2013 National Honorees

Ten young Americans were selected in the 2013 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program for national recognition based on their outstanding achievements in community service. The national selection committee that chose the national honorees was chaired by Prudential chairman and CEO John R. Strangfeld. Also serving on the committee were Denise Greene-Wilkinson of NASSP; Michelle Nunn, CEO of the Points of Light Institute and co-founder of HandsOn Network; Donald T. Floyd, Jr., president and CEO of the National 4-H Council; Jaclyn E. Libowitz, chief administrative officer for Girl Scouts of the USA; James E. Starr, vice president for volunteer management for the American Red Cross; Scott Richardson, research analyst for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS); Dru Tomlin, director of middle level services for the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE); Kate Blosveren, associate director for strategic initiatives for Achieve, Inc.; Renee’ Jackson, manager of school relations and diversity at the National PTA; and two 2012 National Honorees: Neha Gupta, a junior at Pennsbury High School in Fairless Hills, Pa., and Jordyn Schara, a senior at Reedsburg Area High School in Reedsburg, Wis. The 2013 National Honorees are:
High School National Honorees


   

Allyson Ahlstrom
Allyson Ahlstrom, 17, of Santa Rosa, Calif., a senior at Cardinal Newman High School, created a full-service clothing boutique that has allowed 250 girls in need to each pick out two brand-new outfits for free over the past three years. Her "Threads for Teens" nonprofit has also provided 130 girls with backpacks filled with school supplies, and has given out 100 prom dresses. Allyson got her inspiration from a book she received as a Christmas present, which told the stories of teens who had undertaken remarkable service projects. Realizing how important clothes can be to a teenage girl’s self-esteem and dignity, Allyson decided that she would try to make a difference by making new, fashionable clothing available to girls in foster care or other situations of poverty.

She immediately sent letters and email notes to more than 300 companies and stores, asking for clothing donations. Within a couple of hours, she had her first donation and the responses grew quickly from then on. "I didn’t know that people would be so inclined to help with something like this," she said. "When I started out I had no idea I’d get to where I am now." To date, she has received more than $55,000 in monetary contributions and over $135,000 in clothing donations that include more than 40 national brands, such as Tommy Hilfiger, Claire’s, Hot Topic and American Eagle Outfitters. When girls make appointments to shop at Allyson’s boutique, located in a local storefront donated by a property management company, they browse through the racks of new clothes and accessories, and pick out two head-to-toe outfits. Next summer, Allyson plans to transform a large truck into a mobile boutique and take it on a 48-state tour to outfit one thousand additional girls.

   

Emma Astrike-Davis
Emma Astrike-Davis, 17, of Durham, N.C., a junior at Cary Academy, founded a program five years ago that has recruited hundreds of students in several schools to create more than 1,000 pieces of art for terminally ill patients in hospice centers, nursing homes and VA hospitals. Emma was inspired to create her "Art for Hospice" project when her great-grandmother moved to a nursing home. "We filled her room with personal mementos and family [photos], but not all of the residents were so fortunate," said Emma. "I was saddened to see that many of the patients had no personal items in their rooms, not even pictures on the walls." Emma, then in elementary school, came up with a plan to change that.

Her idea was to purchase blank canvases using donations from family and friends and recruit students to create works of art, which she would then distribute to hospices and other organizations. She arranged for local hospice workers to speak at her school about the needs of its patients, and that first spring, more than 200 students created 25 paintings. The following year, she expanded to two schools and worked with a web designer to set up a website. By 2010, she had the program established in five schools and needed money to buy more canvases, so she secured $5,000 in grants from several organizations and individuals. To raise additional funds, she established an annual fundraiser at a local restaurant and began to speak to local civic groups. Emma’s program now involves student artists from more than a dozen schools, several churches, a children’s museum and summer camp programs. The artwork is being distributed to facilities in North Carolina, Florida and even Argentina, where Emma participated in an exchange program last year.

   

Zachary Certner
Zachary Certner, 17, of Morristown, N.J., a junior at Morristown High School, co-founded a nonprofit organization that conducts free sports clinics for children with special needs, along with sensitivity training to help other students understand the challenges they face. Having a close family friend with severe autism, Zachary knew that social and athletic opportunities for children with handicaps were very limited in his community, and that these children are often ostracized by their peers. “I was disturbed seeing kids excluded from sports, lunch tables, and even friendships just because they were different,” he said. “Since sports have always been a passion of mine, I felt strongly about giving every child the opportunity to be part of a team.”

Zachary and his brother sought help from the board of education, local recreation departments, mayors and other community leaders, and began contacting potential donors to fund a nonprofit organization called “SNAP (Special Needs Athletic Programs).” They then set up a regular schedule of clinics in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf, tae kwon do and other activities, all run by student volunteers six nights a week during the school year. “Children not only learn how to play sports, but gain confidence, self-esteem, and form strong and lasting friendships,” said Zachary. During the 2011-12 school year, SNAP provided 11 extracurricular programs to 140 children with special needs, and so far has trained more than 450 students to serve as mentors. In addition, SNAP has expanded its focus to reach a broader educational goal of teaching awareness and acceptance. One part of this includes sensitivity training workshops for more than 2,700 students with hands-on exercises that demonstrate what it’s like to be blind, dyslexic, autistic or challenged in some other way. “My ultimate goal for SNAP is to create an empathetic, compassionate and accepting world for future generations,” said Zachary.

