In a Class of Their Own: Prudential Honorees

Generation Z includes those born between 1994 and 2010. They’ve not yet entered the workforce, but they’re already making themselves known as a group that has strong values and believes in giving back. In fact, according to a study by Millennial Branding, 77 percent of high school student respondents are either extremely or very interested in volunteering, compared to 63 percent of college students.

In partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards recognize middle and high school students at the local, state, and national levels for their outstanding service to others. This year’s 102 finalists—two representatives from each state and the District of Columbia—gathered in the nation’s capital in May to participate in sightseeing and special recognition events.

Recognizing Excellence

The process to select winners is a rigorous one and begins each year in September, when information is sent to all middle and high schools in the United States. Applications are received locally—applicants are then reviewed by state and recognized in February with $1,000 awards, an engraved silver medallion, and an all-expenses-paid trip with a parent or guardian to Washington, D.C., in early May. There, they share their experiences and learn about the activities of others around the country. Ten of the 102 state honorees are named America’s youth volunteers of the year. These national honorees each receive additional $5,000 awards, gold medallions, and crystal trophies for their schools or organizations-and $5,000 grants from the Prudential Foundation for the nonprofit charitable organizations of their choice.

The 2016 selection committee that chose the national honorees was chaired by John Strangfeld, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial Inc., and included NASSP’s 2015–16 president, Michael Allison. The panel had the daunting—but rewarding—task of wading through a wide range of submissions that have already been narrowed down to represent the community-minded contributions of some of the most hardworking and generous students in the country.

A Commitment to Community and Volunteerism

Prudential’s Spirit of Community Award has consistently revealed the creativity and innovation of the many students who have participated over the past years. This year was no exception. The top 10 finalists demonstrated an impressive array of ideas put into action to make an impact on their communities. Here’s a look at the students and their contributions, as described at the time of their award.

A Tireless Advocate for Autism

Connor Archer was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old. Neither he, nor his parents, let that diagnosis hold him back. Connor, an 18-year-old senior from Stillwater, ME, attends Old Town High School. His passion is educating the public about autism and the challenges faced by people with autism—like himself. Connor has raised more than $12,000 for organizations that help people with special needs. In 2014, he organized an event—”The Courageous Steps Project”—to benefit local schools that help children with special needs. His first event raised almost $4,000; his second more than $6,000. Other fundraisers resulted in total contributions of more than $12,000.

Igniting a Passion for Reading

When she was only 8, Maria Keller started the nonprofit, “Read Indeed,” to share her passion for reading with others. This sophomore at Orono High School in Plymouth, MN, collected more than 1.7 million books for children in need in 50 states and 17 other countries. Her parents helped her form the nonprofit, and she began organizing book drives with a goal of collecting 1 million books before she turned 18; she met her goal with five years to spare. She’s been so successful that she’s moved her efforts beyond her home to warehouse space and works with more than 250 volunteers who help sort, box, and distribute the books to hospitals, orphanages, and schools around the world. She’s also recruited corporate sponsors, applied for grants, and has raised more than $80,000 in individual contributions.

Making Holidays Brighter

For children, there is often no loss greater than the loss of a parent. James Lea lost his father to a heart attack when he was only 9. It was a significant setback for his family; but he, his brother, and mother were surprised when a series of gifts began appearing on their doorstep for each of the 12 days before Christmas. It meant a lot to James, 17, and a junior at Faith Lutheran Middle School and High School in Las Vegas. He wanted to do something to give back to others who had experienced similar losses. With help from his mother, he and his brother started the nonprofit “In12Days.” Each year they find 12 companies to donate $5,000 each to cover the cost of Christmas-themed surprises for families—such as baskets of fresh pears or an inflatable pool turtle filled with Dove chocolates. So far, In12Days has impacted more than 7,000 people in Las Vegas, Chicago, and San Francisco through the efforts of more than 1,000 volunteers.

