Twins Matthew and Marissa Grillo, born and raised in Secaucus, received the New Jersey Congressional Award on Saturday, Nov. 21, five days before their 20th birthday. The award, the only medal awarded by the United States Congress other than the Medal of Honor, was given to them at a ceremony at Rutgers University at the Center for Law and Justice, where they were personally congratulated by Senator Cory Booker and Rep. Donald Payne, Jr.
The Congressional Award was established in 1979 as a noncompetitive program designed to teach participants to set and achieve personally challenging goals that build character and foster community service, personal development, and citizenship.
Recipients must be approved in four categories: volunteering/public service, personal development, physical fitness, and expedition/exploration.
Requirements for the award include 400 hours of community service and interaction with a different culture.
Wolf is the chapter advisor for the Secaucus branch of People to People International, an organization founded by President Eisenhower to promote global relations and cross-cultural connections. She is also the director of program development for Wrapped 4 a Smile Foundation and chief operating officer of the Hygiene Project in Secaucus. As a strong advocate for community service and youth development, she encourages kids to achieve the Congressional Award. The Grillos were the sixth and seventh recipients she’s set on the path to the award.
“They have different levels,” explained Marissa. “They have certificates and then they have bronze, silver, and gold. A lot of people go for the bronze at first and then the silver and then the gold, but Cathy said, ‘No, we’re pushing you right for the gold. You’re getting the highest one.’”
“I promote youth empowerment,” said Wolf. “I also encourage and guide them to set the highest goals so they can fulfill or actualize their full potential. With that they have the foundation and confidence to become role models and are ready to serve their community.”
Exploring other cultures
The Congressional Award is open to all 14- to 23-year-olds. Young people may register when they turn 13 1/2 years old and must complete their activities before their 24th birthday.
The Grillos achieved the bulk of their community service hours through Wolf’s organizations, volunteering for Superstorm Sandy relief efforts, participating in events for foster children, packing hygiene kits for the needy, and more.
Matt fulfilled the physical fitness requirements through his involvement in high school sports, including baseball and basketball. He was also involved in student government as co-president his senior year at the high school, and held other positions such as historian, to qualify for the personal development requirements.
“I danced my whole life,” said Marissa about her physical fitness qualifications. Her personal development was outside of school, with volunteer administrative roles in People to People and Wrapped 4 a Smile, as well as serving as teacher’s assistant and mentor at her dance studio, teaching younger kids.
Then there’s the “exploration” requirement. What exactly does that mean? “You go on a trip, whether it’s in America or the greater part of the world, and you just have an experience that’s different from your culture,” said Marissa.
“I did a trip to Japan for my JSA [Junior State of America] group in junior year, 2013,” said Matt. “I was able to do a two-week study tour over there. I did some service there too. We were able to help out after the tsunami/earthquake.”
Award applicants are required to write about their preparations, what they experienced, how it felt, and how it differed from their hometown experience. Marissa had a few false starts, writing up her experiences on trips around the United States.
“It has to get approved by so many people and mine kept getting rejected because my exploration wasn’t good enough,” she said. “I was ready to give up once they rejected me the second time but my brother pushed me.”
So she visited family friends in New Mexico who brought her to a local children’s hospital and food bank, a Native American reservation, and the Sandia mountain range. “It was really cool because we don’t have mountains like that over here,” she said. “They showed me the Native American culture and it was a really different experience.”
Still giving back
Throughout the year, Congressional Award Medalists are honored at local ceremonies and medal presentations like the one in Newark. Then a national ceremony is held each June in Washington, D.C.
Because Marissa’s explorations were rejected several times, Matt’s application for the award was accepted first.
“I got the award a year ago but I didn’t go to D.C. because we decided to wait until my sister got it first,” he said. They hope to attend the ceremony in Washington this summer.
Until then, they are both busy at school. Matt is a sophomore in Rutgers, studying biology with the goal of becoming a teacher. Marissa attends Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., where she is a biomedical science major with plans of becoming a doctor.
Meanwhile they continue to give back to the community. “I volunteer at Habitat for Humanity and the Rutgers Learning Center and Science Academy,” said Matt. The twins both participated in the recent Walk Against Poverty in Secaucus, sponsored by the Hygiene Project, held one day after the Grillos received their awards in Newark.
Immediately following the walk, they joined the rest of the participants in assembling hygiene kits for the less fortunate. They also spoke to the group about their experience with the awards.
“Cathy asked us to come and speak and try to get the younger kids to apply, to show there are different ways to get this award. Matt was involved in school while my involvement was outside school,” said Marissa. “Cathy wants everyone to strive to reach their goals.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.