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Program brings state youth national honors
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Mississippi youth are doing what it takes to earn gold medals, but these awards are for personal improvement and service, not athletics.
Seven Mississippians are being honored with the gold Congressional Award, the U.S. Congress' only award given to recognize the outstanding achievements of youth. Seven other state youth received silver and bronze medals in the same program.
Linda Mitchell, Family and Youth Center Coordinator in Tupelo with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said the gold awards are the culmination of a four-year program.
"America is blessed with wonderful, talented youth, and this program recognizes them," Mitchell said. "Anybody who completes the program and sets goals and achieves their goals receives the gold award."
The Congressional Award was established in the early 1970s during Jimmy Carter's administration. The awards recognize community service, personal development, physical fitness and expedition, or environmental awareness.
"These four areas were selected because we want our youth to grow up and give back to the community," Mitchell said. "During the four-year period they are involved in the program, we hope they will establish habits they will continue throughout the rest of their lives."
Mary Elizabeth Cody, 17, is a silver Congressional Award winner on her way to completing the program in 2002. She is also the recipient of one of four People to People Congressional Award scholarships given nationally. This will allow her to serve as an ambassador to the country of her choice this summer. She chose China and will be gone July 1 to 17.
"Before I started the program, I hadn't really traveled, so the opportunity of a trip to Washington attracted me," Cody said. "Also I liked the fact that I could be setting goals for myself and improving my knowledge and skills in a lot of areas, especially leadership and citizenship."
Cody chose China for her ambassador trip because she is a history buff and has always been intrigued by that country.
"I thought it would be one of the most different cultures I possibly could be immersed in," Cody said.
The U.S. Congress appoints a 17-member national board to oversee the program. Mitchell was appointed in 2000 for a six-year term on this board. Participating youth must propose a set of goals they would like to reach during their four years in the program. The national board must approve each youth's individual program for them to be eligible to receive the awards.
Bronze medals are given after one year in the program and silver medals after two years. These are given in state ceremonies in Washington, D.C. Seven Mississippi youth received silver and bronze medals April 26 in the Mississippi ceremony performed by Sen. Trent Lott.
Gold medals are given after the successful completion of all four years of the program. These youth are recognized in a national ceremony which is scheduled this year for June 20.
"Last year, we had 71 youth nationwide receive the gold award, and 10 of these were from New Albany," Mitchell said. "This year, 100 youth will receive the gold award, and seven are from Mississippi."
All the current Mississippi youth are members of 4-H, a program that Mitchell said is a perfect fit with the goals of the Congressional Award.
"Our mission in 4-H is to promote personal development, to give back to the community and to realize that learning is an ongoing process that never ends," Mitchell said.
Extension has set up training sessions throughout the state this summer to promote the program to a wider range of youth. Mitchell said these sessions are for volunteer leaders and 4-H agents interested in getting more youth involved in the Congressional Award program.
"By fall, youth throughout the state will be able to join this program," Mitchell said.
Receiving the gold award in June are Will Stanford, 18; Matt McDonough, 18; Ashley Allen, 18; Priscilla Giachelli, 18; Ashley Williamson, 18; Anna Williamson, 17; and Jacob Bagwell, 18. All are from New Albany.