Sruthi Palaniappan/ABC News(WASHINGTON) — Anthony O’Leary spent a third of his life in foster care and is now an advocate for other foster youth.
Lucas Fortwengler, who has Down syndrome, is an Eagle Scout and works at a sporting goods store.
Alex Jin is a teenage emergency medical technician who aspires toward a career in medicine.
All three are recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal which recognizes young people, ages 14 to 24, who have devoted at least 800 hours towards volunteering, personal development, physical fitness and exploration over the past two years. This year, 538 young people from across the nation were awarded the esteemed medal for their significant contributions to their communities and wider society.
ABC News’ Congressional Correspondent, Mary Bruce, emceed the event which took place Thursday and featured members of the U.S. Congress on both sides of the aisle, including Speaker of the House Democrat Rep. Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy.
Paxton Baker, chairman of the board of the congressional award, highlighted the unique bipartisanship displayed at the annual event.
“The bipartisan nature of this program is the most encouraging component of it to me,” said Baker. “I’ve yet for one member of Congress to ask me what party I’m in. It simply doesn’t matter to them.”
Students recognized with a gold medal are “the people who go above and beyond” standard academics to engage with their community and develop personally.
Several of the students recognized have persevered through challenges and found meaning and purpose through service towards others.
Anthony O’Leary from San Diego, California, faced significant obstacles growing up, but found ways to give back to the very organizations that helped him along the way. O’Leary spent several years in the foster care system due to abuse he faced from his parents.
“I grew up in a pretty tough household,” he said. “My dad and my mom were young parents, and that was pretty tough for them. The didn’t have the opportunity to go to college or go further on with their life, so both dropped out of high school.”
Anthony’s life was unstable as he bounced between foster homes, his grandmother’s house, and his best friend’s place. He infrequently saw his dad or brother, which he described as being incredibly difficult.
As he navigated the court system, his Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) helped him reclaim his voice and advocate for a better situation. Through his advocate, he learned about the organization Voices for Children — which advocates for foster children and provides them with support through the court system. As a speaker for the organization, Anthony talked to foster youth about his experience and the impact his CASA had on his life in order to give them hope. He also led campaigns to collect school supplies, games and sports equipment for foster children.
“I see kids that are just like me, who are afraid, who don’t really understand what’s going on, but I try to give them hope,” said O’Leary. “And I think that makes me feel great to just see even a smile on their face.”
His character and strength are a result of his experiences growing up — when he learned to convert anger towards his situation to energy towards serving those in whose shoes he once walked himself.
When Anthony was going through a tough time, he “didn’t really understand that it was okay to have dreams” or follow what he enjoyed. Now, he encourages other young people to keep chasing their dreams. He is proud to attend the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the fall where he plans to study sociology and entrepreneurship with a dream career in sports management.
“Chase what you love, because no one can really draw you away from that except for you,” said Anthony.
Lucas Fortwengler, 23, from Louisville, Kentucky, is the first gold medal recipient from his state with Down syndrome. As part of the “Career Solutions” program through Down Syndrome of Louisville, Lucas was paired with the sporting goods store Cabela’s — which suits his interest in hunting and the outdoors. Through this program, he strengthened his communication, team building and problem solving abilities.
Lucas said he enjoys working with people and helping the customers find items they need.
“I help them find what items to look for. I help customers get what they need. I sell a lot of things,” Lucas said in describing his work day.
From the age of 7, Lucas has also been in the Boy Scouts of America and is currently an Eagle Scout. He is breaking down barriers and encouraging others with Down syndrome to not let their circumstances stop them from achieving great things.
“In my future, staying happy and achieving more,” Lucas said when asked to enumerate his personal goals.
Alex Jin from Maryland discovered her passion for service while working at the Montgomery County First Aid Unit which is a youth-run volunteer organizations that trains those ages 14 to 18 to become emergency medical responders.
“We go out on things called standbys where we provide first aid to local and D.C. events. So we do everything from 5Ks [and] company picnics to the presidential inauguration,” she told ABC News.
Since starting as a freshman in high school at the Montgomery County First Aid Unit, Alex rose up the ranks and became captain of the unit where she now oversees training new recruits.
“Seeing the students like throughout the year, discover their own passion for emergency medicine was really rewarding for me to see,” Alex said.
When she turned 16, she also applied to serve as an EMT at the local fire department where she now works. Next year, Alex will attend Brown University where she hopes to pursue a pre-med track and continue her love for emergency medicine.
The Congressional Award Foundation is a bipartisan charity created by the U.S. Congress in 1947 with the goal of encouraging young people to engage in community service and supporting their personal development.
The young people recognized by the Congressional Award provide a beacon of hope as we envision the future of our country. Baker encouraged the young people to continue volunteering in their communities and reminded them that “our country certainly needs you.”
“One of the most amazing things that a human being can do is to give of yourself,” Baker said. “I think that when you volunteer, that subconsciously, you allow yourself to know that there’s something that you can give beyond just the normal means of life.”
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