2015 National Honorees

Ten young Americans were selected in the 2015 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 G.A. Buie of NASSP; Andrea Bastiani Archibald, chief girl expert for Girl Scouts of the USA; Robert Bisi, senior public affairs manager for the Corporation for National and Community Service; Tracy Hoover, president of Points of Light; Reneé Jackson, senior manager of education programs at the National PTA; Maxine Margaritis, vice president of volunteer services for the American Red Cross; Delia Pompa, senior vice president for programs at the National Council of La Raza; Jennifer Sirangelo, president and CEO of the National 4-H Council; Dru Tomlin, director of middle level services for the Association for Middle Level Education; Kevin Washington, president and CEO of YMCA of the USA; and two 2014 National Honorees: Sean Egan of Staten Island, N.Y., a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, and Kinsey Morrison of Goshen, Ky., a freshman at Stanford University The 2015 National Honorees are:

 

High School National Honorees


   

 

Carolina Gonzalez, 18, of Coral Gables, Fla., a senior at Our Lady of Lourdes Academy in Miami, started a nonprofit organization that has helped more than 500 undocumented young immigrants apply for temporary residence and employment in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and has raised more than $22,000 to pay the application fees of those who cannot afford them. Carolina's grandparents fled Cuba to give their family and future generations a better life, Carolina said. "Since the time I was able to hold a conversation, my mother would remind me of what they went through. And always at the end of the discussion, she would accentuate how, because of her parents' decision, I was born an American citizen," said Carolina. "It has been engraved in me to never take my citizenship for granted."

Carolina had been volunteering in various ways since she was 5, but was trying to think of some way to do more for her peers in her community. When her father, an immigration lawyer, mentioned how difficult it was for young immigrants to apply for deferred status, Carolina realized she had her answer. She began organizing clinics for DACA applicants and recruiting pro-bono lawyers to help them through the complex and time-consuming application process. She also raises funds to give small grants to applicants who cannot afford the $465 application fee. "I am not only giving them hope for their future, but also giving them the chance to achieve the American dream," said Carolina.

 
   

 

Arturo (AJ) Mattia, 15, of Turnersville, N.J., a freshman at Holy Cross Academy, survived bone cancer and a leg amputation to become a prominent champion for pediatric cancer awareness and fundraising. One day in 2011, AJ fell to the ground at school screaming in pain. The femur in his left leg had suddenly broken, and he soon learned that a cancerous tumor was the cause. "After many months of chemotherapy, several major surgeries, and a leg amputation, I felt like I needed to make a difference in this world of 'cancer' that I was living in," he said.

AJ knew about well-publicized campaigns for other types of cancer, but never saw anything about childhood cancer. So he set out to have major landmarks in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area lit in gold, the official color of the fight against pediatric cancer, during the month of September, which is Child Cancer Awareness Month. Several Philadelphia buildings, the Ben Franklin Bridge and an Atlantic City casino all took part. Then he partnered with a pediatric cancer foundation to sell gold shoelaces in his hometown, and raised $30,000 with the help of teachers and fellow students. In addition, AJ started his own foundation to "bring the outside world into the lives of patients and their families through technology." He also sits on the board of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and is executive director of an organization that provides wigs to women with cancer and grants wishes to young patients.

 
   

 

Morlan Osgood, 16, of Loveland, Ohio, a junior at Loveland High School, co-founded an educational program that has helped more than 14,000 students in grades 2-12 develop their interest and skills in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) through summer camps, after-school classes, conference workshops and other activities. Years ago, Morlan tutored a girl who hated math. Instead of using traditional tools such as flashcards, Morlan taught the girl how to use math concepts to program a LEGO robot. "The light bulb went on and she is now taking honors math courses!" said Morlan. "I realized if I could inspire one child, I could create a team to inspire hundreds."

Morlan and her two brothers began recruiting other teens with strong STEM and interpersonal skills to teach and mentor kids, especially students who lack educational resources. Using LEGO robotic applications, the Osgoods and their "STEMs for Youth" organization now host seven summer camps and six after-school classes in Ohio, Missouri, Minnesota and the District of Columbia. They also make presentations at national and international conferences, and teach technology classes for senior citizens. Morlan has spent more than 2,000 hours over the past five years on all aspects of STEMs for Youth, including curriculum development, fundraising, event planning, promotion and collaboration with business people and school administrators. "We are making a difference!" said Morlan. "Over 80 percent of our participants want to pursue STEM subjects and careers!"

