PHOENIX, May 4, 2020 /PRNewswire/ -- Arizona's top two youth volunteers of 2020, Michael Bendok, 17, of Phoenixand Clare Flaherty, 14, of Scottsdale, were recognized this weekend for their outstanding volunteer service during the 25th annual, and first-ever virtual, Prudential Spirit of Community Awards national recognition celebration.
In recognition of the spirit of service that they have demonstrated in their communities, Michael and Clare – along with 100 other top youth volunteers from across the country – were also each given $2,500 to donate toward the local COVID-19 response efforts of a nonprofit organization of their choice. These funds come in addition to the $1,000 scholarship and engraved silver medallion they earned as Arizona's top youth volunteers of 2020.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program, sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), named Michael and Clare Arizona's top high school and middle level youth volunteers in February.
"Over the past 25 years, this program has honored students spanning three generations, and the common thread between them has been the determination of young people to respond to the challenges of the moment," said Charles Lowrey, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial. "Who better than this group of young leaders from all over the country to help identify and direct resources to community needs arising from COVID-19?"
As State Honorees, Michael and Clare also earned an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C. for the program's annual national recognition events; the trip, however, was canceled due to COVID-19 and changed to a three-day online celebration this past weekend. In addition to remarks and congratulations from actress Kristen Bell, honorees had opportunities to connect with each other through online project-sharing sessions, learn about service and advocacy from accomplished past Spirit of Community honorees, hear congratulatory remarks from Lowrey and NASSP Executive Director and CEO JoAnn Bartoletti, and more.
"We admire these young leaders for their ability to assess the needs of the communities they serve and find meaningful ways to address them," said Bartoletti. "At a time when everyone is looking for optimism, these students are a bright light for their peers and the adults in their lives."
About the Honorees
Michael (pictured left), a junior at Phoenix Country Day School, leads an effort that has raised more than $141,000 to find treatments for rare diseases that are often overlooked and underfunded. When he moved to Arizona four years ago, Michael met a boy who had to drag an oxygen tank behind him because of a rare lung disease. Coincidentally, Michael's best friend's brother, Harry, also had a rare lung disease, and Michael himself was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder when he was younger. All of this made Michael acutely aware of the scarcity of treatments available to people with rare diseases. "Considering the fact that 25 million people currently suffer from one of 7,000 documented rare diseases in the United States, I found the lack of treatment available for patients abysmal," he said.
Fortunately, Michael outgrew his condition, and Harry's life was saved thanks to research by the Translational Genomics Research Institute's Center for Rare Childhood Disorders. "But other kids are not as lucky as Harry and me," Michael said. So with the help of three friends, Michael founded "Kidz 4 Causes," a nonprofit that raises funds to help pay for genetic testing at the Center for Rare Childhood Disorders, the first step toward finding effective treatments. In four years, Michael's team has organized four coin drives, four community runs, three restaurant fundraisers and eight school presentations. The money raised by these activities helps pay for genetic testing for kids whose families cannot afford the full cost. So far, Michael has been told that his efforts have helped more than 20 families find treatments for their children.
Clare (pictured right), an eighth-grader at BASIS Scottsdale, volunteers as a foster "mother" for homeless newborn kittens, caring for them for up to two months at a time until they are ready for adoption from the Arizona Humane Society. "My mother has instilled in me the deep impact an animal can have on a human life, and the importance of treating animals properly," said Clare. "Animals enrich the lives of humans." In 2017, she learned that the local animal shelter was at capacity for cats and kittens and could no longer accept any more strays. She also discovered that there aren't enough people in Arizona willing to provide short-term care for homeless animals. She said she was particularly struck by the phrase "Save a Life Today" on the shelter's website.
After persuading her parents with a PowerPoint presentation, Clare completed two classes on the humane society's website to become a certified foster parent. Initially, she thought volunteering would be mostly about "playing with cute, cuddly babies," she said, but quickly found out that there's a lot of work involved. Some kittens need feeding by bottle or syringe every three hours, even in the middle of the night. Some need medication up to five times a day. Clare also has to keep her kittens clean, maintain detailed charts, work on socialization and even help some of them relieve themselves. Once a kitten reaches two pounds, it goes back to the shelter and is put up for adoption. "Giving my kittens back is a sad day," Clare said. "There are tears. But it is a wonderful day when I learn of my kittens' adoptions."
About The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards
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 25 years, the program has honored more than 130,000 young volunteers at the local, state and national level.