JACKSON, Miss., Feb. 5, 2019 /PRNewswire/ -- Joseph Voynik, 17, of Flowood and Keegan Figueroa, 13, of Mooreville today were named Mississippi's top two youth volunteers of 2019 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism. As State Honorees, Joseph and Keegan each will receive $1,000, an engraved silver medallion and an all-expense-paid trip in early May to Washington, D.C., where they will join the top two honorees from each of the other states and the District of Columbia for four days of national recognition events. During the trip, 10 students will be named America's top youth volunteers of 2019.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, now in its 24th year, is conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).
These are Mississippi's top youth volunteers of 2019:
High School State Honoree: Joseph Voynik
Nominated by Jackson Preparatory School
Joseph, 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. Joseph has always been aware of the obstacles faced by people with disabilities; when his mother was in high school, a car accident paralyzed her from the waist down. "I noticed that people with disabilities often do not have the same opportunities as the able-bodied," Joseph said. While watching a major league baseball game on TV in 2014, he saw a commercial about the Miracle League. "It was the first time I had ever seen children with disabilities experience the joy and excitement of playing baseball on an accessible field," he said. Joseph immediately wanted to get involved, but soon discovered that there was not a single fully accessible field in Mississippi for players with disabilities. So he decided he would build one.
Joseph first shared his idea with classmates at school, who helped organize a one-mile run that raised $10,000 for his cause. With his parents' help, he established the Miracle League of Central Mississippi, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and then persuaded a neighboring town to provide a site. Over the next few years, Joseph solicited donations from businesses and foundations and promoted his project via a website and social media. After raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, he helped plan and oversee the construction of the field itself, with a rubberized surface and wheelchair-accessible dugouts. Mississippi's first Miracle League baseball field opened on April 20, 2018, and hosted six teams in its first season. "I believe this field and league of players has opened the hearts and eyes of many in the community to see all that these disabled players can accomplish when given the opportunity," said Joseph.
Middle Level State Honoree: Keegan Figueroa
Nominated by Mooreville Middle School
Keegan, an eighth-grader at Mooreville Middle School, helped collect almost 30,000 pounds of basic necessities and deliver them to Puerto Rico a month after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Keegan's father was born in Puerto Rico and lived there until he was 16. "Most of his family still lives there," said Keegan, who has visited the island several times. "When the hurricane hit, I was terrified," he said. "I instantly knew that I wanted to help." As in many disaster situations, it took several days for Keegan's family to make contact with relatives there. Thankfully, they were all safe, he said, but many had lost almost everything, and they had no access to water or electricity.
To help the family's efforts in delivering supplies to Puerto Rico, Keegan decided to get students at his school involved in the cause. He posted flyers and posters that explained what items were needed and placed donation boxes at every entrance to the school. Keegan and his family also solicited help from churches, clubs and organizations, as well as local businesses. After donations such as medicine, hygiene products, diapers, baby formula, batteries and generators were stored in the Figueroa garage, Keegan organized a group of 20 friends to come and pack items into boxes. Once Keegan and his father arrived in Puerto Rico, they began distributing the donations to people in need. While on the island, Keegan also worked with the National Guard to deliver care packages, purify water and start rebuilding houses. "The smiles and gratitude on the people's faces was worth all the troubles and hardships it took," said Keegan.
The program judges also recognized four other Mississippi students as Distinguished Finalists for their impressive community service activities. Each will receive an engraved bronze medallion.
These are Mississippi's Distinguished Finalists for 2019:
Annabelle Bunch, 17, of Saltillo, Miss., a member of the Northern Mississippi American Red Cross and a senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School, launched "Just Too Sweet" as an initiative to promote awareness, advocacy and action to find a cure for Type 1 diabetes. As a teenager living with the condition, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation youth advocacy leader has raised more than $14,000 and bolstered awareness via social media and speaking engagements.
Shelby Cooper, 17, of Canton, Miss., a senior at Germantown High School, serves as volunteer coordinator of the Mississippi Department of Child Protective Services' backpack program, a role she took after discovering that many foster children must carry their belongings in trash bags when they move between residences. She organized a community effort that involved product donations so foster kids can receive a backpack containing items such as shampoo, stuffed animals, toothbrushes and fun activities.
Hayes Lesyer, 17, of Pass Christian, Miss., a senior at Pass Christian High School, launched an initiative called "Pass Packs" after learning that many of his classmates received free and discounted lunches during school, but still experienced hunger on weekends. Pass Packs requires ongoing fundraising to fill and distribute bags of food that his peers take home each Friday; he is securing leadership to ensure the program is able to continue after he graduates.
Marlie McClung, 16, of Tishomingo, Miss., a junior at Belmont High School, serves as a youth leader in working to prevent students from using tobacco and encourage existing users to kick the habit. As a member of the Youth Advocacy Team of Tishomingo County, she serves as an ambassador sharing information with students in her hometown schools; she also helped inspire 200 students to commit to staying away from tobacco and related products as part of "Kick Butts Day."
"These young volunteers learned and demonstrated that they can make meaningful contributions to individuals and communities through their service," said Prudential CEO Charles Lowrey. "It's an honor to recognize their great work, and we hope that shining a spotlight on their service inspires others to consider how they might make a difference."
"Each of these honorees is proof that students have the energy, creativity and unique perspectives to create positive change," said JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of NASSP. "We commend each of the 2019 honorees for their outstanding volunteer service, and for the invaluable example they've set for their peers."
About The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards represents the United States' largest youth recognition program based solely on volunteer service. All public and private middle level and high schools in the country, as well as all Girl Scout councils, county 4-H organizations, American Red Cross chapters, YMCAs and affiliates of Points of Light's HandsOn Network, were eligible to select a student or member for a local Prudential Spirit of Community Award. These Local Honorees were then reviewed by an independent judging panel, which selected State Honorees and Distinguished Finalists based on criteria including personal initiative, effort, impact and personal growth.
While in Washington, D.C., the 102 State Honorees – one middle level and one high school student from each state and the District of Columbia – will tour the capital's landmarks, meet top youth volunteers from other parts of the world, attend a gala awards ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and visit their congressional representatives on Capitol Hill. On May 6, 10 of the State Honorees – five middle level and five high school students – will be named America's top youth volunteers of 2019. These National Honorees will receive additional $5,000 awards, gold medallions, crystal trophies and $5,000 grants from The Prudential Foundation for nonprofit charitable organizations of their choice.
Since the program began in 1995, more than 125,000 young volunteers have been honored at the local, state and national level. The program also is conducted by Prudential subsidiaries in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Ireland, India, China and Brazil. In addition to granting its own awards, The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program also distributes President's Volunteer Service Awards to qualifying Local Honorees.
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.
About Prudential Financial
Prudential Financial, Inc. (NYSE: PRU), a financial services leader, has operations in the United States, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Prudential's diverse and talented employees are committed to helping individual and institutional customers grow and protect their wealth through a variety of products and services, including life insurance, annuities, retirement-related services, mutual funds and investment management. In the U.S., Prudential's iconic Rock symbol has stood for strength, stability, expertise and innovation for more than a century. For more information, please visit www.news.prudential.com.
For Spirit of Community Awards program logo and medallion graphics, please visit https://spirit.prudential.com/resources/media
SOURCE Prudential Financial, Inc.