I spent under the hot Florida sun, testing the little patience I had just to complete the Expeditions. I tackled the wilds of Jonathan Dickinson State Park being flipped over in my canoe by a manatee for the Bronze Expedition; took a hunters safety class to help towards my Silver Expedition in which I set the goal to hunt, clean and prepare wild duck for sustaining meals while being immersed in the Lake Okeechobee area, and for the Gold Award I hiked and biked the numerous trails in Wekiwa Springs State Park in Central Florida. The Awards ceremony made me feel noticed for what I achieved and most of all it showed me that with a little perseverance I can achieve anything. I highly recommend others take the Congressional Award Challenge to feel the same sense of pride, accomplishment, and self-satisfaction.
John Charles Peruzzi
Bronze Medal, 2013
I registered for the Congressional Award as soon as I turned 14, but, at that time, I didn’t realize how much it would positively impact my life. I was already interested in community service, for example, volunteering at my local Boys and Girls Club. The Congressional Award inspired me to take that interest to another level. I became a founding member of a volunteer group called Teen-Works. Over the last few years, Teen-Works has grown to 26 middle and high school students located four states and representing eight different schools. Our community service projects help children with needs, provide emergency relief, and support on recycling/sustainability. For example, we have donated 7,000 books for disadvantaged kids, provided over 2,000 emergency kits for victims of disasters like Hurricane Sandy, and made 750 tie-dyed pillow cases for kids with cancer. The Congressional Award process challenged me to get more involved in community service. Through this, I learned that a small group of teenagers can make a big difference when we work together. I even got to learn about web development when I helped create the website for our group.
The Congressional Award has positively impacted my participation not just in community service but in other areas as well. I’ve gained an appreciation for setting goals and working to achieve them in sports, music and exploration/expedition. I’ve played the piano for personal enjoyment since I was four, and the Congressional Award has challenged me to perform for my grandmother’s nursing home and to make a CD of my music. In athletics, I really enjoy basketball, and I set a goal of improving certain skills and spending extra hours training with a coach and playing in an evaluation league. These steps have made me a much stronger contributor to my school’s JV team. In terms of exploration, I planned and executed the biggest trip of my life – an expedition to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. There, I began to grasp the meaning of our global community and how we must preserve our natural resources. Though far from home, this trip reinforced some of the same concepts I’d learned from Teen-Works, and it convinced me that I want to keep working to make a difference and contribute to my community.
Alexandra Joy Gritta
Lincoln High School, Class of 2014
Gold Medal, 2013
I believe that all young people (age 13-1/2 to 24) can benefit greatly from participating in the Congressional Award program. During the process of completing the different program requirements in the four categories of Voluntary Public Service, Physical Fitness, Personal Development and Expedition/Exploration, participants become well rounded individuals and gain valuable experiences. The program inspires American youth to set goals and journey to places they might never have imagined or experienced otherwise; challenging America’s youth to learn more about themselves, about others, and to become active participants in their communities. Speaking from personal experience, I can honestly say that I probably would not have cycled over 1,600 miles or spent 4 nights in the wilderness in a shelter I helped to build myself, had I not been working to earn a Congressional gold medal award. The practice hours that I spent with my viola, working toward my personal development goals, helped me achieve first chair in two different orchestras. I was inspired to push past the limits which I thought I had and, in that process, achieve goals that affected my life in positive ways.
My recommendation to 8th grade students across America is to sign up for the Congressional Award program the day after they turn 13-1/2, just like I did. The process of setting different program goals for yourself will help you clearly identify what your interests and passions in life really are. The many different certificate and medal options of the Congressional Award program make it a manageable program for any youth in just about any circumstance.
The Congressional Award program provides a truly unique opportunity for youth across America to develop themselves personally and professionally in ways that no other program can boast. Specifically, the Congressional Award, through the completion of the four program areas, impels participants to develop superior critical thinking abilities as they are required to design, organize, implement, and successfully manage the goals therein. The service project area in particular offers participants the opportunity to understand and embrace a new level of servant hood and professionalism as they learn to organize and implement their plans. All of these skills contribute to one’s progress towards adulthood and for me personally the Congressional Award experience has made it much easier to mobilize events and people while in college.
The project development feature of the Congressional Award program also teach participants to “roll with the punches” in that participants must anticipate and control the setbacks and extenuating circumstances that arise throughout the length of their projects. This flexibility lesson extends beyond just the Voluntary Public Service project—candidates must develop endurance to accomplish their physical fitness goal, a determination to evolve and mature personally, and finally the desire for a real sensitivity to different cultures and environments in order to ensure the success of their Expedition/Exploration.
The most important result of participating in the Congressional Award program is that it opens the road to a lifelong desire and appreciation for serving others in need. It instills an attitude of volunteerism and servant hood that can only be obtained by getting involved in a way that puts to good use one’s own special gifts and abilities. The Congressional Award experience has prepared me to visualize my future in terms of specific goals to be accomplished and also to be fully aware of the detailed hard work it will take to cross the each finish line.
