When schools shut their doors in March due to COVID-19, cancellations came with them: proms and playoffs, field trips and fundraisers, concerts and internships.
But if you think volunteer projects got called off, then you don’t know Generation Z.
Even as their lives were upended, students across the country stepped up this spring to respond to local needs and challenges arising from COVID-19.
“We were amazed by the substance and impact of the volunteering that students were doing in response to the pandemic,” says Heather Cestaro, director of The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards for middle level and high school volunteers. “You got a sense that kids were taking a hard look at the needs around them and giving genuine thought to what kind of help was within their scope of influence—which, as it turns out, is quite a lot.”
Here’s a look at some of the service projects middle level and high school students—all recent honorees in the Prudential volunteer awards program—took on in response to COVID-19.
Fundraising to Raise Spirits
Jacob Van, 13
Over the past year, Jacob has raised money through a gala, a lemonade stand, and other activities to support local people who have hit a rough patch in their lives. He’s used the funds for community outreach, including cancer treatments for a local woman and boy and hundreds of Christmas presents for people living on the streets of Portland.
In the spring of 2020, Jacob shifted his approach—and kicked it into high gear. He raised money to buy pizzas for caregivers at nursing homes, used his allowance to buy N95 masks for local hospitals, donated bread and jelly to an initiative to feed kids from food-insecure households, and dropped off meals in front of senior citizens’ homes.
“I wanted to help seniors and caregivers,” said Jacob. “Lots of support goes to hospitals, so I wanted to help nursing homes.”
Siblings Share the Love
Michaela Auyeung, 14, and Ethan Auyeung, 16
Los Gatos, CA
Last year, after watching too many of her friends base their self-esteem on “likes,” “follows,” and “comments,” Michaela started organizing IRL (in real life) activities to help pull kids away from the siren song of social media. Her goal was to create a program that “helps youth celebrate their uniqueness and true identities both online and offline.” Prior to COVID-19, she estimated that she’d reached 2,000 kids and teens with her off-screen activities, which included after-school art and mentoring programs, plus creating and distributing two inspirational coloring books.
When schools shut down in the spring, kids were online more than ever. So, Michaela packed and donated hundreds of additional art care packages and created a “Celebrating the Real You!” weekly fun activity that she shared with the schools where she volunteered as a virtual tutor. Activities included family activities and games, exploring new hobbies, and inspirational sidewalk art.
Meanwhile, her brother worked on initiatives of his own. When school closures began, Ethan—a longtime advocate for homeless and at-risk youth—quickly conducted a needs assessment with the schools and nonprofits he’s worked with over the years. The result was deliveries of hundreds of hygiene care packages and pairs of donated high-end socks for underserved school districts in his area. He’s also offered free online and phone tutoring to kids who were out of school and needed help completing their work from home.
(Not So) Random Acts of Kindness
Andrew Dunn, 17
Andrew is the founder of RAK (Random Acts of Kindness) Louisville, an initiative that mobilizes locals to support the Louisville area through acts of service. What started years ago as a citywide day of service has grown into a movement in recent years, with the mayor declaring December 23 RAK Louisville Day.
When schools closed across Kentucky in March, Andrew thought of the families and households he’d volunteered to support in the past that relied on subsidized school meals to feed their children. He decided to start a campaign to collect and donate snack bags for food-insecure households—care packages that included a main dish, like a tuna lunch kit or mac and cheese, in addition to fruit cups, granola bars, or other snacks. He organized the food drive so people could support the campaign while social distancing, setting up an Amazon wish list and arranging contactless pickup for bags created by volunteers. In its first three weeks, Andrew’s campaign had collected and distributed more than 2,000 snack bags.
Abigail Mueller, 17
St. Louis, MO
Abbie is an active volunteer whose recent pre-COVID projects included creating a program called Self Val-YOU: Promoting Positive Personal Imagery. She’s committed to giving people “the tools they need to turn around negative self-talk into positive self-image,” she said. The teen also created a service organization in 2014 called Abbie’s Helping Hands, which took on projects that included donating toiletry “blessing bags” and fleece blankets to kids and families in crisis.
Not long after schools closed in Missouri, Abbie heard about a community that was having trouble getting feminine hygiene products to girls from low-income households who, under normal circumstances, relied on the school nurse to provide them with those items every month. Using the collection of small bags she had stockpiled from a cosmetic subscription service, Abbie created a few dozen kits with feminine hygiene products that a church could discreetly distribute to girls who needed them. She mailed the kits to the community in need and brought a tray of cookies with her to thank the postal workers for their service as essential workers.
“Since then, I have received messages from many people who are going to be giving me their saved cosmetic bags, and I am making these feminine care kits a permanent part of what Abbie’s Helping Hands keeps on hand and distributes,” Abbie said.
The Blessing Box
Raegan Junge, 15
Pre-COVID, Raegan had already collected tens of thousands of dollars to help people around the world who had been affected by natural disasters and veterans dealing with homelessness. But when COVID-19 arrived, she shifted gears to a different kind of collection.
Inspired by a fellow Prudential Spirit honoree she met at the program’s national recognition events, Raegan decided to start a “blessing box” at the center of her town to provide essentials for anyone who needed them. She worked with her dad to build a large box, then filled it with nonperishable food, toilet paper, paper towels, toiletries, baby items, and other essentials. She then used her Facebook page—“Raegan’s Relief Effort”—to raise awareness about the box, encouraging people to “take what you need, give what you can.”
Katie Stagliano, 22, and John Michael Stagliano, 17
Service runs in the Stagliano family. Katie is the founder of Katie’s Krops, an organization that mobilizes kids across the country to grow fresh produce for donation to local food charities. Her brother, John Michael, runs an initiative called Home Again for veterans and others transitioning out of homelessness. Transition homes are often pretty bare, so John Michael collected furniture, appliances, and other household goods to give people a stronger start.
When COVID-19 came to South Carolina, John Michael’s partner shelter locked down for the protection of its clients. Meanwhile, more and more people were losing their jobs and facing food insecurity, so Katie and John Michael worked to pack and deliver hundreds of meals a week for people served by their local YMCA. John Michael worked with his sister’s organization to harvest and donate fresh produce for local homeless shelters, and Katie’s Krops launched a program that mailed packets of seeds for planting to kids who were out of school and looking for something to do.
“We are asking the kids to share their harvest with their neighbors in need,” Katie said. “The response has been amazing!”
Annie Tasker is project manager, inclusive solutions, at Prudential Financial in Chicago.
Photos courtesy of Prudential Award Winners.
Sidebar: The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards kicked off its 2021 application period at the start of the school year in September, and the organization is looking for students who have found meaningful ways to support their communities through COVID-19 relief projects, promoting inclusion, or other service activities.
The awards, sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with NASSP, are open to students in grades 5–12 who have volunteered in the past year.
Applications can be certified by school principals or heads of a local Girl Scouts, 4-H, YMCA, Red Cross, or Points of Light Global Network member.
Awards for top honorees include scholarships of up to $6,000 and an invitation to the program’s national recognition activities.
Do you know a young volunteer who deserves recognition for their service? Learn more about the 2021 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards at http://spirit.prudential.com.
Application deadline: November 10, 2020