Generation Z—those born during the period between the mid-1990s and 2010—are just now beginning to enter the workforce. Most are still students in K–12 institutions around the country, but they’re making their mark in ways that generations before could only imagine.
A 2018 article in The Atlantic titled “Getting Gen Z Primed to Save the World” points to some already significant impacts that this new generation is making—including the work of Malala Yousafzai, the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize (she was 18).
It’s not that this generation is necessarily more giving or caring than those that have come before, but it is a generation that was born into a world of disaster and dissension. Perhaps more than their older siblings and parents, they were nurtured not with a sense of entitlement, but of giving back, and the recognition that they have the potential to make a difference.
Prudential Recognizes Students Making an Impact
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program, created by Prudential and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), has been recognizing students making a difference in the United States since 1995. (Prudential also recognizes students in other countries where the company has a significant presence including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Ireland, India, China, Brazil, and Poland). The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards is the country’s largest youth recognition program and is focused exclusively on volunteer community-service activities among students in grades 5–12.
There are several opportunities for students to be recognized for their contributions:
- Local honorees receive a certificate of achievement from their schools or organizations and the President’s Volunteer Service Award.
- Distinguished finalists receive an engraved bronze medallion, and select state-level runners-up receive certificates of excellence.
- State honorees receive an award of $1,000; an engraved silver medallion; and an all-expenses-paid trip with a parent or guardian to Washington, D.C., to attend the national recognition events.
- National honorees receive an additional award of $5,000; an engraved gold medallion; a crystal trophy for their school or nominating organization; and a $5,000 grant from The Prudential Foundation to a nonprofit charitable organization of their choice.
In 2018, 10 national honorees ranging in age from 10–18 were honored for a variety of innovative, ambitious, and impactful examples of how members of this generation are indeed poised to save the world.
Making a Difference, One Student at a Time
The 10 students honored at the national level organized a wide range of efforts to benefit groups of various types, with varied needs. Without exception, their school administrators and parents point to their passion around causes close to their hearts and their creativity, innovation, and drive for making a difference.
From writing a book to reassure and comfort children who have incarcerated parents, to holding peace marches, lobbying legislators, raising significant funds for those in need, and more, these young students are setting an example not only for their peers, but also for their administrators, advisers, and the communities in which they live.
Tons of Food to Address Community Need
William Winslow, 12, a sixth grader at Daniels Magnet Middle School in Raleigh, NC, has been on a mission to provide food for children who might otherwise go hungry ever since being inspired by a guidance counselor who came to his first-grade class to talk about students who didn’t have opportunities for meals. He was inspired to action.
Winslow organized a food drive—one that is now an annual event—to collect food to fill backpacks for classmates in need of weekend food. He set up a website, recruited local stores to participate, organized volunteers, and even helped to build school gardens in neighborhoods in his community. Since starting these activities, he has collected approximately $40,000 and 40,000 pounds of food.
Principal David Gaudet says he was unaware of Winslow’s activities until being informed by Winslow’s mother about the award (there are 400 students in the school’s six-grade class). He did some research by speaking to Winslow’s current teachers and his grade school principal and was duly impressed. His actions, says Gaudet, “were really selfless and not something where he was looking for accolades or affirmation of any sort.” In fact, Gaudet says, Winslow is “a little bit shy.” But, he says, “he’s pursuing this because he’s passionate about it in his heart and he’s someone who feels it’s important to give back.”
Winslow has had an impact on his classmates as well, Gaudet says. After Prudential representatives came to the school to present Winslow’s award at a breakfast attended by around 250 other sixth-grade students, word spread, and his peers also have become interested in giving back and wondering what more they could do. It is impressive for Winslow “to be that self-aware that young and to have that global perspective of what’s going on outside your neighborhood and community,” Gaudet says.
