07/28/08 — Atkins wins Gold Congressional Award

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Atkins wins Gold Congressional Award

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on July 28, 2008 1:43 PM

A rising senior at Charles B. Aycock High School has earned the Gold Congressional Award, the highest honor Congress gives to teenagers for achievement and community service.

Michael Atkins, 17, was one of three teens from North Carolina who recently traveled to the nation's capital to accept the recognition.

News-Argus/Bonnie Edwards

Tracy Atkins is proud of her 17-year old son, Michael, who has earned the Gold Congressional Award, the highest honor Congress gives to teenagers for achievement and community service.

He said participating in the program has made him not only a better student, but a better person.

"It improves your academics and athletics. It improves you in so any ways, and it looks pretty good on a college application," said Atkins, who found out about the program through his involvement in 4-H.

The program allows teens to set goals that build character and foster personal development and community service.

Atkins first earned the bronze designation, then the silver, before going on to earn the gold award.

Atkins said the process was lengthy, but well worth the effort. He advised other teens interested in the program to get started early. He said he would be glad to help any other youths interested in pursuing the program.

Atkins began with an online application in 2004. Each level of work involved community service, physical fitness, personal character development and an expedition, complete with goals.

He said the most fun he had was on the expedition, a trip he planned himself. He worked up a budget and then took the trip with his father as chaperone.

His first trip was for one night away from home to earn the bronze award. The silver award expedition was for two nights, and the gold award expedition was four nights "roughing it at Fort Fisher."

"The activities you plan have to be things you’ve never done before," he explained.

And for Atkins, the latest expedition to Fort Fisher involved kayaking, something he believes he would never have had time to do otherwise.

He said the hardest part of the process was a project he did in the personal development category.

For his gold award project, the avid stage performer went on a 4-H retreat called "3,2,1 Action," in which he learned the behind-the-scenes jobs of videographer, photographer and Web master.

Behind-the-scenes work was hard for Atkins to take at first. An admitted "theater ham," since he was in elementary school, he was accustomed to being on stage interacting with the audience. He wanted to be in front of the camera.

"I’ve been doing theater since I was eight years old, and I have been in 38 plays since then," he said. "I am definitely a ham. It’s hard for me to sit in the audience during plays, too."

This was his first time behind the scenes, but he says he is glad he did it. He said he got to learn a lot of things about the stage that he will be able to use in the future.

"If I ever direct a play in the future, I’ll know what all it entails," he said.

Getting involved in theater was something Atkins could do that did not involve strenuous physical activity. He was born with a hole in his heart and had open heart surgery when he was 10 years old. The first time the doctor released him to do any kind of sports was at the end of his freshman year in high school. The next year, he joined the track team.

And for his physical fitness portion of the Congressional Award program, he worked on improving his time and on running farther on the track.

It was while he was working on the community service portion of the program that he learned a lesson he will never forget.

It was the most rewarding and the most heartbreaking part of the process, he said.

He and his sister started a drive three years ago to gather warm clothing at Christmas, called "The Warming Tree." The teens set up Christmas trees at local businesses to collect item such as hats, gloves and scarves. Then they delivered the gifts to the homeless shelters, a doctor’s office and to the Community Soup Kitchen.

During the third drive, as Atkins went to deliver hats and gloves to the kitchen, a man who received a pair of insulated gloves caught up with him as he was on his way out the door.

The man said, "Please. I have a pair of gloves. Give these to somebody who doesn’t have any."

His generosity touched Atkins’ heart. He said he realized at that moment that there are things he has as a teenager that some other people may never have.

"It is easy to take things for granted. Shame on me for being that way," Atkins said.

Atkins said he is a lot more thankful now for the things he has.

"We all live in our houses and don’t know what it’s like for people who don’t have a home, people who appreciate things like a hat and a pair of gloves," he said. "It’s pretty amazing to see how something simple to us can be really important to them."