At 17 years old, Nick Oliva has done more volunteer work than many people two or three times age.
The junior has spent hours beautifying Northbrook, recycling Christmas trees into wood chips for the park district, installing solar panels on flag poles and constructing enclosures for portable toilets to protect them from vandalism. Further afield, he has spent a week in Paraguay building homes in an impoverished community for Habitat for Humanity—and this Saturday, he took off for the Dominican Republic to volunteer at an orphanage.
Oliva will be recognized for his efforts this month, when presents him with The Congressional Award Silver Medal. Knowing the extent of his activities, an acquaintance recommended that Oliva apply for the congressional award. The honor recognizes extensive volunteer work and personal development in people ages 13 through 24, and requires applicants to complete hundreds of hours of community service.
“I’m more involved in this than anything else,” Oliva said.
His commitment to volunteer work began when he was 10 years old and his family moved to Spain for two years, where he joined a Boy Scout troop associated with NATO. Besides the traditional scouting activities, they also traveled around Europe on weekends, and even to Africa. Oliva’s interest in scouting—and the volunteer work that goes along with it—was sparked.
Back in Northbrook, Oliva joined local troop 64 and set his sights on becoming an Eagle Scout, the highest rank attainable to Boy Scouts. As his required service project, Oliva gathered his troop and spent the day pulling the invasive buckthorn plant from a local park.
“After I did my first project, they saw the benefit of that,” Oliva said, referring to the . “They asked if we were interested in doing anything else.”
Although he had already become an Eagle Scout, Oliva was game for more volunteer work. Driving down Dundee Road, he and his father, Sam, saw a pile of Christmas trees for sale by the gas station. It was after Christmas, but there were still a lot of trees left. So Oliva called the park district to find out whether they could recycle them. Turns out, they could. His father got in touch with a friend in forestry, who was able to turn the trees into wood chips. Nick Oliva then distributed the chips around trees at the velodrome by .
His last project, building wooden enclosures around the portable toilets in various local parks, took him 275 hours, Oliva said.
“It was by far my hardest project,” he added.
Going to Paraguay was also hard—but for a different reason. It was the first time he had seen the country in 16 years, since his parents adopted him from an orphanage in Paraguay when he was an infant. While Oliva knew about the country from research and from what his parents had told him, visiting was eye-opening, he said.
He and his family stayed at a hotel in Paraguay’s capital, Asuncion. They were impressed with the city and how nice it was, Oliva remarked. But traveling outside of the city, to the town where they were building homes, was a different story.
“Fifteen to twenty minutes away, it’s a whole different place,” Oliva said. “At that point, I could see the significance of how important it is to live in the states.”
While Oliva’s resume is top-heavy with community service, qualifying for the congressional award also involves the completion of activities toward personal development as well.
Characteristically, Oliva set about achieving those goals with the same doggedness he applied to community service. As one personal development goal, Oliva decided to train so that he could bench press 180 pounds in a year, up from 115. He made it up to 215—nearly twice his body weight—before he tore a muscle and had to have shoulder surgery. While he’s still recovering, Oliva says he hopes to push his record even higher.
Oliva has also set his sights high when it comes to the congressional award: in three to six months, he hopes to qualify for the gold medal, which requires 400 total hours of community service. While he doesn’t know where he wants to go to college yet, Oliva says he imagines he’ll always be involved in volunteering. It’s something his dad, who is also a former Boy Scout, has always done himself.
“It’s a nice thing to pass on,” says Sam Oliva.