Making Memories for Young and Old
Alzheimer’s disease is a disorder that affects more than 5 million Americans—200,000 under the age of 65, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. It is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and, unlike with other diseases, its death rate continues to climb. Alzheimer’s doesn’t only affect those afflicted with the disease; its impact extends to family and friends like 10-year-old Hailey Richman, a 2018 national honoree and fifth-grade student at Public School 78 in Long Island City, NY.
Richman’s grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when Richman was 4. In interacting with her grandmother, she discovered that putting puzzles together was something they could do together—and something that made her grandma happy. To help other children find ways to interact with their loved ones while providing a positive experience for Alzheimer’s patients, Richman began to collect and provide jigsaw puzzles to nursing homes and other senior living facilities—more than 10,000 over the past three years. She is also the founder of KidCaregivers.com, a site that provides advice for children who have family members with dementia.
“Max Wallack, founder of [the nonprofit organization] PuzzlesToRemember, and Lynda Everman, an Alzheimer’s disease advocate who has been involved in multiple organizations, have been Hailey’s mentors and advisers,” says her mother, Emma Richman.
“For someone so young, she exhibits extraordinary empathy for the struggles of others—both young and old—and courage to step out and help,” Everman says.
Despite the tangible numbers that are a testament to the impact Hailey has made, Wallack says, “To me, the ‘verifiable results’ of Hailey’s work are on the faces of both the nursing home residents and the kid caregivers whenever they have the opportunity to interact.” It’s amazing, he says, how many people Hailey has already impacted so positively at the young age of 10.
Making a Difference Globally
There aren’t many 17-year-old high school students who are also CEOs of global organizations, but Michelle Qin is among their ranks. A student at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, CA, and one of the 2018 national honorees, Qin founded a nonprofit organization that works to empower girls and women around the world by focusing on education, poverty, and health.
At 15, Qin was inspired by the experiences a friend told her about after returning from a trip to Guatemala. She decided to organize a club at her school to assist girls there through funds raised, initially, by holding bake sales. Her Together to Empower organization has since expanded to include more than 100 members in three branches. “She has led various projects with her team to empower girls and women in local communities, Guatemala, Uganda, and various African nations,” says her adviser, Susie Stone. “She’s created a movement and a community of people dedicated to her cause with branches of her organization in California, New Jersey, and Canada.”
“[Qin] is such an asset to our school community,” says Principal Bill Woodard. She has “single-handedly created a summer camp experience to teach young girls coding and, in doing so, inspired many of them to see themselves one day in STEM fields. She never takes no for an answer and always problem-solves with grace, humor, and intelligence. We are super proud of her here at Dos Pueblos.”
“Michelle inspires youth and teens to know that they have the potential to make great change. She uses her voice to speak up for and empower people,” Stone says. “By blending creativity with community service, she’s able to create meaningful impacts that everyone can be a part of.”
Stone says that though Qin’s passion and commitment started as a simple effort to help Guatemalan girls go to school, it has grown into a movement much more meaningful than she could have ever expected.
A Pawsitive Impact
Another national honoree, 18-year-old Tabitha Bell has focused her outreach and efforts to impact her furry friends. The senior at The Waterford School in Sandy, UT, was born severely premature in Siberia, was adopted, and later diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. She got a German shepherd to help her with mobility and balance.
In conversations with her doctors, she learned that other patients could also benefit from the aid of service animals, but many didn’t have the resources to afford them. With a friend, Bell incorporated Pawsitive Pawsibilities, created a website, and began fundraising through a “Puppy Paws” program that helps other children contribute to the cause through fundraisers of various kinds. With an initial goal of helping just one other person like herself, Bell and her organization today have trained nine dogs to help those in need.
“Tabitha has been an inspiring volunteer and we are proud of her accomplishments,” says Andrew Menke, head of school at Waterford.
The Sky’s the Limit
Every year since 1995, the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards has highlighted the strength of character, level of innovation, and spirit of tenacity that young people around the country are exhibiting. These young students are having an impact not only on those they choose to serve, but on others around them who are influenced and spurred by the actions of their peers, who may well go on to make their own efforts to save the world.
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a writer based in Wisconsin.