While “kids these days” often are accused of only thinking about themselves, some middle level and high school students have proven just the opposite. In fact, this year’s recipients of the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards have been recognized for seeking out ways to do good in their communities, championing a far-reaching impact. These remarkable students all saw a need and took proactive steps to make a difference in the lives of others.
Prudential Recognizes Students Making an Impact
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, created by Prudential and NASSP in 1995, honor a group of young students with national recognition for their outstanding achievements in community service. It’s the largest youth recognition program focused exclusively on volunteer community service activities among students in grades 5 through 12.
In 2019, state honorees ranging in age from 10 to 18 were honored for a variety of innovative, ambitious, and impactful examples of how members of this generation are doing good. Two honorees—one at the middle level and one in high school—were selected from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
From the state honorees, 10 were selected to be honored at the national level (see sidebar, p. 26). In 2019, those national winners—ranging in age from 11 to 17—organized an impressive collection of projects to benefit groups of various types with wide-ranging needs. Without exception, their school administrators and parents point to their passion around causes close to their hearts: their creativity, innovation, and drive for making a difference.
From organizing fundraising and collections, to constructing accessible sports venues, to taking on the alarmingly high rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide among young people, these students are demonstrating that Generation Z is well poised to move into positions of leadership and impact.
Tackling a Growing National Tragedy From the Inside Out
Allison Tu, like far too many students these days, has lost classmates to suicide—a rising epidemic nationwide. Her first experience was in middle school. “The kids were devastated—the community was devastated,” says her stepfather, Mike Battaglia. When a second suicide occurred while Tu was at duPont Manual High School in Louisville, KY, Battaglia recalls a video being made by the school district—an effort that didn’t resonate enough with the students. Tu took note and thought, “There must be a better way.”
She had an important revelation—that students probably had better insight into the type of messaging and channels that would most impact other students and result in attitude and behavior change. She launched the initiative StAMINA—the Student Alliance for Mental Health Innovation and Action—which was designed on a three-pronged plan: learn, build, and act. To learn, she held a series of focus groups around the state, gathering input from students. She also interviewed and met with state and municipal leaders, teachers, and clinicians. To build, she brought these groups together for a daylong “ideathon” to identify and prioritize potential initiatives. To act, she embarked on fundraising efforts that have raised $100,000 so far.
Tu is already proving to be extremely influential, with an innate ability to clearly see the connections between different groups and how she might use these connections to make a broader impact. For instance, Battaglia says, to raise the funds she needed to move her cause forward, Tu recognized an opportunity with the local business community. Local organizations, after all, would be looking to her classmates one day to fill open positions. They would directly benefit from having a mentally healthy base of potential employees. Tu also intuitively realized that these employers were likely dealing with mental health issues within their workforces. So, she put together a presentation to bring these organizations together—highlighting the downstream impacts of not taking steps to address student issues now. This, and other efforts, paid off.
“Her mom and I, and all of the adults around her who are in her corner, have every reason to believe this is work that she will continue,” Battaglia says. “I would not be surprised to see her move into focusing on these issues on both a national and international scale.”
Guidance counselor Amy Phillips Medley says that Tu is “destined for incredible future achievements.” In fact, Medley says she will likely tell her grandchildren about Tu one day when she is honored on a global scale.
That’s the kind of lasting impact that Prudential honorees can have.
A Grassroots Effort Targets Young Dyslexics
Since 2013, Caragan Olles has raised more than $160,000 to provide special tutoring for students with dyslexia. Olles’s passion was born out of her own frustration with reading challenges and the feeling that she “wasn’t as smart” as her classmates. Diagnosed in the third grade, Olles (now 16) was able to receive phonics-based tutoring to help her succeed, but she worried about others who didn’t have the resources to get that kind of special instruction.
She and her older brother decided to make a difference, launching Bright Young Dyslexics to help others get the support and training they needed.
“Caragan’s nonprofit began out of an interest to help a few students afford tutoring,” says her mother, Monica Olles. “Bright Young Dyslexics is now a national student-led organization directly impacting more than 2,400 students. It is proof of the power of young people to make a difference in their world.”
