When University of Central Florida sophomore Melissa Gregory attended Winter Springs High School, she turned her passion for dance into an outlet for serving her community.

She danced in performances of the Nutcracker for underprivileged students from local middle schools. She brought the National Society for Dance Arts to high schools in Seminole County and led the organization’s efforts to teach younger students and volunteer in the community.

Gregory’s nearly four-year, 1,000-hour commitment to bettering herself as she helped others has earned her the Congressional Award Gold Medal.

The medal is the top national honor bestowed by Congress recognizing the service and achievements of youths ages 14 to 23. Recipients must achieve bronze and silver medals before earning the top honor, and less than one percent of those who begin that process qualify for the Gold Medal.

“It was a learning experience and quite a long journey, but it was definitely worth it,” said the Microbiology and Molecular Biology major, whose older sister earned the award in 2008.

Gregory and Kaitlyn Chana, a UCF sophomore studying Radio-Television, were among the 252 young people selected to receive the award this year.

“Earning the Congressional Award was a mental, physical and emotional experience,” Chana said. “There were challenges, but those challenges helped me to become a stronger individual and establish myself as a leader.”

Chana, a 2010 Olympic torchbearer, founded the international nonprofit organization Love Letters: Random Cards of Kindness Inc., while in high school.

Love Letters creates uplifting greeting cards and delivers them to children suffering from life-threatening illnesses. The organization is responsible for sending cards to more than 50,000 children around the world.

Chana, who also spent nearly four years earning the award, was honored with other Gold Medal winners at a ceremony earlier this year in Washington, D.C. The ceremony featured U.S. House and Senate leaders, and Chana was joined by her sponsor, Rep. John Mica.

Love Letters was selected as a volunteer activity for award recipients while they visited the capital. The group made more than 300 cards, and Chana connected with other young leaders whom she says will be her friends for life.

“To be in D.C. and be asked to lead a group of outstanding individuals was one of those life-changing moments,” Chana said.

Gregory was unable to make the trip due to academic commitments, but she was honored during a campus ceremony that was attended by her parents and her mentors from UCF. She was presented with her medal by a representative from the office of her sponsor, Rep. Suzanne Kosmas.

“To be able to share my passion with others was really rewarding, and I’ve become a better leader, role model and citizen in the process,” Gregory said.

Established by Congress in 1979, the Congressional Award program encourages young people to set and achieve challenging goals that build character and foster community service, personal development and citizenship. The program receives no federal funding and relies on charitable contributions.

To qualify for the Congressional Award Gold Medal, Gregory and Chana each were required to log more than 400 hours of community service – a number that they both greatly exceeded. Each recipient also must complete at least 200 hours of physical fitness activities, 200 hours of personal development activities and an exploration activity with a stay of at least four consecutive nights.

Visit www.congressionalaward.org for more information on the Congressional Award program.