Rebuilding a home in the Appalachian mountains or traveling to a Chinese orphanage isn't the way most teenagers spend their weekends. But the three local winners of the Congressional Gold Award aren't most teenagers -- they will be the recipients of Congress's highest honor for youth.
Founded in 1970, the Congressional Award's purpose is to motivate youth to get involved in their communities. Anyone 14 to 23 years old is eligible to participate, but the level of recognition (bronze, silver and gold) is based on the amount of time spent committed to public service, personal development, physical fitness and exploration.
Valerie Poutous of Bethel Park, J. Cameron Barge of Sewickley and Natalie Domeisen of O'Hara are among the 246 recipients to achieve the Gold Award this year. They will be honored at a ceremony on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
"There are 1,800 people currently working toward a Congressional Award in the state of Pennsylvania," said Derek Doyle, program coordinator. "But only 33 will receive the Gold Award this year. So to be a winner is certainly significant."
The main accomplishment of the winners is the completion of 400 hours of community service during a 24-month period.
Ms. Domeisen dedicated her volunteer time to the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America, where she organized and participated in multiple "swim-a-thon" events. The 19-year-old said because she was a swimmer in high school, the idea of combining her talents with a good cause attracted her to helping those with MS.
"After the event, I got a letter that told me exactly how the $1,500 we raised was spent and who it went to in our community," Ms. Domeisen said. "That was the moment that resonated with me most. That's why I kept going."
Cameron, 17, worked toward his Gold Award on a mission trip in the Appalachian mountains with his older brother, who is still completing the requirements. The boys' mother, Kathe Barge, said she thought the experience was invaluable to her children's character.
"It was a great way for them to learn how to set and work to achieve goals, while giving back to the community at the same time," Ms. Barge said.
For Valerie, also 17, the most meaningful experience was the "exploration" portion of the award. Valerie organized a trip to Zhanjiang, China, to visit the orphanage where she was born.
"I got to meet the woman who was my caregiver as a child and see the children who live there now," Valerie said. "It was amazing."
During the ceremony Tuesday, Valerie will be introduced by her congressman, U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair. Ms. Domeisen and Cameron will be accompanied by U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley. In an email, Mr. Rothfus congratulated the Gold Award winners along with Andrew Dadig of Aliquippa, who will receive the Bronze Award.
"Cameron, Natalie, and Andrew are outstanding young Americans who have significant public service achievements that should be commended," Mr. Rothfus wrote. "Their accomplishments reflect their commitment, dedication, and perseverance."
To find out how to get involved in the Congressional Award, visit www.congressionalaward.org.
Jessica Contrera: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1458.