Patrick Browne, principal of Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay, WI, recalls Olles presenting a simulation to faculty and staff during one of their professional development days. “It was incredibly well-received,” he says. “Her hands-on, experiential approach to teaching really helped the faculty and staff connect to the challenges some students have. It showed how it is not a choice to have difficulty learning; rather, it’s something we all need to be sensitive to if we want all students to learn.”
Bright Young Dyslexics, which once only served northeast Wisconsin, grew throughout the state and now serves the entire country through a website, a youth advisory board, simulation events, and a dyslexia awareness kit.
“Caragan’s commitment to service has given our entire community a sense of accomplishment,” Browne says. She has “reinforced to teachers, staff, and students that one person does have the power to make a difference.”
Taking Grief and Working It Outward
When Grace Beal was in second grade, she lost her baby sister, Lucy, to congenital heart failure. While Lucy was being treated at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, the Beal family connected with Carol May, manager of the Supportive Care Department at the hospital. May helped the family focus on comfort and quality of life during Lucy’s final days and also provided support for the family.
Beal was impacted by the grief of losing her young sister, but she was also struck by the opportunity to make a difference. In fifth grade, Beal asked her parents if she could do a swim-a-thon to raise money for Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. The event—Laps for Lucy—involved primarily friends and family members and raised $3,400.
In seventh grade, Beal wanted to do more. “Why not raise more? Why not give more back? There’s no reason why we should stop,” she decided. She asked her basketball coaches if her team could shoot layups after practice to raise money for the hospital. Layups for Lucy was initiated and raised $5,600 that year. The event quickly expanded beyond friends and family and has raised more than $100,000 since 2014. Layups for Lucy has become an annual event that benefits Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “It has taken off in ways that I don’t think we expected,” her mother says. Her dad adds: “It’s amazing.”
“She is probably one of the most giving kids that I have known in 35 years of teaching and coaching,” says basketball coach Luann Grybowski of Beal.
Beal’s work, passion, and commitment have really demonstrated “how important grief work is and how sharing stories really brings people together,” May says.
Bringing Books to the Masses
Vance Tomasi may be only 13, but he’s already making an impact far beyond his years. Working with a friend, Tomasi has collected and donated more than 90,000 books to families, schools, group homes, hospitals, and libraries across the country—and as far away as Africa—in just two years.
Starting small, Tomasi initially held a book drive that provided 500 books for homeless families, but he knew he could have a broader reach. He and his friend set up a website and social media accounts to spread the word further—and faster. He organized additional book drives through groups such as the Boy Scouts and various school clubs and sports teams. He secured a grant that allowed for the purchase of 25,000 additional books.
“Vance is an amazing young man with a tremendous heart. That he was nationally recognized is not a surprise,” says Tim Binder, principal of Farnell Middle School in Tampa, FL.
These students’ good works are likely to continue as their circles of influence grow, but it’s clear from their efforts that you’re never too young to make a big difference.
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a writer based in Wisconsin.
Sidebar: 2019 Prudential Spirit of Community Award Winners
|Grace Beal, 17||Neshannock Senior High School, New Castle, PA|
|Aja Capel, 15||Urbana High School, Urbana, IL|
|Caragan Olles, 16||Notre Dame Academy, Green Bay, WI|
|Allison Tu, 17||duPont Manual High School, Louisville, KY|
|Joseph Voynik, 17||Jackson Preparatory School, Flowood, MS|
|Alexander Fultz, 13||Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy, Charlotte, NC|
|Samaia Goodrich, 11||Expeditionary Learning Middle School, Syracuse, NY|
|Hannah Karanick, 13||Orangeview Junior High School, Anaheim, CA|
|Caleb Oh, 14||Crofton Middle School, Gambrills, MD|
There are several opportunities for students to be recognized for their contributions:
- Local honorees receive a Certificate of Achievement from their schools or organizations; those who qualify also receive the President’s Volunteer Service Award.
- Distinguished finalists receive an engraved bronze medallion, and 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 schools or nominating organization, and a $5,000 grant from The Prudential Foundation for a nonprofit charitable organization of their choice.
The application process for the 2020 Prudential Spirit of Community awards is now open. The deadline for student applications is Tuesday, November 5, 2019. Find out more at http://spirit.prudential.com.