   

Virginia Newsome
Virginia Newsome, 17, of Lexington, Ky., a senior at Lafayette High School, created a nonprofit organization in 2011 that has donated $50,000 worth of visual and performing arts supplies to schools that cannot afford them. Virginia attends a performing arts high school, where she is an actor and singer. “I have seen firsthand the benefits of making the arts available to all students,” she said. “Studies show students who participate in the arts do better in school, have fewer discipline problems, higher test scores, and are more involved in their schools and communities.” While attending a leadership conference, Virginia was challenged to find a way to help her community. Knowing that arts programs throughout the country were falling under the sword of budget cuts, she decided to create “heARTS Inc.”

The idea behind “heARTS” is that schools and individuals share supplies they don’t need with others who do need them. “It’s the best form of recycling!” Virginia said. To start her project, Virginia got her friends involved. One designed a logo and the other designed a website. Within a few weeks, she and her classmates had collected $500 worth of crayons, markers, glue sticks and other supplies for a local elementary school. News coverage and Virginia’s use of social media and public speaking opportunities soon brought requests from other schools and organizations. In addition to seeking donations of musical instruments, costumes, art supplies, puppets and craft materials, Virginia fundraises to buy new supplies for schools in need. In its first year, “heARTS” has provided more than $50,000 worth of goods and services that have benefited 4,200 children in the U.S., Haiti, Guatemala and Dominica. Virginia also has expanded her program by appointing area directors in all regions of the country and in Mexico.

   

Cassie Wang
Cassie Wang, 17, of Lenexa, Kan., a senior at Olathe Northwest High School, leveraged her golf skills to raise money for the rebuilding of homes and businesses in Joplin, Mo., after the devastating tornado that struck that city in 2011, and then chaired three blood drives in her community and launched a student-run nonprofit to benefit disaster victims both in Joplin and in China. While driving to a golf tournament just after Joplin’s tornado, Cassie saw firsthand the devastation it had wrought. “My heart ached as I watched people walk the streets who might not have had a home or bed to sleep in that night,” she recalls. Upon returning home, she asked local businesses, private donors and her golf fans to make a donation for Joplin relief efforts every time she scored a “birdie” in a tournament. She publicized her “Birdies for Charity” campaign through brochures, a website and social media, and, before long, she had raised $1,000 for tornado victims in Joplin.

Having experienced the joy of helping others, Cassie volunteered to chair a community blood drive as an officer of her school’s student council. She distributed flyers throughout the school district, made a promotional video, recruited more than 200 people to help, and secured food and raffle donations from 23 businesses. That drive collected a record 686 units of blood, and a fourth drive will be held this spring. Cassie also formed a nonprofit group of students that has raised more than $12,000 to provide computers and other items to a sister school in an earthquake-ravaged area of China, and to continue supporting relief efforts in Joplin.

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Middle School Level National Honorees


   

Teagan Stedman
Teagan Stedman, 13, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., a seventh-grader at Harvard-Westlake School, organized a series of music events and other activities that raised more than $70,000 for pediatric cancer research. Four years ago, Teagan discovered that the brother of a girl in his school carpool had cancer and was feeling very isolated. “I wanted to do more than ask ‘How is Alex doing?’ all the time,” he said. “I knew Alex liked to play music, so I thought if I put on a benefit concert, that would lift his spirits and the money raised would go to help all kids with cancer.”

Teagan figured a “battle of the bands” would attract the most interest, so he called the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles, “and somehow they agreed to host the concert,” he said. Teagan then posted flyers at a local music school to invite bands to compete, and persuaded Guitar Center to donate guitars and help recruit celebrity judges. Ten youth bands (one of which included Alex) played for more than 400 music fans at Teagan’s first “Shredfest.” “It was an amazing day,” he said. “It felt like I did a huge favor for the world.” Thankfully, Alex got better, and so the next year Teagan hosted a second concert at the House of Blues and dedicated it to another local boy with cancer. Since then, Teagan has set up a nonprofit charity called “Shred Kids’ Cancer,” recruited numerous other young volunteers to help, signed up corporate sponsors, and organized other events such as a 5K run and bone marrow drives. He has also spoken at numerous schools, radio stations and other nonprofits to raise awareness about pediatric cancer.

   

Joshua Williams
Joshua Williams, 12, of Miami Beach, Fla., a seventh-grader at Ransom Everglades School, created a foundation that has distributed more than 475,000 pounds of food to families in need throughout South Florida. Several years ago, Joshua’s grandmother gave him $20 on the way to church and told him he could spend it on anything he wanted. While thinking about all the things he could buy, Joshua spotted a homeless man on the street. “I knew I had to give him my twenty dollars,” said Joshua. That incident, he said, “changed my life forever.”