Robert Rowlett is a 2011 Gold Medalist
Lauren Jessen of Seattle, Washington, will be receiving her Gold Medal next week at The Congressional Award’s Gold Medal Ceremony in Washington, D.C. Lauren has taken a moment to reflect on her experience with the program and has gratefully shared it with us:
I first learned about the Congressional Award in 2007. As a junior in high school, I thought that I was already over occupied with activities and volunteering. However, while I was involved in academic and extracurricular activities, I was not setting goals or measuring my achievements in ways that would help me grow and learn more about myself or my community. After learning more about the Congressional Award and realizing what new opportunities and growth I could experience from the program, I recognized that it was never too late to set goals and try new experiences.
The Congressional Award positively impacted my life from day one. From the moment I knew I could be a part of this program, I had no doubt that my life was going to change in a great way. While I have learned many lessons, there are three in particular that stand out the most. The first way the Congressional Award has played a positive role in my life is by allowing me to experience things I never would have otherwise.
For example, for my Gold Medal Exploration, I planned a road trip following the Mormon Trail and the destinations that my great-great-great-great grandfather documented in his journal as he led a wagon train to Salt Lake City, Utah. Through this journey, I learned a great deal about my family history, the difficulties my ancestors faced, and saw parts of the United States I may never have seen without the Congressional Award giving me the motivation and reason to do so.
The second way the Congressional Award has positively influenced my life is that it presented me with the chance to learn more about myself through the process of evaluating my strengths and weaknesses, setting goals, determining steps to make my goals a reality, and to improve upon my previous achievements. As I earned my medals and set new goals for each new level, I had to push myself further than I did before, and being able to self-analyze and learn what I was capable of achieving was eye-opening and critical in my self-growth.
The Congressional Award is an organized journey with the freedom to choose your own paths. It is because of the structure of the program married with the individual choice to decide what activities to be involved in that brings me to the third way my life has been positively influenced. Although participants earn Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medals as an amazing honor for accomplishing goals and hours, for me the program was never about the material achievements, but the personal non-tangible rewards I attained along the way, such as perseverance, dedication, self-motivation, and confidence. There is no question that the Congressional Award has positively influenced me, and it is an experience that has provided endless lessons and will remain a positive force in my life.
Insight from a Silver Medalist:
Josiah Ray Bierle
North County Christian School
Silver Medal, 2013
The Congressional Award program is an outstanding opportunity for young people to learn about dedication, interpersonal relationships, networking, goal setting, and real-life work experience. It offers a challenge that will prepare one for an exciting future. The program allows the participant to tailor the required categories to their interests, allowing them to gain experience in activities that will facilitate their future career plans. Additionally, prospective colleges and employers recognize and respect the amount of work and dedication that the program requires. On a personal level, the Congressional Award gives the satisfaction of attaining a long-term goal. Aside from the external benefits, the internal gratification of reaching a tough goal makes all the required effort worth it.
In my personal experience, the Congressional Award has motivated me to higher objectives. I have become a more dedicated and experienced person; my goals and the people that I have met through the program keep me accountable and give me the motivation to keep going. One of my most ambitious goals in the program was to fly an airplane by myself on my sixteenth birthday. I completed this goal, and after performing two touch-and-goes, I landed and taxied back to the parking area. The flight was uneventful, but certainly the most memorable twenty minutes of my life. The experience of flying by myself was both frightening and incredible. I had many emotions during the flight; knowing that there was no one in the right seat for the first time was a strange feeling. It was really a milestone, since I have dreamed of the day I would solo since I was seven years old. The Congressional Award provided extra motivation to achieve this goal. This is just one example of how the program has pushed me to excel and do things that challenged me in all aspects of my life. Learning to fly is a tangible example of how the program can help you reach goals for your future career. Since I am planning to be a pilot, I chose to incorporate my interest in flying into the program. This is one of the best aspects of the Congressional Award.
The four categories within the program encourage participants to strive for excellence in many different areas. One of my greatest lessons from the program was learning the importance of volunteerism. With well over 400 hours of service, I have found that I really enjoy volunteer work; and of course, there is the added benefit of being able to reach out to the community. The challenges, friendships, goals, motivation, and service are all a part of what makes this program an exciting preparation for the future.
Nicole Prum has been advising Congressional Award Medalists since 2010. However Nicole is no ordinary advisor, she has taken on the challenging role of serving as a coordinator, mentor, and advisor to immigrant students in the Philadelphia Schools System.
Nicole began working with PA Migrant Education Program in 1994, designing and implementing educational support services for Pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade migrant students. With the program already heavenly based on personal development and volunteer service, Nicole saw The Congressional Award as a natural fit for her student body.
In 2010, after working closely with The Congressional Award for over 13 years, Nicole took on the role of advisor upon the retirement of her colleague Elaine Steinbacher. Ms. Prum has had a very positive experience as advisor for her Congressional Award participants. She enthusiastically writes, “I have the privilege of observing new and recent immigrant engaging in positive, community outreach”. Each year PA Migrant Ed. students contribute thousands of hours to the City of Philadelphia and set excellent examples for their peers.
