WASHINGTON, May 6, 2019 /PRNewswire/ -- Aja Capel, 15, of Urbana, Illinois, was named one of America's top 10 youth volunteers of 2019 today by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards during the program's 24th annual national award ceremony at Union Station's East Hall. Selected from a field of more than 29,000 youth volunteers from across the country, Aja has earned the title of National Honoree, along with a personal award of $5,000, an engraved gold medallion, a crystal trophy for her school, and a $5,000 grant from The Prudential Foundation for a nonprofit charitable organization of her choice.
Also honored this week in Washington, D.C., was Delaney Hall, 13, of Lebanon. Aja and Delaney were named Illinois' top youth volunteers in February, and were officially recognized last night at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History along with the top two youth volunteers in each other state and the District of Columbia. At that event, each of the 102 State Honorees for 2019 received $1,000 awards as well as personal congratulations from award-winning actress Viola Davis. The honorees each also received engraved silver medallions and all-expense-paid trips with a parent to Washington, D.C., for this week's recognition events.
Aja, a member of Champaign County 4-H and a junior at Urbana High School, serves as the lead robotics instructor at a local science museum and has launched an initiative to give minority students more opportunities to learn about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). As a little girl, Aja loved to take things apart. "Nothing in my house was safe," she said. "My parents enrolled me in robotics at the Orpheum Children's Science Museum at the age of 4, so I would take other people's stuff apart." Born with dyslexia and other learning challenges, Aja found that STEM subjects were a good match for her learning style, and she quickly excelled.
Aja's teaching prowess and leadership skills were put to the test when the lead instructor failed to show up one day at her robotics class at the science museum. She volunteered to take over and was soon promoted to the job. But "as an African-American girl, I was disheartened I was not teaching many kids who looked like me," she said. When she learned more about the racial and gender gaps in STEM education, she became angry and determined to change things. She went to work applying for grants and creating partnerships with groups in her community. She won a $500 grant to teach a two-day drone-building workshop for 14 African-American students, and later secured a $3,300 grant to put on two computer programming camps for 48 minority girls. In addition to amassing more than 250 teaching hours in her robotics class at the museum, Aja has started four robotics teams as a 4-H STEM ambassador and hosted 14 computer coding events as a teen leader in a national 4-H Google coding initiative. She estimated that she has had an impact on 200 young minority students and provided them with more than 880 hours of hands-on STEM exposure and experience.
Delaney, a seventh-grader at Amelia V. Carriel Jr. High School, has held donation drives for a variety of charities to celebrate her birthday over the past six years. When her mother asked Delaney what she wanted for her eighth birthday, she said she "wanted to help dogs" because she had been inspired by a family friend who volunteered for an animal shelter. So Delaney asked her birthday party guests that year to bring pet food and supplies for Gateway Pet Guardians in nearby St. Louis. "It felt so great when I delivered all the food and supplies that I decided to do it again," she said. Only the next year, and every year since, Delaney picked a different charity to devote her birthday to. "I feel like every year the charity I donated to needs the stuff more than me," she said.
Each year, Delaney researches local nonprofits, selects one with the help of her mother, and then contacts the organization to learn about its specific needs. One year she collected fabric that was made into blankets for a children's hospital. One year she collected more than 2,000 pairs of shoes to help pay for a well in India. For another birthday, Delaney picked a shelter for homeless pregnant women to support. Last year, she spent seven months raising more than $5,500 to make and purchase games and toys for abused and neglected children staying at a nearby residential facility, by planning a hat day at school, hosting a trivia night and silent auction, and clearing tables at restaurant fundraisers. And this year, her goal is to raise $6,000 and a pickup truck full of supplies for a nearby animal rescue ranch. "It makes me feel good to know that I am making a difference in someone's life," said Delaney.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards is a national youth recognition program sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).
"We're impressed and inspired by the way these honorees have identified problems facing their communities and stepped up to the challenge to make a difference," said Charles Lowrey, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc. "It's a privilege to celebrate their leadership and compassion, and we look forward to seeing the great things they accomplish in the future."
"These students have not only done important work in support of people in need – they've also shown their peers that young people can, and do, create meaningful change," said Christine Handy, president of NASSP. "We commend each of these young volunteers for all they've contributed to their communities."
