This article originally appeared in The Inquirer on July 4, 1999.
You could say 12-year-old Jessica Limbacher has been training for this her whole life.
Named one of 25 winners nationwide of Sports Illustrated for Kids’ “Good Sport Award,” Jessica earned her place in the spotlight last month not with trophies and ribbons, but with every Thanksgiving meal she provided for a needy family and every Christmas gift collected for a child who otherwise would have gone without.
''I like to know that I can make a difference in the lives of the families I help," said Jessica, a Germantown Academy honor student and athlete who will enter seventh grade in the fall.
Beginning in third grade, Jessica — who is the granddaughter of restaurateur and philanthropist Frank Palumbo — got her first taste of community service with a canned-food drive at her school, and “that’s really what got me started," she said.
What followed forms a resume of good works that includes a campaign to gather sports equipment for needy kids and a self-started food drive in 1995 to benefit members of Our Lady of Hope Church in North Philadelphia. The drive now is school-wide and feeds more than 100 families during the Thanksgiving holiday.
“She’s a young person who’s willing to give of her spare time to help those in need,” said Denise Drapikowski, case intake worker for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, where Jessica has volunteered for three years. “That’s what’s so unique about her. I think she’s very grateful for what the Lord has given her in her personal life, and she wants to share.”
Another project of Jessica’s is a bike-a-thon she initiated in Summer 1997 after reading about the Troy Aikman Foundation in Sports Illustrated for Kids.
“He helps to build these play centers for sick kids, and I thought it was a really good idea so I started a bike-athon,” Jessica said.
She passed out flyers, found sponsors, and then rode for almost 20 miles, raising $300 for the foundation.
“It gives you a really good feeling,” she said. “It’s important to try and make the world a good place, especially with kids because the future will be with them.”
So, when the young humanitarian read about the Good Sport Award contest sponsored by the magazine and the “Milk Mustache" campaign, instead of being enticed to enter by the “fantasy sports weekend” in New York or the special appearance on Nickelodeon, she zeroed in on the $5,000 award.
It wasn't that Jessica wanted the money for herself, said her mother, Franca Limbacher.
“She’s always looking for ways to help raise money for good causes,” Franca Limbacher said, adding that Jessica wants the savings bond to mature so it can go to help the victims of the West Ambler fire on Father’s Day. “It’s just who she is. I don’t know how. She’s just a good kid.”
Part of what motivates Jessica is the ideal of leading by example. She said she wanted children to realize that they were not too little or too young to make a difference in someone's life.
“I think kids should do community service, and kids make the world better for others,” she said.
Still, Jessica and her parents said they never expected she would actually win the magazine’s contest — more than 40,000 youngsters applied, after all.
But the family received a call in late spring notifying Jessica that she was a finalist. In April, they learned Jessica’s years of quiet community service would be recognized nationally.
“I was really excited," Jessica said. “I thought they might pick out of a hat or something, but they really got involved and called to make sure I had really done the community service.”
Her prize also featured that fantasy sports weekend in New York with her family, where she met the other winners.
And now that things are getting back to normal, Jessica said, she plans to continue helping others — that includes campaigning for animal rights and environmental protection. (The latter earned her an invitation from Gov. Ridge last year to present a check from the money she raised to help clean an oil spill in her nearby pond. )