By Timothy Deenihan
It’s not so uncommon for actors to take a turn at public office later in their careers. Clint Eastwood was mayor of Carmel. Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California, as was Ronald Reagan before he ascended to the office of president. Even our current commander-in-chief has had more than a few turns on both the small and large screen.
What’s less common is to start out by heading to Congress. And yet, Jack Ferreira ’22, a Sacred Heart theatre arts major, has done just that. The key difference here is that Jack’s mission is one of public service, not public office.
This summer, Ferreira received our nation’s highest award for youth and young adults—the Congressional Gold Medal Award—in recognition of his service to his community and his commitment to his own personal growth and wellbeing.
It’s a rigorous qualification process. Over a minimum of two years, Gold Medal recipients must log at least 400 hours of community service, 200 hours of personal development, 200 hours of physical exercise and activity, as well as at least one full week of expedition, coordinated by the applicant and approved by the program.
Ferreira went well above and beyond requirements, logging more than 1,500 hours of service to Fairfield County’s theater and arts community. Starting as an usher at the Bridgeport Cabaret Theatre, Ferreira eventually earned house management responsibilities. At the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, he took on both project research and mobile game design to enhance visitor experience. Embracing the personal challenges the program commands, he even pushed himself to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight, auditioning last summer for the Fairfield Teen Theatre production of Les Misérables and earning the fiercely challenging role of Inspector Javert, the story’s primary antagonist.
Ferreira’s journey began at his cousin’s high school graduation, where students were being recognized for their academic and sporting successes, and their commitments to the military or their college acceptances— the standard commencement ceremony fare. The speaker that day, however, offered a different take on the whole thing. At the end of it all, he told them, what will matter is this: Did you make the world a better place? With that, he challenged the newly graduated, their friends and families to become more involved in their communities.
The message hit home with Ferreira and his mother, Alice (Chaves) Ferreira ’91, who was in the audience with him that day. Ferreira was already volunteering at the Cabaret, but the desire to see community service honored as a contribution to a better society drove mother and son to set some goals. A Google search led them to the Congressional Award.
There are six levels of involvement in the program: bronze through gold certificates, and bronze through gold medals. “The Gold [Medal] is pretty exhaustive,” says Alice, “But you appreciate the rigor. It gives it real value.”
Ironically, Ferreira discovered the fruit of his years of labor during an incidental online search. He was scrolling across a miniature map of award recipients when he hovered over Connecticut—and saw his name. “It was just there, and I thought, ‘…wow,’” Ferreira says, articulating the speechlessness one feels when blindsided by greatness. The actual letter and certificate arrived in the post a few days later. The award ceremony was held at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., in June.
One challenge related to the time the award required was that the process rolled into Ferreira’s freshman year at Sacred Heart. While he was able to use the time to continue working toward some of the award’s benchmarks, (walking the several miles to campus, for example, instead of driving or catching a bus), as a theatre arts major, he had to excuse himself from his involvement with other theatre programs during the course of his studies (a common requirement of conservatories and academic theatre programs). “It was hard to say goodbye to the people I’d been working with for so long,” he says, “but at the same time, [Sacred Heart and the Theatre Arts Program] has been so welcoming and exciting—it’s an amazing place to be.”
A similarity of mission also helps soften the transition. Alice says it best. “Our school is so mission-driven, so selfless,” she says. “I really felt like this award was in keeping with everything SHU values.” She references specifically what she calls the University’s “purposeful growth,” detailing both its physical expansion and its burgeoning academic relevance, all while remaining a good neighbor to its bordering communities.
“Of course, I’m a proud mother right now,” she laughs. “But if other students follow and earn that recognition for themselves and the school, that would just be sprinkles on the cupcake.