Three Ahwatukee high school seniors are recipients of the 2021 Congressional Award, and all three will receive Gold Medals in a special ceremony this summer in Washington, D.C.
Annika Bridge, Sierra Smith and Hannah Matsumoto are reaping the rewards of up to three years of work in various designated categories to receive the Congressional Award’s highest accolade, the Gold Medal.
The Congressional Award, established in 1979 to “recognize initiative, service, and achievement in young people” is a nonpartisan and voluntary program open to youth ages 13-1/2 to 23 who can earn bronze, silver and gold certificates or choose to level up to bronze, silver and gold medals.
Each level involves setting and fulfilling goals in four areas: voluntary public service, personal development, physical fitness and expedition/exploration.
The gold medal level is the most arduous. For instance, to earn this award, participants must complete 400 hours of volunteer and public service, 200 hours of personal development and 200 hours of physical fitness.
In addition, the expedition/exploration category requires the participant plan and fulfill a five-day, four-night trip.
And all of these difficult challenges were further complicated after last year’s mid-March pandemic shutdown.
“It was a lot of hours, a lot of work,” confessed Annika Bridge, a senior at BASIS Ahwatukee. “But it pushed me to be better organized, and I ended up really enjoying it.”
She said one of the effects of the COVID shutdown required her to scuttle her expedition/exploration goal to hike the length of Catalina Island, a part of the Channel Islands off the coast of California.
But it turned out well.
“Because of the pandemic, I had to change my plans for my expedition. I had planned to backpack through Catalina Island but the campgrounds in California closed and we couldn’t travel out of state. So, I had to basically replay my entire expedition,” said Bridge, who will attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as one of its 25 Chancellor Science Scholars.
“I then planned a six-day hiking and camping trip in Northern Arizona with my mom to escape the cabin fever I was feeling while studying for six AP (Advanced Placement) tests during the pandemic,” Annika said.
“As the only individuals hiking most of the trails, our focus shifted from the uncertainty of the pandemic to a calming peace among the Mogollon Rim pines, wildflowers, and prehistoric rock formations. And, on our hike, I observed rare species like the California Condor. It was really an amazing experience.”
Hannah Matsumoto, a senior at Tempe Prep who turned 18 on May 8, said she found the volunteer service hours requirement the most difficult to complete during the pandemic.
“With the other three, I was able to find activities I was already a part of and apply it to the award, but with the volunteer service hours requirement, I had to be more active seeking out opportunities to become engaged in the community,” said Hannah, who will be attending Notre Dame University. She will be a part of the Glynn Honors Program studying biological sciences.
“For my expedition, I helped plan a trip to Belize and I created an itinerary for the time that we were there. Each day we did different activities such as cave tubing and visiting the archaeological site Xunantunich,” she said.
Sierra Smith, also a Tempe Prep senior, said she found the many hours involved in meeting the challenges, especially volunteer public service, difficult to squeeze into an already busy life.
“I found the voluntary public service most challenging, but alternatively the most rewarding. It was only challenging due to the extensive time commitment you have to make. As a high schooler going from junior to senior year, I had to sacrifice my weekends to work towards the Congressional Award, but it was well worth it,” said Sierra, 18.
The 200 hours of physical fitness came more easily for Smith, who will attend Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College, majoring in biological sciences with a focus in genetics, cell and developmental biology with a goal of becoming a medical doctor.
Starting with the state’s highest mountain, Humphreys Peak with an elevation of 12,637 feet, she continued hiking Arizona mountains, ending with the 7,659 foot Brown’s Peak, the highest point of Maricopa’s Four Peaks.
“Humphrey’s Peak is the highest point in Arizona, but my later hikes were more arduous,” she said. “I was already very active when I started, but I wanted to push myself.”
“My entire life I’ve had a passion for physical fitness, whether it be for martial arts, weightlifting, or hiking,” said Sierra, who earned a Taekwondo black belt and taught as an assistant sensei as part of her physical fitness project.
“For all of my expeditions, I hiked a peak or mountain, and they progressively increased in difficulty as I moved up in rank.”
For her gold award expedition, and due to the pandemic, she also opted to plan and lead a camping trip in northern Arizona.
“I planned a week-long camping trip and did different activities each day, one of them being a hike on the Anna Mae Trail to the Tonto Natural Bridge,” she said, speaking of the natural travertine bridge for which the state park is named.
The number of hours involved in earning the Congressional Gold Medal Award were validated by an independent validator, not a family member.
For Annika, it took years.
“I fulfilled my bronze and silver awards in my freshman and sophomore years,” said Bridge who has set her educational goal toward earning a Ph.D. at UNC Chapel Hill to study viruses and diseases. “I spent my junior and senior years working toward the gold.”
Annika is the daughter of David and Pamela Bridge; Hannah’s parents are Dr. Diane Matsumoto and Dr. Bertrand Matsumoto; Sierra is the daughter of Baron and Kimberly Smith.
Other East Valley teens earning a Congressional Gold Medal were Julia Liu, Chandler; Lucas Tapia, Mesa, Viletta Panayotova and Theresa O’Connor, Tempe. Three other Tucson youth were also Gold Medal winners.
For more information on the Congressional Award, see CongressionalAward.org.