Seaside teen Norah Takehara was one of over 500 youths across the nation to be honored with the Congressional Award this year for achievements in public service and personal growth.
Established in 1979, the Congressional Award Foundation is the United States Congress’ highest honor for young Americans. Participants work at their own pace to complete customized goals and have the opportunity to earn Bronze, Silver and Gold congressional certificates and medals.
The program recognizes initiative, service and achievement in youth ages 14-23, with specific emphasis on long-term goal setting. The Congressional Award is designed to encourage young people to become active in their communities while growing as young adults and achieving their goals.
The class of 2022 awardees was the largest Gold Medal class to date, with 549 youths from 41 states across the country receiving the medal.
The Gold Medal takes at least two years to earn and requires 800 activity hours across four program areas: 400 hours of community service, 200 hours of personal development, 200 hours of physical fitness and completing a five-day, four-night expedition or exploration trip.
Takehara spent three years completing the requirements and also earned a STEM star for completing additional science, technology, mathematics and engineering activities in pursuit of her medal.
Takehara said she had heard of the program through a friend and decided to get involved because she thought it would be a good way to build connections, hone her skills and further her love for community service.
“I come from a family (that) values giving back to the community,” Takehara said. “It’s always just been something that was instilled in me and that I’ve really enjoyed.”
Takehara completed her community service hours by volunteering at the Monterey Bay Aquarium every week. For the physical fitness requirement, she helped teach at her local dance studio and danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Monterey Peninsula Ballet Theater’s 2021 Nutcracker performance. Takehara chose culinary arts as her area for personal development, where she practiced new recipes and advanced her cooking skills.
The exploration program area required immersion in an unfamiliar environment or culture. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, Takehara chose to complete the requirement with a virtual exploration. She picked Amsterdam as her location and researched different activities to explore, including food, art, architecture and public parks. After completing her research, she wrote a 10-page paper on what she discovered.
Takehara said it was difficult to continue to pursue her goals and complete the necessary hours during the pandemic, especially with her additional school work and activities.
“There were definitely times where I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to finish it and get to the gold medal level that I wanted to be at,’ ” she admitted. “When you’re combining school and college applications with having to write a 10-page paper for this other program, a little bit of burnout can happen. But it was really worth it in the end.”
Takehara, who attended Ocean Grove Charter School, was able to experience the benefits of her hard work when she took a senior-class trip to Europe over the summer. When it was time to visit Amsterdam, she was able to use the knowledge she gained from her virtual exploration project and see the sites she had researched and wrote about.
Takehara, now a college freshman studying dance and psychology at the University of Arizona, said she learned a lot about herself during the time she spent pursuing the Congressional Award Gold Medal.
“I definitely think I learned how important volunteer work is to me,” she said. “And I developed a lot of skills in terms of … communicating, writing professionally and working with a group of people.”
In addition to the skills and life lessons she learned along the way, Takehara said she thinks receiving the award will help her future career in many ways, either by helping her stand out from other applicants for future opportunities or through the connections she made with other individuals in the program. The Congressional Award also has an extensive alumni network and offers additional opportunities for networking and further development.
“It was really worth it in the end,” Takehara said. “Being able to put that on my resume and have a physical golden medal — getting to have that is really cool. And I’m really glad that I finished the program.”
Contributed by local news sources