Nicole encourages each and every young individual to engage in service learning. She says even if students are hesitant to become active in their communities over time they will become more comfortable. Over the past four years Nicole has severed as an advisor for dozens of PA Migrant Ed. students and is a witness to the awards ability to motivate students to become well rounded young people. This year over 20 of Nicole’s mentees will be traveling to Washington, D.C. to receive their The Congressional Award Medals.
Lauren Maunus is a 2014 Congressional Award Gold Medalist from Palm City, Florida. In addition to her achievements as a Medalist, Lauren is an accomplished TEDxYouth Speaker. Be sure to check out this clip from one of her recent talks in Miami.
Lauren’s experience with The Congressional Award:
We are taught from a young age that we are a product of our experiences and my involvement with the Congressional Award has showed me that we shape those experiences by establishing and achieving our own goals. I have expanded my passion for social justice through participation in the four program areas, while learning about my community and myself. As importantly, my participation has helped me to grow into a more passionate, engaged citizen, and has granted me a great sense of pride for having made an impact in my community and nation. Skills I derived from each program area became stepping-stones for me to accomplish my goals.
I began the Personal Development component during the 2011 primary elections by leading a voter pre-registration drive at my high school, interning for a US Congressman (I am honored to have received the Congressional Award from Congressman Murphy, who I proudly supported in 2011 and 2012), and volunteering for President Obama’s re-election campaign. I learned about the election process and met key stakeholders and legislators in my community, state and nation. Furthermore, I acquired strong organization and communication skills and my ardor for politics was intensified.
Volunteer Public Service was, and continues to be, stimulating and rewarding. When I am asked “What motivates you?” I never hesitate to reply, “my experiences.” I have managed volunteers at a community kitchen for three years, and I coordinate a team of volunteers from my temple to staff the soup kitchen at a neighboring church every month.
My greatest challenge and achievement began with the Congressional Award and has evolved into a lifelong commitment to improving student health and nutrition. What started as a labor of love, inspired by my sister who suffers from food allergies, has grown into a federal initiative to reform national school nutrition and food allergy policy. Through passion, patience, and persistence, I continue to advocate for meaningful change. I have met with local, state, and federal leaders, and was invited to the White House to share my ideas. I also delivered a TEDxYouth Talk to inspire my peers to follow their passion to effect social change.
The Congressional Award is definitely harboring a more engaged and passionate generation of youth, and I would highly recommend meeting the challenge of the Congressional Award! 400 hours of volunteer time didn’t seem like work in pursuit of my passions; in fact, my volunteer time has grown to over 1,500 hours as I continue to further my advocacy and broaden my experiences.
Kathy Christenson has been mentoring youth for nearly two decades. For fifteen years, Kathy was a dedicated teacher, educating special needs students from kindergarten through fifth grade. After moving to Jacksonville, Florida, Kathy continued her passion for service and helping youth. When she saw that Habitat for Humanity was in need of a volunteer to assist with educational programming she jumped to the challenge. Kathy worked to establish tutoring programs and recruit community volunteers. Her work with Habitat for Humanity quickly transformed into a full time position where she worked to partner with other community organizations. Through this position, she began to administer Take Stock in Children, a Florida wide program that provides mentors for secondary school students in low income range.
With Kathy’s background in community service and providing assistance to youth being well known, Congressman Ander Crenshaw of Florida’s 4th Congressional District, reached out to Habitat to see if they could adapt The Congressional Award into their various outreach programs. Kathy ultimately decided to, “dive in and see what happens!” as she says. She quickly got a good response from students!
Kathy views The Congressional Award as, “a very personal commitment” and finds it necessary that adults “help them (participants) grow with each accomplishment”. As an advisor she sees an impact in her mentees through, “growth in self-confidence, social skills, and exposure to community organizations”. Kathy’s commitment to The Congressional Award has produced growth in the greater Jacksonville area. She has even inspired another teacher to serve as an advisor for youth pursuing the award. When asked how she would guide a student who was considering The Congressional Award challenge Kathy wisely responded, “I would only encourage a student to begin the journey if they felt they were ready for this commitment. If they are, it can lead to wonderful learning experiences and feeling proud knowing they are making a difference in their community. It will lead them to a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to serve. And, gratitude leads to happiness.”
On January 28, 2014, seven of Kathy’s participants were presented Congressional Awards by Congressman Crenshaw. This was a very exciting event for Kathy and her mentees! One of her participants, Destiny Bronson, reflected on a time when she was presented with a challenge and Kathy was able to offer guidance and support. Destiny recalled, “I was nervous about speaking in front of a crowd of over 300 executive women, but the support from her [Kathy] kept me clam. Overall, the event was great and got press recognition and everyone was so pleased with the way myself and the other girls hosted the event. Kathy told everyone how great I did and how successful the ceremony and I wouldn’t have the experience if she couldn’t have referred me.”
This week is another very important time for Ms. Christenson. Kathy has been selected to present the Congressional Award program as an excellent activity for engaging older youth in after school programs at this year’s National AfterSchool Association Conference in New York City. This further exemplifies Kathy’s passion for the program and getting youth involved in their communities.