Whatever they say about idle hands, Rachael Gavlik need not worry.

“If I have free time,” she said, “I just don’t want to be sitting there when I know I can be doing something more.”

That type of attitude must have been what federal lawmakers had in mind when they established the Congressional Award to recognize initiative, service and achievement in the nation’s youth.

Rachael Gavlik blankets

In 2020, Rachael Gavlik made more than 600 blankets to give to others.

Gavlik is one of fewer than 3,800 young Americans to earn the program’s Gold Medal in 2021, receiving the densely weighted memento a few months prior to her June graduation from Peters Township High School.

Chief among the requirements was logging at least 400 hours of voluntary public service, something in which Gavlik was interested from an early age.

“I was raised in a church, and we talked a lot about serving others, not because you expect something in return, but it’s what Jesus would have done,” she said.

Among her first such experiences handing cups of water to Pittsburgh Marathon participants who tended to acknowledge the importance of volunteers in making the event a success.

“It’s a really cool feeling to know that people are receptive to what you’re doing and are really appreciative of that,” Gavlik said.

She said she really hit her altruistic stride after volunteering for Meals On Wheels@The Crossroads in Peters Township and seeing “how passionate everyone was in helping the community.”

Drawing from a fourth-grade art project involving placemats, she decided to decorate bags in which meals were delivered, starting with a batch of 200.

“Once COVID hit, I kind of went into overdrive and did over 100 more bags,” Gavlik said. “When I ran out of bags, I would shift to doing cards. When I ran out of cards, I would do placemats. I just love being artistic and think I’m a creative person, so I was pouring my heart into that.”

As the pandemic coursed through 2020, she came up with the idea of making knotted fleece blankets to go along with the bags, cards and placements. Eventually, the blanket total topped 600, far outnumbering the daily Meals On Wheels deliveries.

“When I was making them, I didn’t necessarily think specifically where they would go,” Gavlik said. “I just knew they would end up somewhere with someone.”

And so she was happy to help ensure that they ended up with a variety of other folks, including fellow Meals On Wheels volunteers, clients of the Blueprints agency in Washington, patients in memory care and people staying at area homeless shelters.

“Last year, I had a teacher whose dog passed away,” Gavlik said. “I’m very close with my dog, so I know how hard that is. So I wrote her a card and dropped off a blanket.”

A cafeteria worker at her high school was another recipient.

“She was always smiling, and no matter the weather, she was handing out lunches and she was happy to be there,” Gavlik said. “I’ll probably always keep a little stockpile of blankets, because you never know who you’re going to meet or who could use one.”


Color guard member Rachael Gavlik stands next to the University of Pittsburgh football team's 2021 Atlantic Coast Conference championship trophy.

Along with voluntary public service, earning the Congressional Award also involved meeting requirements in three other categories, including Expedition/Exploration. For the Gold Medal, Gavlik was tasked with planning and participating in a five-day, five-night trip of her choice.

First, she considered visiting people in places where she could learn firsthand about other cultures.

“Then COVID hit, so I had to get kind of creative,” she recalled, and her solution was to map out tours of various state parks.

One was Clear Creek in Jefferson County, which served as an inspiration for her course of action.

“For years, my family rented cabins at Clear Creek, and it was pretty much the outdoorsy life of, we don’t have reception,” she said. “So we’d build campfires and cook out and all of that. It was really a special time.”

Another Congressional Award category is physical fitness, and Gavlik addressed the requirements by joining the color guard of her school’s marching band. Actually, she had plenty of prior experience in pursuing karate as an avocation.

She had plenty of success, too. In 2016, Gavlik won state championships in all four categories in which she was eligible to compete.

“I kind of liked the idea that in school, I was super quiet and reserved, and then I could go out and do this amazing weapons form,” she said. “That was always cool to me.”

Today, the daughter of Bob and Tammi Gavlik is a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, starting a six-year track to earn her doctorate from Pitt’s School of Pharmacy. In the meantime, she had a close-up view of the Panther football team’s conference championship season as a member of the marching band color guard.

“All of the sports teams are so appreciative of the band,” Gavlik said. “After the games we win, one of the football players will get up on a ladder and conduct the victory song while the band plays.”

In keeping with her aversion to sitting idly, she also participated as an extra in the filming of the Netflix series “The Chair,” starring Sandra Oh, and the Billy Porter-directed movie “What If?”

Landing spots in the productions took quite a bit of online exploratory effort by Gavlik, which is not at all surprising to her mother.

“Rachael is one who is always researching,” Tammi Gavlik said. “When she’s on the phone, she’s teaching herself.”


Karate champion Rachael Gavlik in action

Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!