Young Public Servants Get a Day in the Spotlight

Posted June 17, 2008 at 4:32pm

Emily Cortright was only 4 years old when her twin brothers were born prematurely, two months and two weeks before their due date. But the experience made a strong impression on her.

Now a high school student, Cortright has dedicated hours of her free time to sewing quilts for neonatal intensive care units to give back to the establishment that ultimately saved the lives of her brothers.

The 17-year-old made the quilts as part of her public service project for the Congressional Award Gold Medal, which is considered to be Congress’ highest honor for youth service.

The noncompetitive program recognizes dedication to voluntary public service, personal development and physical fitness in young people ages 14 to 23. The awards are granted based on how many hours of service participants complete. Gold Medal winners must reach 400 hours of voluntary public service, 200 hours of personal development activities and 200 hours of physical fitness exercises to qualify.

Cortright, along with 236 others, will be recognized for achieving her Congressional Award Gold Medal on Thursday in the Cannon House Office Building.

About 160 of the winners are expected to attend one of two medal ceremonies, which are split according to the participants’ districts. All winners will receive gold medals struck by the U.S. Mint.

In addition to sewing for the neonatal units, Cortright also made quilts for veterans hospitals in her home state of Connecticut, drywalled houses in Louisiana after Hurricane Rita, harvested potatoes in Virginia for a food bank, participated in band and singing groups at her high school, played softball and squash and hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail.

“The hardest part was finding the time to do all the community service,” Cortright said. “That is why I chose knitting and sewing — that is something you can do in your free time.”

Gold Medal recipient Michael Atkins Jr., 17, also helped keep people warm with his public service. Atkins and his sister created the Warming Tree project, which collected gloves, coats, scarves and other warm clothing for battered women’s shelters, social services and soup kitchens. Atkins asked local businesses in the Pikeville, N.C., area to sponsor trees in their stores where people could donate items, and then distributed everything to those in need in time for the winter holiday season.

“I handed a pair of gloves to a guy that had just come out of the soup kitchen and started to walk away, but he came up to me and said: ‘I already have a pair of gloves. Give them to someone who needs them,’” Atkins said. “It’s amazing just seeing how genuine some people can be while having so little.”

Olivia Shuck, 17, and Amanda McGehee, 20, also will receive Gold Medals on Thursday for projects they completed in preparation for careers in medicine.

Shuck spent more than 400 hours volunteering in the nursery at Mary Immaculate Hospital in Newport News, Va. She also made “Helping Hands” baskets that were given to people whose loved ones were in accidents.

“The whole experience really taught me a lot about medicine,” Shuck said. “Helping someone else — making their life better —made me feel better.”

McGehee, who is studying biochemistry at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, dedicated her time to helping the elderly. She cleaned their houses, drove them to church and picked up their groceries, among other things. McGehee is studying for the Medical College Admission Test and will spend part of her summer participating in a research project on Alzheimer’s disease.

McGehee and her fellow Gold Medal recipients also will be honored Thursday evening, with a reception at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest. The winners are invited to bring two guests each, but any additional tickets cost $100.

Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints and actor and professional wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson also will get special recognition at the reception. Both founded organizations dedicated to helping children facing adversity and will be presented with Horizon Awards for their dedication to youth and community service.

First lady Laura Bush and former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and his wife, Patricia Thompson Lott, also will be honored at the reception for their support of civic responsibility in youth and the Congressional Award.

Since its establishment in 1979, the Congressional Award has recognized more than 25,000 young Americans for their commitment to improving themselves and those around them. Cortright, Atkins, Shuck and McGehee all said they were extremely satisfied with their participation and recommend the program to their peers.

“This has been a great experience … not for personal gain, but just to know I am able to make someone’s day or help them when they need help,” McGehee said. “I believe this program transformed me from just an American to a good American — no, a great American — who is doing volunteer service and acting on the needs of others.”