As each of the 18 kids and teenagers filed into the National Liberty Museum Thursday afternoon, one common thread popped up in each of their unique accomplishments that earned them the 2012 Young Heroes Award. Not one of them knew they were nominated for the annual award.
"The nominations have to be made by other people in their lives, such as teachers or family members," said Kevin Orangers, vice president of programs at the National Liberty Museum. "These are the kind of people that don't seek out recognition for their service and would never nominate themselves. That's what makes them even more special."
The program, which started at the same time the museum opened in 2000, is open to students all around the world, with nominations in the past coming from California and even India, said Orangers. Last year, one honoree was recognized for her post-Katrina service in New Orleans.
This year, the winners came mostly from the Philadelphia region, with a few from New Jersey. Locally, four honorees come from schools located in Bucks and Montgomery counties. During the ceremony, each recipient took the stage and had their achievements described in detail by Gwen Borowsky, CEO of the National Liberty Museum, and Nick Ospa from , which has sponsored the award since its inception.
Meet the Recipients
Erika Emery knows all about the importance of good communication and strong connections. A 2012 graduate of Neshaminy High School, Emery participated in the school's Interact Club, a community service organization, and was a member of Spectrum, the gay/straight alliance at her school. With the other members, Erika helped foster a comfortable environment for homosexual students.
"They are all my close friends," said Emery. "We really care a lot for each other."
Emery is also an active member of Planned Parenthood's Rainbow Room, an organization that advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youth. Part of her duties includes traveling to schools throughout the region and talking to teachers and administrators about strategies to improve the lives of gay and lesbian students.
"We help teachers make little changes, such as not segregating the class by gender," said Emery. "The goal is to make the classrooms safer places for those kids."
Jeffrey McDonald, an incoming senior at Archbishop Wood, took the stage first as Borowsky told his incredible story. Four years ago, the athletic goalkeeper lept to block a shot and landed the wrong way, tearing his ACL. A complication during surgery left McDonald in chronic, excruciating pain for the next three years.
Unable to bear the thought of a lifetime feeling the way he did, Jeffrey approached his parents with a heartbreaking request to have his leg amputated below the knee.
"I spent a couple months researching and preparing myself before approaching them," said Jeffrey. "I wanted to make sure I had my whole argument ready after I broke the news."
His parents naturally protested at first, but deep down they knew this was the right decision, said his mother, Kathleen.
"He was not the child we knew," said McDonald. "He would spend the day suffering on the couch in extreme pain. He did not want to take painkillers because he was afraid of prescription addiction. We knew there was no other choice."
After the surgery, Jeffrey bounced back to a life that more resembled his pre-injury days. It took about three weeks of physical therapy to get the hang of using his new prosthetic leg and return to an active lifestyle. With the addition of two more alternate prosthetics, he can now walk, play golf, lift weights, swim, surf or run, depending on which leg he used.
"It's not the same as when he had two healthy legs," said McDonald, "but it is much better than it was for those three years. He's happy again."
In July, Jeffery scored first place in his age group at the Eastern Amputee Golf Association tournament at the Saucon Valley Country Club. He has also participated in charity runs and walks for groups such as Relay for Life.
His surgery and rehab improved his way of life, and it also opened his eyes to the financial struggles amputees have when they try to purchase prosthetic limbs. Jeffrey discovered firsthand that insurance companies only pay a fraction of the cost for the expensive equipment. The expense can be especially prohibitive for younger people who frequently grow out of their prosthetics and need new and bigger replacements.
Jeffrey decided to do his part and organized a charity walk/run at last spring. Wearing a t-shirt and shorts, it was the first public reveal of the prosthetic on his left leg. By the end of the day, he had raised almost $4,000 for the Philadelphia Limb Foundation.
Madison Bailey's fundraising talents earned her a spot on the stage Thursday afternoon. A junior at the in Bryn Mawr, she managed to raise more than $100,000 for her bat mitzvah, which she then donated to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
"Two of my younger cousins were diagnosed with juvenile diabetes when they were seven years old," said Madison. "I just love the feeling of giving back to people who need it more than I do."
Madison has also led her school's fundraising campaigns to feed the hungry on Thanksgiving and has acquired more than $6,500 in donations to help the community of Woodstock, Vt., a small, New England town that was struck hard by Hurricane Irene.
"My family has a summer home up there," said Madison. "We were up there when the storm hit. The water got as high as 30 feet. At one point, a bunch of propane tanks spilled out of a warehouse and started hitting the side of one of the bridges."
The town is still recovering and under a lot of damage from the storm. Everytime her family travels back up there, Madison does what she can to assist with the rebuilding efforts.
Heidi Wortell is also not afraid to get her hands dirty when it comes to helping others. In fact, she had just returned home the night before Thursday's ceremony from a trip to Costa Rica to help a small community's recovery from an earthquake that rocked the Central American country last year.
A culinary arts student at the Middle Bucks Institute of Technology, Heidi joined 10 other members from the youth ministry group based out of in Doylestown. Just because Heidi volunteered, however, did not mean she got a free ride. A letter-writing campaign helped Heidi get the funds she needed to pay for the trip, plus plenty leftover for donations.
"It felt so great to have that support from my friends and family," said Heidi.
She spent two, labor intensive weeks in the small village of Vara Blanca helping rebuild farms and clear debris. During her stay, Heidi bunked at the home of a girl the same age and made an instant connection.
"We definitely had a language barrier," said Heidi, "but there is so much you can say without words. We could tell that we were both so happy."
Heidi plans to stay in touch with her new friend. Since there is no Internet connection and very little phone service in Vara Blanca, they will exchange letters. The plan is for Heidi to learn to write in Spanish, and Gabrielle will learn to write in English so they can better communicate.
All of the winners of the Young Heroes Awards received a certificate of recognition, a medallion and a gift bag. They will also be featured in a year-long exhibit at the National Liberty Museum, each getting their own placard describing their accomplishments.
"These students are an inspiration for their schools, their communities, and for anyone who has been impacted by their service, generosity and heroism," said Tom Shoemaker, Greater Philadelphia Market President for TD Bank.