Imagine dedicating 10 40-hour work weeks to volunteer public service, then an additional 10 full work weeks to personal development and fitness – all while keeping up a full schedule of school, extra-curricular and social activities.
That’s a simplified explanation of what six local high school students did over two years or more to qualify for a 2022 US Congressional Award gold medal, a program launched by Congress in 1979.
They are among 549 students nationwide who will be honored in a July ceremony, which switched from Washington, DC to a virtual due to the pandemic. Each gold medal recipient documented at least 400 hours of public service, 200 hours of personal development, 200 hours of physical fitness, plus completed a project during a five-day expedition or exploration. Whew!
Sonia Burns, a graduate of the San Dieguito Academy High School in Encinitas, served as president of the Assists, a youth auxiliary of the Assistance League of Rancho San Dieguito. She spent numerous hours knitting scarves for members of the military and homeless teens in Oceanside. She also sent notes to patients in psychiatric hospitals for Solely Sunshine and, working with an Encinitas church, cut fabric to make pajamas for low-income families. Burns is now a freshman at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.
Serim Jang, a Canyon Crest Academy senior, helped special needs children at the nonprofit Academy of Music and Art for Special Education. She gave them singing and musical instrument lessons and helped them prepare for a finale concert. Jang also created videos on making origami to share with the students.
Donovan Morgan, a Cathedral Catholic High senior, made sandwich after sandwich, putting together more than 2,000 sack lunches that were distributed to those in need through Interfaith Community Services in Escondido.
Roma Nagle, a senior at La Jolla Country Day School, sorted produce at Feeding San Diego’s warehouse and started a group at her school to call and thank the food donors program. She also volunteered for Learn to Be, tutoring students in disadvantaged communities. In a separate project, she compiled fourth-graders’ family recipes into a holiday cookbook for each student to take home.
Sofie Roberts went far beyond the required hours, logging 714 hours of volunteering, 306 hours of personal development and 544 hours of physical fitness. The Santa Fe Christian Schools senior organized collection campaigns for toys, hygiene products and school items which were packed into Operation Christmas totable gift boxes and shipped to kids in Third World countries. She also assisted with classes for beginning music students and mentored students involved in the Mainly Mozart Youth Orchestra.
Maya Rosenbaum, also a senior at Canyon Crest Academy, co-led a group called Female Athlete Volunteers in making and delivering gift packs of personal hygiene items to Meals on Wheels seniors. She used money she earned working as a lifeguard to buy gift items.
Contrary to what one might think, the San Diego students say it wasn’t too difficult to fit their volunteer and personal development hours into their daily activities.
“These roles are demanding but not to the point of putting aside other things,” says Rosenbaum, 18. “I learned a lot about organization, keeping calendars, lists and structuring my days, which was a super valuable thing.”
Burns adds that, because of the COVID-19 outbreak, she was forced to curtail her social activities anyway. “If it weren’t for the pandemic, I might have been stressed out about finishing all the hours,” she admits.
Many of these students had a history of community involvement even before seeking Congressional recognition. “I’ve been doing this for six or seven years – just the past couple of years has been for the award,” says Donovan of his volunteer work with Interfaith Community Services.
Beginning at age 12, Roberts began giving violin instruction on Saturday mornings to a youngster with Down syndrome at the urging of her Mainly Mozart music teacher.
On Sunday mornings, Rosenbaum regularly worked with the Burrito Boyz of San Diego making breakfast burritos and hand delivering them to transients in downtown San Diego. “I learned to talk to the homeless and hear their stories. You really feel like you’re making a difference, ”she says.
Valuable insights and life lessons came out of many of their projects. Burns’ expedition involved studying insect-eating pitcher plants in the Philippines. This re-affirmed her interest in biology and environmental sciences, which she is considering as her college major.
Jang’s work with the Academy of Music and Art for Special Education, especially with kids on the autism spectrum, clinched her decision to become a college psychology major.
While on her expedition in Rome, Roberts veered away from typical tourist attractions and rented a vespa to tour local neighborhoods and meet everyday people. As a bonus, her adventure led her to the restaurant credited with inventing fettuccine Alfredo.
“I don’t feel like I need to be given an award for doing something nice for someone. … I would still have done it, ”Roberts says. “While the gold award recognition is nice, it’s truly an amazing feeling just to go out in your community and help people.”
Morgan, of Poway, puts it this way: “It’s not something you do to get the award, but something you get for doing your life.” The greatest reward is to give back to a community that’s in need – especially at a time when everyone is struggling with the pandemic.
There are other paybacks, too. Rosenbaum, of Carmel Valley, says her activities inserted her into the real world. Leading volunteering events was a huge responsibility, but “I learned I really enjoyed reaching out to people I didn’t know.”
Roberts notes that if you put yourself out there, you’ll find your strengths and take pride and joy in helping others.
Morgan is a matter-of-fact: “It’s being grateful for what you have in your life and being able to share your gifts with others.”
The medals are merely symbolic – these teens have hearts of gold.