When Gabby Johnson graduated from Verona Area High School in 2015, the only cord she and her classmates could wear with their gowns was gold, for academic achievement.

During her time on student council, Johnson had worked to change that, helping institute a new silver cord for volunteer hours. It was too late for her own class, but she was happy to be able to help create the opportunity to future students, Johnson recalled to the Press earlier this month.

“We recognized that there were people who maybe weren’t being recognized for their hard work,” she told the Press. “The real focus was ... on giving students an opportunity to earn a cord that didn’t have to do with academics.”

Four years later, her younger sister Claire was among those students walking across the Epic stage June 9 with a silver cord draped around her neck. That cord matched the one she had given her older sister a day earlier – four years behind schedule, but still meaningful – at her graduation party.

“I didn’t expect the cord today, but it does mean a lot to have a recognition of something that I put work into,” Gabby said after receiving the surprise.

To earn the cord, VAHS graduates must volunteer at least 100 hours in both their senior and junior years, demonstrating ongoing service in at least four different activities – none individually can count for more than 25 hours.

Mostly, Gabby said, she was proud of her younger sister’s accomplishment and knowing that the program continued after she left.

“The coolest part is knowing that four years later I have a sister who’s receiving it,” Gabby said.

Love for volunteering

While neither Claire nor Gabby were lifelong volunteers, they both learned to love it as they grew up.

Gabby recalled first volunteering with her dad in a ski program, eventually finding other outlets in high school like the blood drive. The UW-Madison student is now volunteering at a medical clinic in Madison, she said.

Claire first began volunteering through the tennis team, and soon caught on with Verona’s Young Life branch, and found she loved spending the time there.

“I kind of started it with the hopes of, ‘I really want this cord,’” Claire said. “After I started volunteering, I really enjoyed the volunteering I was doing.”

Claire thought of the idea to surprise her sister when getting her own silver cord from teacher Sarah Domres, who oversees the program at the high school. She said Domres was glad to supply an extra.

“I just thought it’d be nice to have a physical cord,” Claire said. “It was because of her that I could even get my cord.”

Recognizing good deedsClaire hopes that recognizing volunteer work can help boost “the way people think of Verona.”

“It’s needed … nothing’s gonna get done if people aren’t a little bit selfless and put in some work,” she said. “When people see things like students who are sports students who go and volunteer at (Badger Prairie Needs Network) … it just kind of uplifts the community knowing that there are good things that happen in Verona.”

Gabby said that it’s important to notice people who are doing good things for their community outside of school, and she is glad to see the silver cord program that she helped start has inspired some to recognize their accomplishments rather than focus on a different cord they may not have been able to acquire.

“People can really internalize that aspect of their identity, and it breaks my heart to see somebody sad because they didn’t get a good grade,” she said. “I would rather people recognize that what they do in their time that’s not studying can have a huge impact.”

Contact Scott Girard at ungreporter@wcinet.com and follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.