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Area youth earn Congressional Award honors

Front Row (left to right) Laura Van Epps, Colin Sorensen, Wayne Banks, Tonni Blount and Matthew Armistead. Back Row (left to right) Matthew Bashus, Lisa Zilli, Tony Zilli, 55th Wing Commander Brig. Gen. James Jones, Congressman Lee Terry, Dr. John Deegan, Bellevue Superintendent of Schools Edward Hanline, Erica McCoy, LauRen Gaines and Joseph Wier. (Courtesy Photo)

Front Row (left to right) Laura Van Epps, Colin Sorensen, Wayne Banks, Tonni Blount and Matthew Armistead. Back Row (left to right) Matthew Bashus, Lisa Zilli, Tony Zilli, 55th Wing Commander Brig. Gen. James Jones, Congressman Lee Terry, Dr. John Deegan, Bellevue Superintendent of Schools Edward Hanline, Erica McCoy, LauRen Gaines and Joseph Wier. (Courtesy Photo)

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- It was standing room only at the Bellevue Public Schools welcome center April 29 as Congressman Lee Terry, BPS Superintendent Dr. John Deegan and 55th Wing Commander Brig. Gen. Jim Jones paid tribute to a handful of young people who are establishing themselves as leaders and making a difference in people's lives.

Through the Congressional Award Program, established in 1979 by then President Jimmy Carter, the U.S. Congress "encourages young Americans to challenge themselves and recognizes young people who set and achieve goals in four program areas: volunteer public service, personal development, physical fitness and expedition/exploration activities," according to the Congressional Award Web site.

Beginning with bronze, silver and gold certificates and ending with bronze, silver and gold medals, each level is cumulative and carries over to the next. The minimum age to earn an award in the program is 14 and goals must be achieved by the person's 24th birthday.
Each program participant works with an adult advisor to set individual goals and plan activities to reach those goals.

The Congressional Award Program "really helps our youth become the leaders we want and need in our community," said Congressman Terry. "You have defined yourselves as leaders by saying 'I will do this although it's out of my comfort area.'"

A key area of the award program is volunteerism which the congressman said means "putting someone else before you ... saying someone else is worth being in front of you and that's what leaders do," he said.

Each award winner has displayed "the character to do what is right and show others the way," he said. "You've show your peers what it takes to separate from the crowd ... you are the trainers of leaders and I congratulate you."

The congressman noted those gathered were looking at the next congressman, senator, general or school superintendent.

Honored at this year's Congressional Award ceremony were:

Bronze and silver medal winner Wayne Banks - Wayne is the son of retired Master Sgt. Wayne and Angela Banks. He's a senior at Bellevue West High School where he is active in class senate, Congressional Award Club, National Honor Society, Diversity Club and the track, tennis and basketball teams. Wayne plans to attend Washington University on an academic scholarship to study biochemistry and Spanish. "The Congressional Award is unlike most awards because it requires a tangible amount of commitment and self-motivation, both which are lacking in our generation today," Wayne said after receiving his award. "Striving for this award has challenged me in several ways ... to pursue knowledge, improve the skills that I already possessed, to expand my horizons and use my personal strengths to the benefit of others and my community. It is extremely gratifying for me to receive this award because of its installation of a spirit of adventure, discovery and appreciation for the diverse cultures across the world. I encourage the rest of you to continue with me towards achieving the highest level of this award."

Silver medal winner Colin Sorensen - Colin is the son of Tim and Julie Sorensen. He's a junior at Papillion-LaVista High School where he is active in National Honor Society, Forensics and his school's tennis team. He takes private piano lessons, participates in the Omaha Tennis Association indoor junior league and volunteers at the Nebraska Humane Society. "When I started high school, I found myself losing passion for the things I loved," Colin said, "I stopped playing basketball and was seriously considering giving up piano. The Congressional Award Program gave me an extra incentive to stick with it and thank goodness I did ... I found out how much of a passion I have for music. The program allowed me to transform myself from a typical teenager into a highly motivated young musician but its not just music ... the program motivated me to pick up a tennis racket not just during the regular season but during the off-season as well ... over the last few years I've given over 300 hours of my time to help out in the community. I've grown so much as a person because of volunteering. I've learned to care about my role in the world ... and that I believe is what the Congressional Award Program is all about."

Bronze medal winner Matthew Armistead - Matthew is the son of Tech. Sgt. Darryl and Melissa Armistead. He's a junior at BWHS where he is active in the Congressional Award Club, Diversity Club, football and track teams, and is an athletic trainer for the girls' basketball team. He is also a member of the Anti-Defamation League promoting the importance of tolerance to metro area teenagers.

Bronze medal winner Matthew Bashus - Matthew is the son of Steven and Penny Bashus. He's a junior at Plattsmouth High School where he is a member of the track and football teams, Leadership Cadres and Renaissance Board. He was one of only 385 selected for the American Legion Boys State Camp. Matthew volunteers at the Nebraska Masonic Home working toward becoming a certified nursing assistant.

Bronze medal winner Tonni Blount - Tonni is the daughter of Anthony and Claudette Blount. She's a sophomore at BWHS where she is active in the Congressional Award Club, Science Olympiad, Quiz Bowl, Academic Decathlon, Sophomore Senate and varsity soccer. Tonni is also involved in the Midlands Hospital Teen Volunteer Program.

Bronze medal winner Joseph Wier - Joseph is the son of Col. Dennis and Claudia Wier. He's a sophomore at JMJ Holy Family Homeschool. Joseph enjoys playing tennis at the Offutt Field House with his friends. He is currently taking classes in ballroom dancing, tango and the waltz. In his free time he volunteers at the Offutt library.

Bronze medal winner Laura Van Epps - Laura is the daughter of retired Maj. Roger and Danette Van Epps. She's a junior at BWHS where she is active in class senate, Forensics, National Honor Society, soccer and the Congressional Award Club. She represents her school at the Hugh O'Brien Youth Leadership Conference and plans to volunteer at the wheelchair games this summer.

Bronze and silver certificate winners: LauRen Gaines, daughter of retired Master Sgt. Keith and Schernol Gaines; Edward Hanline, son of Edward and Kathy Hanline; Erica McCoy, daughter of Senior Master Sgt. Melvin and Carla McCoy; and Lisa and Tony Zilli, daughter and son respectively of Harry and retired Tech. Sgt. Marie Zilli.