BATON ROUGE, La., May 4, 2020 /PRNewswire/ -- Louisiana's top two youth volunteers of 2020, Caroline Whisonant, 18, of Winnfield and Kierce Smith, 12, of Baton Rouge, 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, Caroline and Kierce – 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 Louisiana'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 Caroline and Kierce Louisiana'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, Caroline and Kierce 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
Caroline (pictured left), a member of Winn Parish 4-H and a senior at Winnfield Senior High School, developed an educational program to teach elementary school children about the danger of opioid drugs and help them develop the skills to avoid all forms of substance abuse. Caroline was motivated to start her program after a classmate died from an opioid overdose. "Seeing the empty seat next to me in my math class where [he] sat, I felt it was important to take immediate action in educating children at an early age on the opioid epidemic," she said.
Caroline began by researching the epidemic and kid-friendly educational activities. She recruited fellow 4-Hers to help her plan a curriculum, and then met with first-, second- and third-grade teachers to arrange times to work with their students. In 45-minute sessions, Caroline leads the kids in hands-on activities, role-playing scenarios, and games and songs, all designed to teach them skills in goal-setting, conflict resolution, problem-solving, and decision-making. Approximately 200 kids have taken part in the program so far. "Ultimately, I want students to learn that a drug is a chemical used to treat, cure or prevent sickness, but some drugs can make you sick if you abuse them," said Caroline. She also drafted a piece of state legislation that would address the role of education in combating the opioid epidemic. In addition, Caroline is planning a summer day camp for young students, and a pill drop-off box in her community so that unused drugs can be disposed of safely.
Kierce (pictured right), a sixth-grader at Glasgow Middle School, has volunteered for a wide range of service projects in his community. He felt compelled to start helping others after seeing news reports about "all the bad things going on," he said. "I wanted to be the light in the darkness." When his school sought volunteers to plant a garden to grow herbs and spices that could be sold to local merchants, Kierce was one of the few students who answered the call. He brought in sand, prepared soil and painted planter boxes. When he saw senior citizens struggling with heavy sandbags in advance of a storm, he jumped at the chance to fill bags for them and load them into their vehicles.
After experiencing a "dry drowning" accident, Kierce joined a swim team to help spread awareness of the danger of dying after a water rescue. In addition, Kierce helped sort, wash and fold school uniforms that are donated at the end of the school year to families in need. He also has assisted an elderly neighbor with yard work and served as a counselor at a grief camp. He is hoping to volunteer at a homeless or animal shelter next. "I learned that even if there is no reward, it is rewarding to do the right thing," said Kierce.
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.
For more information about The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards and this year's honorees, visit http://spirit.prudential.com. For more information about the National Association of Secondary School Principals, visit www.nassp.org. For more information about Prudential Financial, visit www.news.prudential.com.
Learn more at spirit.prudential.com
SOURCE Prudential Financial, Inc.