*** Published Monday, July 26 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***
Tim Grunstra of Bristol, Va., has logged more than 1,000 hours of community service.
His sisters, Rachel and Grace, are pretty community minded as well.
So are John and Jason Dreyzehner of Abingdon, Va.
And all five also devote themselves to activities involving personal development, physical fitness and exploring new things.
That's why all five were honored by the U.S. Congress in June – as gold medal winners in the Congressional Award program for youth. To receive the honor, participants must set personal goals in those four category areas. When their goals are met, they are invited to Washington, D.C., for a week of activities and to receive their medals. The program is open to all 14- to 23-year-olds, regardless of grade point averages or past accomplishments. The focus, the program's website explains, is setting and meeting goals, and 252 youth from across the country did just that to receive medals this year.
Among the honorees, the 9th congressional district in Virginia was the best represented in the state, with six medalists: the five from the Bristol area and Kathleen Rogers of Radford. In all, 17 youth in Virginia and two in Tennessee received the award.
"It was definitely something we really had to work for," Tim said Friday at Rivers Way Outdoor Adventure Center, where he is a summer staff member.
"We all had our own personal service. We were all working towards the same thing but through our own lives," Tim said.
But the honors fit their lives, he said, because they were already doing many of the activities required for the award. That was particularly true for Tim, who has dyslexia and other learning impairments, but was able to meet the requirements of winning the award.
Homeschooled with his seven siblings his whole life, Tim, who is 19, said he did not learn to read until he was a teenager because of his disabilities. But he plays soccer, studies Karate-Do, and practices acrobatics. He logged his community services hours through several organizations, including the Boy Scouts of America, Doe River Gorge, Keep Bristol Beautiful, Faith in Action Food Pantry and Rivers Way.
His sister, Rachel Grunstra, 17, who accumulated 400 hours of public service and is heavily involved in the performing arts, also said the involvement required came naturally.
"I was involved with community service, physical fitness and personal development before I even knew of the program," Rachel said in an e-mail she sent from Hungary, where she is scheduled to perform as part of an international choir celebrating Pecs, Hungary, becoming the Capital of Culture for the European Union on Aug. 12.
"Before I went to Washington, D.C., I didn't know that earning the Congressional Award gold medal was a big deal," Rachel said.
"At first it was just something I received for logging so many hours of things I was already doing," she said. "Earning this award has been a highlight of my life so far."
Jason Dreyzehner, 16, said working toward the award pushed him harder. "I used the award to motivate me to pursue computers," Jason said in Abingdon on Friday.
Jason became more involved with the Technology Student Association at Abingdon High School. Now, he is the state president of the organization.
For the award, Jason learned multiple programming languages and graphic design techniques. One day, he said, he would like to go into the budding field of molecular programming, which includes building molecules from scratch for specific purposes, such as curing cancer.
John, also of Abingdon, said working toward the award program encouraged him to try new things – such as cross-country.
"The award gave me a whole new level of goals to fulfill," he said.
Jason and John both said they logged most of their service hours through the Boy Scouts. Both also are All-State swimmers.
John, 19, also is involved with music. He worked on his keyboarding skills for his church and developed his voice skills for the award.
Now an upcoming sophomore at the University of Virginia, he plans to double major in physics and music. At UVA, he has performed the Baritone lead, Parageno, in the opera, "A Magic Flute," and is involved with the acapella group, the Virginia Gentlemen.
Grace Grunstra and John and Jason Dreyzehner also have been asked to sing in the international choir in Hungary next month, said Ruth Grunstra, who is Rachel, Grace and Tim's mother.
Previously, the kids had performed in Hungary through the Highlands Youth Ensemble.
The Congressional Award's expedition-exploration component required the five to set out on an adventure as well.
Jason participated in a five-month exchange program in Germany.
John led a U.S. contingent with 40 Boy Scouts to the World Scouting Jamboree in England.
The three Grunstras explored the Creeper Trail on a five-day backpacking trip.
Each of the five also needed an advisor to validate the work toward their goals. Ruth Grunstra served as the advisor for John and Jason Dreyzehner.
Jana Dreyzehner, John and Jason's mother, served as the Grunstras advisor.
"I really enjoyed watching the kids grow," said Jana Dreyzehner, who is currently advising about 10 other youth for the award. "This award is different because it challenges each individual to set personally challenging goals."
The trip to Washington provided a number of new opportunities for all of the honorees.
"We visited many national monuments, memorials, the Senate, and museums," Rachel said in the e-mail. "This was one of the best experiences of my life. I became good friends with many of the awardees because we were all hard working, fun loving, caring people."
Grace Grunstra, 15, also through an e-mail from Hungary, said being in the U.S. Capitol was fun.
"Just knowing that while we were there so much was going on, decisions being made that could shape our future," Grace said. "We were a part of something big and something important. It was amazing."
Tim said, "to meet the different nominees and find out what they did was an amazing experience."
Grace said all of their hard work paid off.
"We all have worked so hard and just want to share our experiences with others and encourage them to expand their goals and work harder," Grace said in the e-mail. The award program "was so rewarding and worth every bit of the hard work. Plus, it was so much fun. We all had an amazing time."
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-- Young Choir Member Also Going to Hungary
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