In addition to Aja, these are the other 2019 National Honorees:
Grace Beal, 17, of New Castle, Pennsylvania, a junior at Neshannock Senior High School, organized an annual basketball-based fundraising event that has raised more than $100,000 since 2014 for Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, where her sister was treated before she died of congenital heart failure.
Alexander Fultz, 13, of Pineville, North Carolina, an eighth-grader at Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy, created a nonprofit organization that has donated thousands of toys and clothing items to hospitals in several states to brighten the days of hospitalized patients.
Samaia A. Goodrich, 11, of Syracuse, New York, a sixth-grader at Expeditionary Learning Middle School, organizes projects in her community to encourage inner-city youth to make a difference, including an effort to raise money to buy Christmas presents, clothes and household goods for families who moved from Puerto Rico to Syracuse after Hurricane Maria devastated their homeland.
Hannah Karanick, 13, of Anaheim, California, an eighth-grader at Orangeview Junior High School, established a "closet" at her former elementary school that provides new clothing, laundry products, toiletries, quilts and school supplies to students there whose families can't afford to buy such necessities.
Caleb Oh, 14, of Gambrills, Maryland, an eighth-grader at Crofton Middle School, has spent more than 1,000 hours volunteering in many ways over the past seven years to aid people who are homeless, hungry or have other needs.
Caragan Olles, 16, of De Pere, Wisconsin, a junior at Notre Dame Academy, co-founded a nonprofit organization in 2013 that has raised more than $160,000 to provide special tutoring for students with dyslexia, create dyslexia resource centers in three public library systems, and educate teachers and parents about this learning disability.
Vance Tomasi, 13, of Tampa, Florida, a seventh-grader at Farnell Middle School, has worked with a friend to collect and donate more than 90,000 books to families, schools, group homes, hospitals and libraries over the past two years.
Allison Tu, 17, of Louisville, Kentucky, a senior at duPont Manual High School, launched a youth-driven initiative to raise awareness of student mental health issues and find ways to combat the alarmingly high rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among young people in Kentucky.
Joseph Voynik, 17, of Flowood, Mississippi, a senior at Jackson Preparatory School, worked for four years and raised more than $600,000 to construct a fully accessible baseball field so that children with disabilities could experience the joy of playing America's national pastime.
The distinguished selection committee that chose the National Honorees was chaired by Lowrey and included Handy of NASSP; Andrea Bastiani Archibald, chief girl and family engagement officer for Girl Scouts of the USA; Heidi Brasher, senior director of product line cohorts, strategy and innovation at YMCA of the USA; Brian Coleman, department chair for the Jones College Prep counseling team in Chicago, Illinois and the American School Counselor Association's 2019 National School Counselor of the Year; Larissa Hatch, national youth engagement associate with the American Red Cross; Natalye Paquin, president and chief executive officer of Points of Light; Tony Shivers, a member representative with the National PTA Board of Directors; Rhonda Taylor, director of partnerships and program engagement for the Corporation for National and Community Service; Will Waidelich, executive director of the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE); and two 2018 National Honorees: Michelle Qin, a senior at Dos Pueblos High School in Santa Barbara, California, and Helena Zimmerman, a senior at Rye Country Day School in Rye, New York.
Youth volunteers in grades 5-12 were invited to apply for 2019 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards last fall through schools, Girl Scout councils, county 4-H organizations, American Red Cross chapters, YMCAs and affiliates of Points of Light's HandsOn Network.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program was created in 1995 to identify and recognize young people for outstanding volunteer service – and, in so doing, inspire others to volunteer, too. In the past 24 years, the program has honored more than 125,000 young volunteers at the local, state and national level.
The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) is the leading organization of and voice for principals and other school leaders across the United States. NASSP seeks to transform education through school leadership, recognizing that the fulfillment of each student's potential relies on great leaders in every school committed to the success of each student. Reflecting its long-standing commitment to student leadership development, NASSP administers the National Honor Society, National Junior Honor Society, National Elementary Honor Society, and National Student Council. Learn more at www.nassp.org.
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Editors: For pictures of the Spirit of Community Awards program logo and medallions, visit https://spirit.prudential.com/resources/media
For B-roll of Illinois' honorees at the 2019 national recognition events, contact Prudential's Harold Banks at (973) 216-4833 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
SOURCE Prudential Financial, Inc.