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.
For the past 11 years, Karen Yee of Pittsburgh, Penn., has advised 20 Congressional Award Medalists – with seven earning the Gold Medal. Mrs. Yee was introduced to the program by then Senator Rick Santorum in 2000. A mother of three and a retired caseworker for the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare, Mrs. Yee was disappointed she had not heard of the program sooner and began reaching out and encouraging young people to register.
With each participant she advises, Mrs. Yee finds that the most rewarding part is “witnessing the maturation of immature, idealistic teens into responsible, caring adults.” Through the Congressional Award, she has watched young people realize their abilities to set and achieve challenging goals. Throughout the process, medalists are able to broaden their horizons through meaningful interactions with people of different backgrounds. With many of her advisees active in the BLANK, Mrs. Yee has found that the Congressional Award helps young people realize the many opportunities available for them in the United States.
Mrs. Yee’s advise for success? Thoroughly read the Program Book, think about and confer with your advisor about what you would like to do and explore. Then Go For It!
Not one full year into the program, Seth Alicea of Clifton, N.J. began making waves in his community. To earn his Bronze Medal, Seth completed over 100 hours of volunteer work, practiced an instrument native to his Puerto Rican culture and bettered his soccer game by increasing his speed and endurance. But it was his Expedition that turned heads in his hometown.
He made himself homeless.
Knowing that more than 12,000 people in the state of New Jersey are without homes, Seth decided to raise awareness for the growing problem by living in a box for 24 hours. Het set up his makeshift shelter in front of a well-traveled road, held a cardboard sign, ate meals provided by Hope Ministries, a local food pantry, and even went so far as to wear donated clothes.
“When I had to take off my normal clothes and put on clothes from the pantry, it sparked a love for the homeless,” Seth said. “This experience has really changed me in knowing that I did something for someone else rather than me.”
Before his Expedition, Seth said he saw homeless people as individuals “who put themselves on the streets.” Now he knows that’s often not the case.In the future, Seth would like to give more of his time to helping people in his community and possibly run a program that assists the homeless get back on their feet. In the meantime, he continues to feed the less fortunate at Hope Ministries and his father’s, Abel Alicea, restaurant, and he also strives for his Silver Medal.
“[The Congressional Award] took me away from being self-centered to people-centered,” Seth said. “It’s not easy to give of your own free time to help people in need, but you feel good when you make a difference.”
And making a difference is exactly what Seth is doing.
Sydney A. Peavy
Mount Airy, North Carolina
School Attending: Mount Airy High School
Level Earned: Silver Medal – 2012
What I love about the Congressional Award program is that within the program parameters you have the freedom to design your own experience. There are no meetings to attend or recurring program fees which restricts those with busy schedules and limited funds. Working with your program advisor you go at your own pace with complete autonomy!
The Congressional Award program is also the perfect complement to scouting. I’ve been a Girl Scout for thirteen years and would encourage every Girl Scout to join. Over the last 3 years, I’ve learned to set goals, keep records and challenge myself to try new activities. The challenge to volunteer 400 hours seemed daunting at first. However, I found myself seeking out ways to volunteer in my spare time and during the summers. Subsequently, I have met adults who have inspired me with their dedication to serving those in the community. Through volunteering, a pattern of service has been established that will continue even though I have completed the Congressional Award requirements.
I once read that “well-rounded means a person without edges”. However, it is the edges in our personality and experiences that make us unique and interesting. Completing the requirements in the areas of Public Service, Personal Development, Expedition and Physical Fitness has definitely given me an edge!
I would challenge every middle school student to sign up! Despite your background, interests and talents, participating in this program will help you maintain focus and develop your strengths. The Congressional Award may be our country’s best kept secret!