Making a Meaningful Difference

Students in the 21st century are faced with a wide range of challenges that are vastly different than the issues that faced their parents, or even their older siblings. But, while members of generations that came before them are sometimes quick to criticize and point to “what’s wrong with kids today,” the fact is that these 21st-century students are making some positive impacts in their communities. Whether driven by personal experiences, a strong desire to help others, or both, today’s students are working hard to give back to their schools, their communities, and the world.

Since 1995, Prudential and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) have been providing opportunities for students to share their stories of volunteerism and the impact their efforts have on their schools and communities through the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program. This program is the United States’ largest youth recognition program based exclusively on volunteer community service. It culminates in an award ceremony held in Washington, D.C., where 10 national honorees are named from 102 state honorees. This year’s honorees were selected from a group of 31,000 contenders from around the country; they were personally congratulated by Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps at a reception at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History on May 8, where they each received $5,000 in personal awards and $5,000 grants for the charities of their choice. Finalists from each state received $1,000 awards.

Applicants are judged based on several factors, which include initiative, effort, impact, and personal growth, through a selection process that starts locally at schools and organizations like 4-H, Girl Scout councils, American Red Cross chapters, YMCAs, and affiliates of the HandsOn Network.

A Competitive Field

Local schools and organizations can select one honoree for every 1,000 students in grades 5–8 and one from grades 9–12, or two in schools with 1,000 or more students. Around the country, those numbers add up rapidly, and the competitive field is tough. Students making it all the way through to the top 10 are clearly exceptional. Their personal stories and contributions are compelling; their impact on their schools and communities is significant. Here are some of the students and their contributions, as described at the time of their award.

Riley Callen, 14, from Pawlet, VT, recognized while an eighth-grader at Dorset Elementary School, has been afflicted with brain tumors since she was 8 years old. She founded an annual “hike-a-thon” that raised more than $250,000 to help find a cure. Rosanna Moran, principal at Dorset Elementary, says that she has had a very positive impact on the school and a great deal of influence with other students. “She got kids here to help with the promotion, and they really did a wonderful job,” Moran says. “She is very engaging, and I think people want to help.”

Moran believes Callen and her team did an exceptional job with promotion and marketing. “It was very well run, and they involved a lot of people and businesses. They got kids to participate in raising money online and to participate in the hike-a-thon.” People were also able to participate online if they weren’t able to attend in person. “It was an activity that anyone could participate in,” Moran says.

Personal experiences drove action on the part of other honorees as well. Lorelei McIntyre-Brewer, honored while a sixth-grader at The Cove School, a home-school in Duncannon, PA, was born with only half a heart and has had to undergo multiple open-heart surgeries. She’s built a volunteer network that has provided more than 12,000 special pillows for other children around the world undergoing heart surgery. The Heart-Hugs group sews by hand special compression pillows that the children can hug after their surgery to help rid their bodies of excess fluid and provide comfort.

Lorelei’s mother Michelle McIntyre-Brewer says, “Even though the work she does comes from her experiences missing half of her heart, her mission is selfless: She seeks to make life better for others.” Lorelei is home-schooled by her mother. Steven Brewer provides administrative assistance for the home-school co-op, and says that Lorelei “is amazing and my personal hero.”

In Georgia, Bonaire Middle School student Kelsey Norris, a 13-year-old sixth-grader, provided more than 1,000 volunteer hours and raised more than $20,000 for causes including the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, Shriners Hospitals for Children, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Norris started her young life in a difficult situation. Less than a year old and in a Russian orphanage, she would later be diagnosed with autism. Her personal challenges drove her to give back to others at an early age—by the time she was six, she was visiting schools to read to other children and share her story.

While students’ personal experiences often drive them to give back to others, other factors have also impacted interest and participation in volunteerism over the years since Prudential and NASSP first introduced the Spirit of Community Awards program.

Volunteerism on the Rise

Volunteerism is on the rise among today’s youth. A longitudinal study by Child Trends has tracked volunteerism among students in grades 8, 10, and 12 since 1991. While volunteerism among eighth graders has declined slightly since 2012, both 10th- and 12th-grade students have shown a sharp uptick in volunteerism.

Who are these civic-minded students? According to the study:

  • Older students are more likely to volunteer than younger students.
  • Volunteers are more likely to be female than male.
  • Parents of volunteers are more likely to be college educated.

Those who choose to volunteer don’t just help others-they also help themselves, according to the research. They are less likely to use drugs or become pregnant as teens. They are more likely to have strong academic, occupational, and psychological well-being, and they’re more likely to have a strong work ethic. And, according to their parents, teachers, and principals, they are wonderful role models for other students.

Changing the World for the Better

Tim Kenney is the principal of Shorewood High School in Wisconsin, where national honoree Sarah (Katie) Eder is a student. Eder developed a creative writing workshop for children in need that is being taught by 120 students in seven states and five countries. “All of the accolades that Katie has received regarding her work with Kids Tales connect directly to her work here at Shorewood High School,” Kenney says. “Katie embodies everything that we hope for our students; Katie is an excellent role model for her peers.”

In San Diego, two students received national honors this year. Kenan Pala, a 13-year-old seventh grader at Francis Parker Middle School, focused on helping homeless people by raising money for area shelters, coordinating meals at shelter kitchens, and organizing a record-setting cereal donation event. Meghana Reddy, an 18-year-old senior at Francis Parker School, used 3-D printing to create artificial hands for children and adults in several countries who could not afford to purchase prostheses. “She has been asked to take Limbs With Love to Stanford, where it will continue to grow and be improved,” says Kevin Dunn, director of community engagement for her school. Current and future students will also continue to fabricate and help individuals in need of 3-D printed prosthetics, he says.

Pala is also expanding his program, says Dunn, beginning with a new after-school student group called Student Inc. Guest speakers and students will share insights about how to launch a 501(c)(3) or begin a for-profit enterprise that benefits a community in need. The program will take place each Thursday after school this fall and will culminate in a pitching and launching ceremony. In addition, Dunn says, Pala has started planning a student-led 5K that will take place in downtown San Diego. Profits raised will benefit a nonprofit selected by the students.

The impact that Pala and Reddy have already had will be felt for years to come, Dunn says. “The amazing thing about these two students is that their projects will continue to grow and assist communities in need. Future students will read about and learn that they, too, can make a meaningful difference in the world.”

These students’ stories are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the collective impact of young volunteers on their schools and communities. Their commitment to giving back provides benefit to their schools and to their communities. In some cases, their impact is felt around the globe.

As Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The student recipients of Prudential and NASSP’s Spirit of Community Awards are 120,000 strong, their impact massive both in terms of the projects they’ve championed and the other students who have been influenced to follow in their footsteps.


Lin Grensing-Pophal is a writer based in Wisconsin.


Prudential Award Winners

Amal Bhatnagar, 18, Northview High School, Duluth, GA

Riley Callen, 14, Dorset Elementary School, Pawlet, VT

Ariana DeMattei, 16, Westhampton Beach High School, Center Moriches, NY

Sarah (Katie) Eder, 17, Shorewood High School, Shorewood, WI

Bradley Ferguson, 16, Mainland Regional High School, Northfield, NJ

Harmonie Frederick, 11, Polo Road Elementary School, Columbia, SC

Lorelei McIntyre-Brewer, 11, The Cove School, Duncannon, PA

Kelsey Norris, 13, Bonaire Middle School, Bonaire, GA

Kenan Pala, 13, Francis Parker Middle School, San Diego, CA

Meghana Reddy, 18, Francis Parker School, San Diego, CA

To learn more about all the winners and their projects, visit https://spirit.prudential.com/honorees/national.