Local teen earns Congressional Award

Jonathan Engebretsen proudly stands next to a bee box he built for Fort Loudoun State Park.

A Lenoir City teen has put in hundreds of hours of work to be awarded a gold medal in the Congressional Award program.

Jonathan Engebretsen, 17, a senior at Berean Christian School, completed the 400 hours of volunteer service, 200 hours of personal development, 200 hours of physical fitness and an expedition/exploration lasting at least four nights and five days. Engebretsen started his journey to the Congressional Award in the fall 2016 as a high school freshman.

For the majority of his volunteer service requirement, he spent time volunteering at Second Harvest Food Bank in Maryville where he completed a variety of jobs. He spent most of his time there during the summer while volunteering at other mobile food pantries during his weekends in the school year.

For another portion of his volunteer service hours, he spent time building “bee boxes” for Fort Loudoun State and Panther Creek State parks.

The bee boxes Engebretsen built act as homes for the bees. He got the idea from his time at the FIRST LEGO League robotics competition.

“One of the challenges of the year was try and find — it was called animal allies,” Engebretsen said. “So you needed to find something to help the animals, but also humans at the same time. One of the projects my team discussed was helping bees in the community, because there was some sort of an insect repellant that was being used to try and combat parasites and stuff that were eating farmers’ plants, but they were also killing a lot of bees. So we were trying to come up with some way to help them. I remembered that and decided to make bee boxes for the state parks.”

The bee boxes let bees live in the parks safely in order to pollinate flowers and produce honey.

“So after I did Fort Loudoun, my Eagle Scout project was done, but I wanted to do Panther Creek as well, because it’s over in Morristown, which is where my grandparents live,” he said. “A lot of my childhood, I hiked there with my grandpa and grandma, and there’s a lake over there as well that we would go out on a lot, and it was just a special place to me. So I just wanted to give them that as well.”

Engebretsen joined the robotics team at Hardin Valley Academy to fulfill the personal development category for the award. He said his school didn’t have a robotics team, but HVA was kind enough to let him join. For his first year, he was primarily the team’s photographer. However, for his second and third year, he joined the design and build sub-teams while continuing his role at the team’s photographer. This year and last year, the team qualified for the world’s competition.

In tandem with his time on the robotics team, Engebretsen was fulfilling the physical fitness category on his school’s swim and dive team. For the expedition/exploration category, he spent two weeks at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico where he hiked 65 miles in 12 days. He also completed his Eagle Scout requirements in the fall 2019, but COVID-19 has prevented him from having his ceremony.

Tyler Engebretsen, Jonathan’s older brother, completed his requirements last year and was able to travel to Washington, D.C., for a ceremony in Congress. At the ceremony, families meet various representatives. A reception is also held for award winners to meet with chief executive officers from successful companies. Families also get to attend a Washington Nationals baseball game. Jonathan’s ceremony will be held virtually due to coronavirus restrictions.

“Tyler got an additional thing you can get within the Congressional Award,” Jennifer Engebretsen, mother, said. “It’s called STEM Stars for science, technology, engineering and math. They haven’t sent the information for Jon to be able to apply for it, but he will hopefully be able to get it because of the stuff with the robotics and his project for the state parks.”

Jennifer heard about the program from a class she attended on the North Carolina/South Carolina border.

“We went to a class that helps you prepare for high school and college,” she said. “So we went to that, and it talks about all the things you can do to be successful. The woman who runs it ... said, ‘You can work hard and go to college for free, or you can go to college and work for a while to pay it off’.”

Jonathan said he’s “obviously” looking at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville but also at the “sort of prestigious” colleges like Duke University, Vanderbilt University, Georgia Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I’m mainly planning on going to wherever I can get in for the least amount of money, so I can graduate debt free,” he said. “I’m planning on getting a major in biology or biological sciences and the specific one has a concentration in biochemistry. After that I’m planning on going for either a master’s or doctorate in biotechnology.”