A teenaged Pekin martial arts instructor from Green Valley is on her way to earning a Congressional Award gold medal, the civilian version of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
There are six levels of the Congressional Award: bronze, silver, and gold certificates and bronze, silver and gold medals. This is a non-partisan, non-competitive, voluntary program that challenges its participants to exhibit outstanding service in the following four categories; physical fitness, personal development, voluntary public service, and expedition/exploration.
Makayla Jibben, 16, who got involved with martial arts in 2012, has completed the first five levels toward earning the medal, which is available to Americans aged 13 1/2 to 23. On March 29, her efforts were recognized by Congress when Illinois State Rep. Darin LaHood presented Jibben with a bronze and silver medal during a ceremony at his Peoria office.
To become a first degree black belt in 2017, Makayla had to show exceptional physical fitness as she advanced in the traditional Korean Martial Art of Kuk Sool Won. Since earning the black belt, she’s worked her way to lead instructor and head of the Little Dragons program at Kuk Sool Won of Pekin, 122 S. 14th St., Pekin. The program teaches 3- to 5-year-olds a little self-defense but mostly focuses on body conditioning, spacial awareness, exercising and listening skills in a what’s meant to be a fun, high energy environment. Makayla’s martial arts training fulfills both the physical fitness and personal development requirements needed to obtain the gold medal.
“Makayla has the heart of a black belt and the spirit of a true martial artist,” said Michael Yates, owner and head instructor of Kuk Sool Won of Pekin. “She is using her skills and talents to create a better world around her. I couldn’t be prouder of the leadership and personal improvement that she displays and inspires in others.”
In order to qualify for the gold medal, participants must complete 400 volunteer hours.
“We found the St. Jude Volunteen program, and it was perfect because it blends her love of working with kids with her plans to be a neonatologist, (a subsection of pediatrics where you care for newborn infants, particularly those who are ill or premature),” Jennifer Jibben, Makayla’s mother, said in an email. “Makayla has always had a heart for St. Jude. Twice in elementary school she held birthday parties in which she asked for presents that would be donated to patients hospitalized over Thanksgiving.”
The St. Jude Volunteen program is also highly competitive, with only 32 spots available. Makayla was chosen from hundreds of applicants and spent last summer working at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. During her two-week stay, Makayla interacted with patients and their siblings in both outpatient and inpatient settings with arts, crafts, games and just being someone they could talk to. Jibben views this experience as a medical learning opportunity.
“I knew the program would help me explore my interest in the medical field as well as fueling my passion for working with kids,” Makayla said. “After being a part of the Volunteen program, I am now debating between being a neonatologist or a pediatric oncologist.”
Because of her volunteer schedule, six to seven hours per week in the UnityPoint Health — Pekin emergency room and urgent care facility, Makayla attends a half-day of school. Aside from her normal high school classes, she is also taking two college dual-credit classes and prepping for the SAT. Makayla rounds out her high school activities as president of the Family Career and Community Leaders of America, an executive board member for Student Council, a member of the yearbook staff and a recent inductee into the National Honors Society.
The exploration/expedition part of the challenge was a five-day, four-night camping trip to Door County, Wis., that Makayla had to plan herself. Her mother; her father, Curt; and her brother, Connor, supported her endeavor by joining her camping expedition.
“To be completely honest, the camping trip was awful,” Makayla said in an email. “I only say that because we had to have so much activity that was above and beyond what normal camping was. It wasn’t just going on a short hike or two, making meals and sitting around the fire like a normal camping trip. It was hiking seven miles or kayaking for two hours, something we had never done before. We didn’t have the best hiking boots, and none of us were in the best shape, so we were all sore the entire time. It seemed like every time we finished a couple hikes we would think ‘that was fun, I feel good,’ but then we’d have to go that extra couple miles to make sure we met the requirements. I made every meal — breakfast, lunch, dinner — and planned over eight hours of activities every day, hiking, fishing, geocaching, canoeing, etc. and honestly I’ve never felt so exhausted in my whole life. It took all of us a solid week to feel back to normal and to catch up on sleep.”
Despite being exhausted, Makayla said she learned some valuable lessons.
“I found that I actually loved cooking over the fire,” she said. “It was completely different than cooking in a normal kitchen, but it was still super fun. I loved sitting around the fire making s’mores with my family, and we definitely bonded because we had to help each other and push each other and encourage each other through pretty much everything. There were times where we wanted to give up, but we couldn’t. And we had to keep each other going.”
Jibben credits her never give up attitude to her martial arts training.
“Kuk Sool Won has definitely formed me into the person I am today,” she said. “It’s helped my leadership skills, how I work with people with different personalities and abilities, and, on the more physical side of things, it’s helped me to never give up and to push through even when I want to quit. I knew when I started the (the process of getting the) Congressional Award, it was going to be rough and a lot of work. Even if I knew how hard it would be, I would still have done it.”
Makayla will return to Memphis this summer as a Volunteen mentor at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Once home, she will submit all of her detailed records, pictures and logs to be evaluated by the Congressional Award committee. If accepted, Makayla will travel to Washington, D.C. in June 2020, and she will be recognized by Congress with the Congressional Award gold medal.