AP NEWS

Westford Academy Student Honored by Congress for Volunteer Efforts

March 29, 2019

WESTFORD -- For Meena DeBenedictis, volunteering is fun.

Whether it’s sorting through donations at the Cameron Senior Center food pantry, playing her viola for senior citizens, organizing clothing and food drives or preparing the Middlesex County 4-H Fairgrounds for the annual fair, for years the 17-year-old Westford Academy senior has found enjoyment in trying new things and meeting new people through community service work.

“I think it kind of opens my world view,” she said. “I’m not only exposing myself to people my age, but I’m also interacting with adults, and elderly people, and little kids, and people of other backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions, and I can learn more about myself and everyone else.”

On March 20, DeBenedictis’ efforts to serve her community were rewarded when U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan presented her with the Bronze Medal from the Congressional Award Foundation, one of the highest honors a member of Congress can bestow upon a youth civilian.

“When you look at what Meena did to apply for this award, it was unbelievable,” Trahan said. “She put in many hours in the classroom as a student teacher. She extended her service with the 4-H Club.

“This Congressional Award symbolizes service to a community, and she’s stretched herself to meet those standards, so it was exciting to come here and meet her, and give her this much-deserved award,” Trahan added.

To meet the award requirements, DeBenedictis had to complete and document a minimum of 100 hours of community service, 50 hours of personal development, 50 hours of physical fitness and a two-day, one-night expedition or exploration, all within a seven-month time period.

For the latter, she planned a trip to New York City that included Ellis Island, the Statute of Liberty and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which she called “a major learning experience and awakening.”

DeBenedictis’ love of volunteering was instilled by her mother, Carol Wing, who brought her daughter to Nepal in sixth grade through work with Heifer International. Seeing the high level of poverty there was an eye-opening experience for DeBenedictis. She hopes to one day travel abroad again and help people on a greater scale, but for now she’s focused on helping the local community.

DeBenedictis’ volunteer work began long before that trip, starting with 4-H, which she’s been involved with since she was 5. Since then, she’s been involved in many aspects of the annual fair, including helping out at the snack bar, preparing meals and selling tickets.

“She’s also been known to swing a hammer and build a new deck for the fairgrounds,” Wing said.

Benedictis recalled the first time she participated in a food drive for the Senior Center. Seeing the people who needed the food come to pick it up was something that has stuck with her.

“I was like, ’Wow, the stuff I do is actually helping people out there,” she said.

DeBenedictis’ volunteerism is wide in breadth and variety. Among the efforts she’s undertaken are: clothing drives for Catie’s Closet; bedding drives for animal shelters; weighing and picking up trash and posting fliers for Westford’s annual town cleanup day; serving meals and doing secretarial work at the Senior Center; and performing with school and outside orchestral groups at local senior centers and assisted-living facilities in Westford and Chelmsford.

“Especially at the senior living places, the people don’t get out that much,” DeBenedictis said. “So to bring even just 30 minutes of something different into their day that they can enjoy, it’s really nice.”

DeBenedictis plans to attend UMass Amherst in the fall, where she will major in biology and pre-medicine. She said she wants to be a doctor, but she’s not sure what kind yet.

In the meantime, she said she plans to begin working toward the Silver and Gold medal Congressional Awards -- which have even more extensive community service requirements -- that she’s eligible to earn before she turns 24.

Follow Alana Melanson at facebook.com/alana.lowellsun or on Twitter @alanamelanson.