 
   

Samantha Petersen, 18, of South Windsor, Conn., a home-schooled senior, founded a nonprofit organization that disseminates information about scoliosis, screens children in low-income communities for the disease, and offers emotional support to those undergoing corrective surgery. When Samantha was 11 years old, she was diagnosed with severe scoliosis that was causing intense pain and impeding her breathing and neurological functions. "It took me from being a top state swimmer to disability," said Samantha. "Even simple tasks such as brushing my hair became a struggle. I was only a kid but I felt old and broken." Four years later, Samantha underwent a complicated spinal fusion surgery that she calls "the gift of a second chance at life." It was this chance that inspired her to want to make a difference in the lives of others, many of whom feel powerless and isolated by the disease, she said.

To educate others about scoliosis and raise funds for her nonprofit, Samantha launched a website, distributed informational booklets, applied for grants, and began recruiting teachers, medical professionals, and corporate and community leaders to help. She and her network then began training laypeople and professionals to identify the disease in children by conducting training sessions and school screenings, including outreach trips to some of the poorest communities in the country. Samantha also works to bring comfort to scoliosis patients in hospitals in the U.S. and abroad by providing blankets and post-operative "PillowPets" sewn by volunteers in 30 chapters of her organization. "I strive for a day when everyone, everywhere, has access to and receives proper medical care so they all have the chance to live healthy, productive lives," Samantha said.

 
   

 

Elizabeth Pearce Quesenberry, 17, of Wilmington, Del., a senior at Padua Academy High School, overcame a diagnosis of brain cancer to start a nonprofit organization that has raised $100,000 over the past six years to increase awareness of childhood cancer, help fund the search for a cure, and ease the financial pressure on families of young cancer patients. Elizabeth was cancer-free after a yearlong battle with brain cancer, but the experience forever changed her life. "During my battle I met other kids suffering worse than me and I watched my friends pass away from cancer," Elizabeth said. "I felt I had to do something about this epidemic."

Her organization, the Pearce Q. Foundation, conducts several fundraisers throughout the year. To prepare for the largest, the "4 Miles of Hope Walk/Run," Elizabeth shares her story with companies to gain corporate sponsors; advertises through flyers, social media, radio and newspapers; and recruits volunteers to staff the event. At Christmas, her group "adopts" several local families with sick children and provides them with gifts and assistance with groceries and gas. Elizabeth's foundation also stages a comedy show, sells gold ribbon socks, and organizes "hats on for cancer days" at schools, where students pay for the privilege of donning hats during the school day. She estimates that her organization has benefited more than 1,000 families so far. "I want to do whatever I can to help people who are in the same place that I was," said Elizabeth.

Back to top

 
Middle School Level National Honorees


   

 

Jake Gallin, 13, of New Rochelle, N.Y., a seventh-grader at Albert Leonard Middle School, founded an organization called "Stars for Cars" and has raised more than $12,000 for the United Service Organization (USO) by selling star-shaped magnetic car decals that honor families of soldiers who have served in the U.S. armed forces. Jake says his life changed the day he saw First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden on a television show in 2011 discussing the need to recognize military families. "Mrs. Obama reminded the audience that 1 percent of our country is protecting the other 99 percent," said Jake. "This statistic compelled me to design a star-shaped magnetic decal in hopes of raising awareness of the sacrifices that these brave families make every day."

Jake sells his decals - which read "We Support Blue & Gold Military Families"- in person, on his website (starsforcars.org), at sporting events and through local businesses. After his first printing, the USO of Metropolitan New York contacted him and agreed to become his partner. Last summer, Jake expanded his efforts by sending more than 7,000 letters to New York state schools, school superintendents and government officials, urging them to make an announcement recognizing military members and their families on three days each year: Memorial Day, Patriot Day and Veterans Day. More than 100 schools have notified Jake that they intend to follow his recommendation. "I hope I am having an impact on every single person who hears the announcement or sees a star decal on the car in front of them," said Jake.

 
   

 

Raghav Ganesh, 13, of San Jose, Calif., a seventh-grader at Joaquin Miller Middle School, designed and built a device that uses sensors to detect objects beyond the reach of the white canes used by many visually impaired people. Raghav got the idea after watching a video about the challenges faced by those with limited or no eyesight. "I saw how, despite being used for several centuries, the white cane does not provide users enough information about their environment," he said. "I also saw why many high-tech alternatives are not meeting the needs of visually challenged folks."