Finding Strength to Share

Most people wouldn’t think that collecting pennies could lead to contributions of nearly $200,000, but most people aren’t Jungin Angie Lee (Angie). Angie, a 17-year-old junior at Metea Valley High School in Aurora, IL, was diagnosed with a rare neuromuscular disease when she was only 15 months old. But she hasn’t let the disorder—which causes debilitating and often fatal muscle weakness—hold her back, despite the fact that she will never be able to walk. In second grade, Angie and a friend teamed up to make a difference. Initially, they held a penny drive with a goal of raising $200. That was just the beginning. Nine years later, the girls have raised almost $200,000 through the nonprofit Angie’s Hope. Their fundraisers have helped to show “how huge a difference individuals can make when they combine efforts,” Angie says.

Because Being Homeless Shouldn’t Hold Them Back

Alisha Zhao, 17, and a junior at Lincoln High School in Portland, OR, wanted to do something to help homeless kids. When she was a freshman, she created a club at her school to serve local homeless people and founded a nonprofit, “Kids First Project,” to specifically focus on homeless youth. She’s committed to helping these young people reach their full potential. Her efforts have been noticed; she was appointed by the mayor of Portland as the first young person ever to serve on the city’s Human Rights Commission. “My project,” says Alisha, “revolves around HOPE. Its purpose is not only to empower youth through instilling hope, but to do so through health, opportunity, play, and education.”

Taking the Boredom Out of Being Hospitalized

Kayla Abramowitz has juvenile arthritis and Crohn’s disease and has spent a fair amount of time in hospitals throughout her young life. Because of her experiences, Kayla, 14, and an eighth-grader at Watson B. Duncan Middle School in North Palm Beach, FL, wanted to do something to help other children make the most of what can be very boring hospital stays. With an initial goal of collecting 100 DVDs for hospitals, she established “Kayla Cares 4 Kids,” a nonprofit that has now collected almost 10,000 DVDs, books, and other items for 81 hospitals and Ronald McDonald Houses around the country.

When It Pays to Be a Little Piggy

When Grace Davis was only in the first grade, she had a passion for helping premature babies and she had an idea for how she might be able to make a difference. She sought help from her teacher and took her idea—”Piggies for Preemies”—to a local hospital with a neonatal unit. A fifth-grader at Greathouse/Shyrock Traditional Elementary School in Louisville, KY, Grace has raised more than $140,000 by asking fellow students to fill up piggy banks to support her cause. Aided through a donation of piggy banks from a local bank, along with an incentive of a $500 scholarship, students fill their banks through creative fundraisers and other projects.

Playing Games to Make a Difference

When Zachary Rice was in grade school, he spent a lot of time in the hospital for a hip infection and debilitating bone condition. The stay was made a little less tedious when his father brought Zachary his gaming system from home. Once out of the hospital, Zachary decided he wanted to buy gaming systems for children in the hospital and, along with his mother, started a 5K run/walk—”Action for Distraction.” This eighth-grader at Long Valley Middle School in Long Valley, NJ, started the event three years ago and has raised more than $50,000. Proceeds are used to provide children at Goryeb Children’s Hospital in Morristown, NJ, with gaming systems and other items to help ease the burden of their stays.

Never Too Young to Help Out

As a little boy, Jackson Silverman helped pack bags of food for the hungry at his church. When he volunteered to help do the same at a local food bank, he was told he was too young. So, this fifth-grader at Advanced Studies Magnet-Haut Gap Middle School in Charleston, SC, started his own nonprofit—”I Heart Hungry Kids.” Jackson’s organization has packed more than 14,000 weekend lunches for needy youngsters with the help of 175 young volunteers working with him to pack 1,500 bags of food a month.

Bullying Is Not for Buddies

More than two years ago, when Clare Szalkowski’s older sister had a seizure at school, other students began making fun of her. Clare, 10, and a fifth-grader at Hoover Elementary School in Dubuque, IA, knew she needed to do something to help.

She started by providing a “buddy bench” on her own school’s playground to help promote friendship. Now, every school in her region has a “Clare Cares Buddy Bench” on their playgrounds—more than 30 in all. She’s also formed “kid committees” and holds “buddy events” to work on projects in support of local nonprofit organizations.

Receiving the award, says James Lea, “was an amazing experience, one unlike any other; being able to meet unique people that share the same passion for community that I do was phenomenal.” Alisha Zhao reflects, “My ultimate hope is for this incredible recognition to inspire and motivate youth to continue or begin spearheading change in their own communities and beyond.”


Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.