Goodwin House in Alexandria is a house full of stories. The retirement home's residents, whose average age is 82, can tell you about artillery pounding trenches in France in 1917, or the 1910 appearance of Halley's comet, or of summering in the Shenandoah Valley during the Great Depression.

But many of these stories go unheard, for few working-age visitors take the time to visit the house and hear them.

One who does is John Picco, 17, a Bishop Ireton High School senior who for several years has been doing volunteer work there.

"Mainly it's listening. They want to tell you about their problems and what they did years ago . . . . I find it very interesting," he said. "They're so excited when they see a young person because usually they see nothing but older persons . . . . Sometimes I extend my three-hour shifts to five."

Picco is one of 35 youths who yesterday received Congressional Awards, a relatively little-known honor given by Congress to people ages 14 through 23 for volunteer service to their communities.

"We have a lot of kids who are out doing something," said Murriel Price, copresident of the council that organizes the awards in Virginia's 10th Congressional District and an area superintendent in the Fairfax County School System.

"I work in the schools, so I knew a lot of good things were happening out there with kids that the general public didn't know about . . . . The kids who are out there doing things we can be most proud of often don't get much attention."

Three levels of awards are given. Bronze awards require a minimum of 100 hours of volunteer service over nine months without pay or school credit, silver awards require 200 hours over 15 months, and gold awards 400 hours over 24 months.

In addition, recipients must spend an equal amount of time out of school divided between a personal development program, such as music lessons or debating, and physical fitness.

Recipients may design their own program, but the council must approve it.

"I sort of put it on the same level with the Eagle Scout," Price said. "It's about as hard to earn . . . . It's incredible the number of hours they have to put in."

Because the eight-year-old program has not received much attention in Virginia until recently, most of the gold and silver award winners this year began their volunteer work well before learning of the award, according to Price.

Loretta Ortiz, 23, of Vienna, who won a gold award, said: "I was proud, kind of like those little brownies who come out at night and do good deeds and nobody knows they're there. I feel like they're saying we know you're there. I feel very proud to get it, and very humble."

Ortiz started volunteer work 10 years ago by leading children's play groups at Wolf Trap. "We all enjoyed it . . . seeing all those happy kids and knowing what we did made it fun for them."

She later worked as a park service guide, and for seven years has led a folk choir at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church.

She said she started volunteer "I was proud, kind of like those little brownies who come out at night and do good deeds."

-- Loretta Ortiz

work because her family was involved in such activities, such as the International Children's Festival at Wolf Trap.

"We've always been a very service-oriented family," she said.

Chris Donahue, 17, a senior at James Madison High School and a silver award winner, said, "It didn't start out like I found out about the award and guided everything toward that. I was already started on these things. I was very active in the church to begin with . . . . I'm a Christian. I feel it's very important to serve God by helping other people."

After the devastating floods in West Virginia two years ago, Donahue went with a group from the Vienna Presbyterian Church to help clean up and rebuild houses in Petersburg.

"All the railroad tracks were wired up. You could see places where there was nothing under the tracks," he said.

"Through people's fields there'd be all sorts of trash -- a pipe here, a car there. A whole hardware store had been gutted, everything in the store had been washed out the back."

He spent weekends tearing out walls and floors to remove mud and sodden insulation, and clearing up debris. He has also spent time in the summer with a church group repairing holes and installing insulation at an older woman's home in rural Maine, and refurbishing houses on a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina.

Picco, a silver award winner, said he was reluctant to work at Goodwin House until he tried it.

"My mom mentioned it. I didn't think it was a good idea at first . . . . But then I came in to help them, and the {organizer} had me help them with bowling," he said. "I took this one lady . . . who had only one arm. I took her to lunch and we talked for a couple of hours . . . . Now she asks for me whenever I come by."

His sister Danielle, 15, a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School, also received the silver award, for volunteer work at Fairfax Hospital. As a blood bank worker, part of her job was to reassure blood donors, all of whom are at least 17 years old.

"People would come in with worried faces . . . . They were really worried about the idea of giving blood," she said. "I had to calm them down and explain to them what was going on."

She said her brother's work at Goodwin House helped interest her in doing volunteer work with people.

"Every day he went there he would come back here with a story, and that interested me very much."