Because he enjoys science and electronics, and has become familiar with sensors and motors through a toy-building hobby, Raghav decided to see if he could design something better. He built a small prototype and entered it in a local science fair. He then sought advice from the head of a local blind center, and over the next several months made five major revisions based on feedback from blind center staff and actual cane users. He ended up with a device that clamps onto the cane, uses ultrasonic and infrared sensors to detect obstacles more than six feet beyond the end of the cane, and communicates this information to the user through vibrations in the cane's handle. Raghav secured a grant to make multiple copies, and hopes to create an open patent so that organizations for the blind around the world can make the device for their clients.

 
   

 

Eric Li, 14, of Manvel, Texas, an eighth-grader at Pearland Junior High West, founded a nonprofit organization with his siblings that has collected nearly $200,000 in cash and in-kind donations to help children around the world recover from major disasters. When Eric was 7, an earthquake in Sichuan, China, killed nearly 90,000 people. "I was very sad, and felt that I had to help the kids there," he said. He gathered all of his savings - $94.87 - and asked everyone in his school to help him collect more money for the victims. In three months, Eric was able to send more than $4,500 to the Red Cross for disaster relief in Sichuan, and then visited China to deliver $1,500 more.

That experience made Eric realize that there are lots of people around the world who need help. He and his siblings formed a nonprofit charity that has since organized more than 400 activities that have either raised money or collected needed items for young victims of 10 disasters. When Japan was hit by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011, Eric and his fellow volunteers persuaded young people and adults in 16 countries to send over 5,000 letters to children who suffered from the disaster. In November 2013, Eric led an effort to ship 4,210 items of clothing and other supplies to the Philippines in the aftermath of a devastating typhoon. Currently, Eric also is teaching local students to refurbish computers, which are then sent to orphanages in third-world countries.

 
   

 

Carter Ries, 14, of Fayetteville, Ga., an eighth-grader at Konos Academy, created a weeklong educational curriculum with his younger sister that is teaching kids about the importance of reducing plastic pollution. After watching TV coverage of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, Carter and his sister, who had already been working on projects to save endangered species, spent four months collecting animal rescue supplies and then delivered them to a rescue center on the Gulf. While there, they were shocked to learn from a veterinarian that plastic trash in the oceans is an even greater threat to marine animals than oil spills. "After hearing that, we knew we had to do something to educate communities about plastic pollution," said Carter.

The two siblings spent the next five months educating themselves about the issue and decided to develop a program to teach their peers across the country "how bad the problem is and how they could be part of the solution," he said. They consulted community leaders and anti-pollution organizations, and then worked with teachers to create their "Plastic and Recycling Awareness Week" curriculum. In five one-hour lessons over the course of a week, it teaches kids about the dangers of plastic refuse, how to identify recyclable types of plastic, and how to "precycle" by using things like reusable water bottles and cloth shopping bags. After the program was tested successfully in Carter's school, he and his sister began taking it to other schools and youth organizations around the U.S., and have introduced it in the United Kingdom as well.

 
   

Caleb White, 12, of Commerce Township, Mich., a seventh-grader at Clifford H. Smart Middle School, hands out boxes of food, toiletries and warm garments to the homeless on the streets of Detroit each year during the Christmas season, and last August threw a back-to-school party that provided 800 children in need with backpacks stuffed with new school supplies. When Caleb was 6, he was riding to the circus with his family when he saw a homeless man sleeping on the side of the road and wondered why he wasn't sleeping in a house. When Caleb learned the man didn't have a home, he wanted to do something to help, so he decided to put together holiday boxes and distribute them to homeless people. During the 2014 holiday season, Caleb handed out 150 of his Christmas boxes and 100 winter coats.

Last summer, Caleb heard from a pastor who had to cancel an annual back-to-school party for kids in need due to lack of funds. "I certainly did want to help," said Caleb. He sent an email to a prominent businessman who helped start a school supply company to see about getting discounted supplies. To his amazement, the man asked the CEOs of several companies to help Caleb plan an event. Caleb's school also helped by sending emails to parents and a press release to publicize the party. On August 23, more than 100 volunteers showed up to treat 800 children in need to a fun-filled day. Local barbers cut hair, a nail salon gave girls manicures, and there was plenty of food and lots of games to play. Most importantly, Caleb made sure every child left with the supplies needed to start the school year. "I am a boy with lots of new friends," he said, "who feels thankful for the opportunity to bring a smile to people's faces."

Back to top