Over 140 young people have been in Washington, DC this week to be honored by President Obama as U.S. Presidential Scholars. It's the nation's top award given to a select few of America's most talented, intelligent graduating high school seniors each year. But one honoree didn't make the trip. Reaching 4 Excellence Young Achiever Victoria Gilman has had something much more empowering to do.
As a nine year old with autism, Ryan Eisele has good days and challenging days. And with Reaching 4 Excellence Young Achiever Victoria Gilman alongside him at the Lawrence Aquatic Center splashing away and interacting, he was having a very good day. Victoria has been working with Ryan on a weekly basis for much of the past year to help him improve his behavior and communication -- and getting much back from him.
"The longer I worked with him," says Victoria, "the more I learned how to communicate with him and the more he taught me what works and what doesn't and what makes him happy and what he's interested in and what makes him feel good."
Her experience with Ryan is important for Victoria as she prepares to move on to college this fall to study special education and music therapy.
"I guess a big part of it is when I'm with a special ed population I feel I'm my best version of self," says Victoria. "And things that are in me that don't typically come out come out and I like it. I'm more patient. I'm kinder. I have more fun. It's easier to be myself."
Victoria has what is probably the most extensive resume' of accomplishments and involvement that we have seen in all the years FOX 4 News has been doing the Reaching 4 Excellence reports on outstanding young people. She's a superb musician, a spotlighted violin player in the Kansas City Youth Symphony and the Lawrence Youth Symphony and the Kansas All-State High School Orchestra. She's one of Lawrence Free State High School's valedictorians for 2011 and a National Merit Scholar Finalist. She's also a fine athlete and a go-to student leader at school. She's all that and more but what really jumps out is how Victoria has invested hundreds of hours in countless community and service projects to help other people achieve.
"I guess my ultimate objective," says Victoria, "is to have a positive impact on the world I live in and the people I am around, to speak for the voiceless and not only that, but empower marginalized populations and marginalized people to speak for themselves and to be heard and empower the rest of society to hear their voices."
And that is why Victoria spent 10 days in Romania on a church mission trip right after graduation, assisting at an orphanage. And it's why she is in Kenya right now for two weeks, working with young people in an education and community project called Miriam's Circle Compassionate Growth.
"I think it's really important to listen to people who are different from you and that's one of my favorite things to do," says Victoria. She is is East Africa instead of being in Washington, DC this week to be honored as a U.S. Presidential Scholar, the nation's top award given to just a few dozen of America's most accomplished graduating high school seniors each year.
"The Presidential Scholars thing is cool and it's good that students are recognized," says Victoria. "But I get celebrated a lot and I don't feel I need more of that. I'd rather be with the people who deserve so much more and don't get so much of the handshaking and praise and applause."
"She is pretty special," says Andrew Nussbaum, Victoria's Service Learning teacher at Free State High. Nussbaum started the Miriam's Circle project and is in Kenya right now with his star student.
"I think she is remarkable," says Nussbaum, "because of the gifts she was born with and I also think she is remarkable because of the decisions she has made. And within that, not only the talents and ambition and the heart, she also has the work ethic that is the glue to connect the character and the skills together."
"I've been given the opportunity to be recognized," says Victoria, "and so at my core my hope would be that I could use that voice and that energy and that recognition to kind of bring other people into the spotlight as well."
Victoria is urging people to support the work of Miriam's Circle Compassionate Growth. According to its Facebook page, the organization is working towards true empowerment and lasting sustainability as an international NGO with a foundational a growth model of building relationships and bridges between intersections in the world community. It is focused holistic community development work located in IDP Communities of Kenya, specifically Jakaza and Vumilia IDP Communities outside of Maai Mahiu, Kenya. It's mission is empowering dynamic change and compassionate growth within and between families and communities.
FOX 4's congratulations go out, as well, to the Kansas City area's other U.S. Presidential Scholars for 2011, Rex Tai of Blue Valley North High School and past Reaching 4 Excellence Young Achiever Lee Heinemann of Pembroke Hill School who is a Presidential Scholar of the Arts.
FOX 4 News is Working 4 You to spotlight outstanding young people and their positive accomplishments. In our weekly report called Reaching 4 Excellence we meet young achievers in subjects like academics, the arts, leadership, community service, volunteerism, career exploration, overcoming obstacles and heroism. Watch for Reaching 4 Excellence every Wednesday on FOX 4 News at 9 p.m. and every Thursday on FOX 4 News at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.