 

Convinced that one of the best ways to help people was to feed the hungry, Joshua got his family to prepare hot meals for the homeless every Saturday. “Then I had to think of something bigger and better,” he said. He began asking friends and family members for money to buy food to distribute, and visited schools, churches and community groups to spread awareness of the need for donations. “I wanted to make people aware that hunger is not just overseas,” he explained. “It’s right here in our community.” More than 600 volunteers have helped carry out the mission of “Joshua’s Heart Foundation,” which currently distributes food to 150 families a month and conducts weekly food backpack program for young people. The foundation also puts on quarterly cooking demonstrations to teach families how to cook easy and healthy meals.

   

Michael-Logan Jordan
Michael-Logan Jordan, 14, of Kailua, Hawaii, an eighth-grader at Kailua Intermediate School, has donated all of his birthday gifts for the past eight years to children in need; collected Christmas cards, clothing and other items for wounded soldiers; and raised more than $10,000 for the National Arthritis Foundation. Michael-Logan’s interest in volunteering stems in part from being afflicted with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. “There is not a day that goes by that I’m not in some amount of pain,” he said. “However, that pain seems a little easier to bear when I’m focusing on helping others.” When he was in kindergarten, he started working with his parents at a local Toys for Tots warehouse. “It broke my heart to know that some children wouldn’t receive gifts for Christmas without the generosity of others,” he said.

 

As a result, he vowed to donate his birthday presents each year to Toys for Tots. Then, when his father’s Marine unit was deployed to Iraq, Michael-Logan enlisted his classmates’ help in making and stuffing more than 400 Christmas stockings for the soldiers in his unit. He also volunteers at the veteran’s homeless shelter, the Lokahi Giving Project and the Armed Services YMCA. For the past five years, Michael-Logan has participated in the Arthritis Foundation Walk, raising more than $10,000 last year. Michael-Logan also works with at-risk kids and speaks at elementary schools about his disease, healthy eating habits and bullying. In recognition of all his volunteering, the mayor of his town designated May 4, 2012 “Michael-Logan Jordan Day.”

   

Erica LeMere
Erica LeMere, 14 of Shreveport, La. an eight-grader at Caddo Parish Middle Magnet School, founded "Erica's Wish," a nonprofit foundation that has donated more than $5,000 worth of clothing, books and other items to young patients at a local psychiatric facility.  Erica knows firsthand the struggles of young people with mental health illnesses.  After years of physical and emotional turmoil, Erica entered Brentwood Hospital where she was initially diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. (She subsequently entered Meridell Achievement Center, where she was diagnosed with cerebral dysrhythmia).  While at Brentwood, Erica noticed many of the other young patients wearing standard paper-thin scrubs.  “I was lucky to have a supportive Mom and Dad who brought whatever I needed," Erica said.  She learned that the hospital services children from all over the state and surrounding areas.  Many families were unable to travel long distances to visit and deliver personal necessities. Erica was so affected that she felt she had to do something to help.  After her release, she came up with a plan.   

   

Her idea was to provide every young Brentwood patient with a decorated container filled with clothing, books, and other items to comfort and entertain them during their hospitalization. With her mother’s help, Erica contacted companies for donations. Then she met with the head of the hospital. “He told me he was giving me the green light because I was the first to leave and want to come back and make a difference,” Erica said. Soon, clothing chains including American Eagle, Hollister and Children’s Place were sending large donations. Erica asked her pastor to help her raise money and awareness and recruit volunteers to assemble the boxes. In just two weeks, Erica’s project had raised enough to make 140 care boxes. “The most difficult part of my project,” said Erica, “was going public with my illness. By starting ’Erica’s Wish,’ I hope to raise awareness of the many psychiatric issues adolescents are facing and dealing with today.”

   

Louie McGee
Louie McGee, 12, of St. Paul, Minn., a sixth-grader at Highland Catholic School, leads a team that has raised more than $40,000 over the past six years by participating in an annual fundraising walk to fight diseases that cause blindness, like the one that afflicts him. He was diagnosed at age 5 with a rare retinal ailment that causes a loss of central vision. “This disease steadily steals my vision,” said Louie. “Since there is no treatment or cure, it is very important that I work to raise money for science and research to preserve and restore my vision – and that of others.”

 

Soon after being diagnosed, Louie and his family learned about the Foundation Fighting Blindness. When they discovered that the foundation holds a yearly 5K fundraising “VisionWalk” in the Twin Cities, Louie decided to form a team to participate, and has since collected over $40,000 for the foundation. For the past two years, he has served as youth chair of the entire fundraiser. “I tell my parents, teachers and friends that I not only expect to beat this disease – I expect to be part of the team that does so,” he said. Louie also organized a “Dining in the Dark” event in his school cafeteria last fall to raise money and give fellow students a glimpse into the lives of the visually impaired. The 300 kids who attended ate a meal of spaghetti and Jello-O while blindfolded and tried to read a menu board wearing special glasses that would simulate how Louie sees. The event also featured an obstacle course that students navigated while wearing blindfolds and using canes. “I think kids around me know now that it’s a lot harder to do things when you can’t see well,” said Louie.  

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