By Anna Grace Moore
Photos by James and Rachel Culver and Contributed
From Tuesday, June 20-Thursday, June 22, 2023, the recipients of the 2023 Congressional Award Gold Medal were recognized at the 2023 Gold Medal Summit in Washington, D.C. The Congressional Award Foundation hosted this event and honored 574 gold medalists.
As the U.S. Congress’ only non-profit, the Congressional Award Foundation serves to honor American youth civilians who go above and beyond their call of duty for their initiative to serve others and achieve high goals. A bipartisan legislation, Public Law 96-114, was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter to establish the Congressional Award and honor these young professionals.
The Congressional Award is the highest honor Congress can bestow to youths ages 14-23 years old. Youths must spend a minimum of 24 months completing a certain number of hours in voluntary public service, personal development, physical fitness and attend an expedition trip to qualify.
Of the 3,797 Congressional Award recipients, 574 youths were awarded the gold medal standard. Siblings James and Amelia DeLano were two of only three gold medal recipients from the state of Alabama.
Hailing from Hoover, Alabama, James, 18, and Amelia, 16, each worked extremely hard to attain this prestigious honor. Although, it’s not surprising that either of them earned this award, considering how they carry themselves in day-to-day life.
James graduated from Evangel Christian School in 2023 as valedictorian of his class. He now attends UAB and is studying English, focusing on professional writing.
James wants to earn his Master’s in Library Studies to further advances in disability access and equity.
Amelia is a rising junior at Evangel. She is a XCEL Diamond gymnast at Mountain Brook Gymnastics.
Amelia is also shadowing at 280 Animal Clinic Westover and wants to attend Mississippi State University’s early-entry program for veterinary school.
Both James and Amelia say that earning this award was not only the hardest thing they have ever had to do, but it was also the most rewarding aspect of their lives thus far.
Upon realizing she had won the award, Amelia says, “I was really happy! I was still at my gymnastics meet, so all of my coaches and teammates were with me. They were so proud!”
With as big an honor as winning the Congressional Award is, James and Amelia, notably, are very humble. Amelia credits their mother, Victoria DeLano, for instilling in them both a spirit of resiliency and humility.
“My mom helped us [a ton],” Amelia says. “I do not think I would’ve gotten through it [without her].”
James, too, shares the same sentiment. He believes success only ever holds power if the one possessing such attainment learns to walk in humility.
James was born with a very rare type of Mitochondrial disease that affects his body’s energy production. He was diagnosed after numerous hospitalizations at age 7.
Symptoms of Mitochondrial diseases, which are grouped to refer to a number of genetic conditions, include feeling fatigued or weak; experiencing strokes, seizures and heart problems; and more. James spent a significant portion of his life in doctor’s offices and hospitals, but instead of growing angry or resentful, he chose to use his pain to fuel his public service initiative, Lennie’s Letters.
“Lennie’s Letters were a group of a dozen teen volunteers that I started during Covid,” James says. “We sent letters to children with orphan diseases. We sent hand-written letters every week over the course of two years.”
When asked why he chose to write to children with orphan diseases, James explained that these children have diseases of which much is not known about them–meaning many of these diseases do not yet have a cure. Several of those receiving Lennie’s Letters were hospitalized or passed away during this time.
“For several years when I was younger and in the hospital a lot, there was a woman at my church named Sandi Coffey, who sent a card every week up until and including the week that she passed away,” James says. “I never even met her, but she was a big part of my week. I wanted to pass that along.”
James and his volunteers, which included Amelia, church members, neighbors and more, wrote more than 1,500 letters to their recipients. The letters got their name from James’ now retired service dog, Lennie, whose picture was on many of the post cards, too.
Amelia not only helped write Lennie’s Letters for her public service hours, but she also raised a service dog puppy for Canine Companions, which is a service dog organization based in Santa Rosa, California.
Amelia got her puppy, Nolani, in June 2021 and raised her for 18 months in accordance with Canine Companions’ training methods. Amelia had to learn both how to raise a puppy and how to get the puppy to follow commands associated with helping people with disabilities.
“We had to work with her every day to teach her commands and her name,” Amelia says. “I would take her with me [everywhere]. She’s been to UAB, gymnastics meets, in an RV and more.”
After Nolani’s training period, Amelia gave her back to Canine Companions to work in the service dog industry. However, dogs are not the only animal Amelia worked with during her work to earn the Congressional Award.
For her personal development hours, Amelia worked with Special Equestrians, which is a non-profit that provides horse-riding therapy to people with cognitive, emotional or physical challenges. She worked there once a week for two years, learning how to feed, brush, clean and tend to the horses’ needs.
The personal development category is unique in that youths must work towards a personal goal or career path they wish to pursue. Amelia wants to become a veterinarian, so she spent her personal development hours volunteering with Special Equestrians and now shadowing at 280 Animal Clinic Westover.
“I’ve just always wanted to be a vet,” Amelia says. “My godfather is a vet, so I’ve shadowed with him since I was really little. It’s always been what I wanted to do.”
James, on the other hand, spent his personal development hours volunteering at the Hoover Public Library. He says while his main focus was organizing and shelving library materials, he also got to help plan and carry out library events for children, such as sensory story time.
As for physical fitness, both James and Amelia say this was one of their most-challenging categories. James spent his hours riding with Special Equestrians, where he says he has ridden for the past nine years.
Amelia continued to compete as an XCEL Diamond, which is one of the highest-levels gymnasts can attain. Being homeschooled, she says, allows her to practice for multiple hours a day.
The last aspect of the Congressional Award is the expedition trip. As probably the most interesting challenge for any youth vying for the gold medal standard, he or she must plan his or her own five-day, four-night trip to someplace altogether new.
Youths must also log a certain number of tasks they compete on each trip, detailing all they have learned. Amelia spent two weeks working on a family member’s farm in North Carolina; whereas, James spent several weeks in England, learning about the history of Great Britain.
Although James and Amelia each started and finished their work to earn the Congressional Award at different times, they were both honored together at the first in-person Congressional Award Gold Summit this year since the pandemic’s onset. While there, gold medal recipients got to meet their state’s senators and representatives, attend discussion panels and lobby their interests and ideas to Congress.
Ferring Pharmaceuticals, who is the Congressional Award’s STEM Stars initiative partner, led a discussion panel on advances in STEM. Other panels included talks on service and advocacy, women empowerment and pathways to careers.
James and Amelia personally got to meet Rep. Gary Palmer, Rep. Terri Sewell and Sen. Tommy Tuberville. They both say it was one of the greatest honors of their lives.
Working to earn the Congressional Award is extremely difficult, Amelia says. She believes it is also one of the most important things youths can do to serve others, learning the value of hard work and the benefits that arise from it, too.
James agrees, saying that it takes a special kind of person to attain such an honor, and it is not always the person with the best grades or who is most physically fit. In other words, he says, reach for the sky because the limits of what one can accomplish do not exist within the right mindset and will to achieve.
Perhaps if these values of hard work, dedication and humility were taught to every youth, he or she would leave a lasting impression on generations to come, much like James and Amelia DeLano.
For more information on the Congressional Award, visit congressionalaward.org.