Service will always be an integral part of my memories at Blessed Trinity. When Ms. McCarthy pulled me out of class to tell me I had been selected as a 2016 National Charity and Service Honoree, I couldn’t help but think, “If only they knew the incredible acts of service my classmates perform every day!”
Four years ago, I began the Georgia Miss Amazing Pageant for girls and women with disabilities to build confidence and self-esteem in the community. I hoped that this recognition from the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington would promise more awareness of the daily challenges of those living with disabilities. Last time I was in Washington D.C, my classmates and I were buried in three feet of snow while participating in the March for Life Rally. This trip up to D.C. would also be a memory equally as memorable.
My family and I knew little about our three-day itinerary for the Honoree Weekend as we flew over the Potomac River into Reagan International Airport. Upon arriving at our hotel just two blocks from the Capitol building, I was eager to meet the four other honorees and their families. My passion for Miss Amazing has truly called me to serve, and I wanted to see what other teens my age were doing to serve that call as well. Our first night had us attending a group dinner at a family restaurant around the corner followed by a moonlight tour of the monuments.
As I boarded the mini bus that transported us, I was ecstatic to finally see my four newfound buddies, Kate, Stephanie, Mackenzie, and Mark. Ranging in interests from attending the Naval Academy to producing films at SCAD, we five teens became quick friends, all apparently “cut from the same cloth”, as our parents joked. Everyone in the group had a unique story to tell. Mackenzie talked passionately about the orphanage in Haiti she visits every year. Mark beamed over showing us his self-produced student films about his time working with a group that delivers headstones for people who cannot afford them. Each of us was different, yet united in our Catholic faith.
The evening progressed as our group leader, Brandon, the assistant communications director at the Basilica, got us where we needed to be. He handed out our specially made name tags one-by-one, even making one for my little sister. I think he tripped getting on the bus about five times over the course of the night, but he truly embodied the spirit of hospitality and warmth that everyone from the Basilica radiated. Our moonlight tour of Washington was led by a professor from George Mason University who was the go-to guide for any ambassador or foreign royalty visiting D.C. Just that morning, she was scheduled to show the Canadian Prime Minister around town. She took us from the scaffolding of the Capitol, past the Washington Monument, and down around the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. With every footstep around the mall, I could feel a connection to the importance of my history. It truly put in perspective the scope of who our service to others was affecting. And I have to admit, I did get a much better look at each engraving and statue without inches of snow covering everything!
Brandon instructed us to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the “big day.” The next morning, our group huddled together as we made our way up New Jersey Avenue toward the Capitol building for a private tour. I had been inside the Capitol once before…in eighth grade. I didn’t exactly remember every detail. After “airport-style” security, our red-coated guide named Jay lead us through the famous crypt, the rotunda, and the ornamented Brumidi Corridors, where Senate committee members meet. Jay even let us peer into the Speaker’s Balcony and touch the famous statue that all presidents touch for good luck before their State of the Union Address.
After a quick lunch in the central Union Square, it was time to head back to the hotel and depart for the night’s festivities: a tour (yes, another tour) of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Honoree Mass with Cardinal Wuerl, and the Honoree Dinner. The Basilica steals your breath away from the outside, but it gets even harder to focus on anything but the beautiful detail inside. The Basilica’s Curator, Geraldine Bohling, gave us the superstar tour. As my four new friends and I gazed up at each sparkling dome and mosaic, we collectively thought about how lucky we were to be standing in such a holy place.
The lower floor of the Basilica included one of my favorite memories of the trip, when Mrs. Bohling showed us the special devotional room to the Marian visions of St. Bernadette. I chose Bernadette as my Confirmation name, and this room that was shaped and decorated to make you feel like you were sitting right in the cave grotto looking at Mary. Mrs. Bohling unlocked the gate that stood between us and a small prayer kneeler before the statue of the Immaculate Conception. That kneeler was the same kneeler that every pope, including Pope Francis, had offered a prayer on while visiting, and she gave us the chance to do the same. I didn’t know how to react to having the honor to pray in the footsteps of St. Francis, so I prayed for the families of the incredible people I had met. That moment made the entire trip worth it. That moment made all of the work I have put into Miss Amazing worth it. Service truly connects people with God, and I relive that special moment every day when I volunteer.
The Honoree Mass was very humbling and special as well. Cardinal Wuerl, who also serves as the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington D.C., celebrated the Mass in honor of this Jubilee Year of Mercy. He addressed us honorees in his homily as “proof of the “Francis Effect,” the compulsion of Catholics to participate in works of mercy service. I sat with my family in the first pew, and I walked up beneath the artwork of the beautiful shrine as the first honoree to shake Cardinal Wuerl’s hand. The Cardinal’s smile is infectious, and he was even the one cracking jokes as our picture was snapped from a thousand angles. In a few short hours, I was flying back home to Atlanta, where my journey of service began.
I am forever grateful for the opportunity to share in the history of my nation and Catholic religion with my family and new friends. The greatest thing about service has to be that it transcends all obstacles because it is based on love. I am proud to be a part of a community here at BT that is honest living proof of this “Francis Effect.” No medal or certificate could ever compare to the memories and happiness made when people unite to create compassionate change. I surely won’t forget a single moment.