TRENTON, N.J., Feb. 6, 2018 /PRNewswire/ -- Alexa Grabelle, 16, of Voorhees and Rileigh Leighton, 13, of Williamstown today were named New Jersey's top two youth volunteers of 2018 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism. As State Honorees, Alexa and Rileigh each will receive $1,000, an engraved silver medallion and an all-expense-paid trip in late April 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 2018.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, now in its 23rd year, is conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).
These are New Jersey's top youth volunteers of 2018:
High School State Honoree: Alexa Grabelle Nominated by Volunteer Center of South Jersey in Sewell
Alexa, a junior at Eastern Regional High School, created a literacy service project that has collected 130,000 new and gently-used children's books over the past six years to promote educational equality and foster a love of reading in kids from low-income households. When she was 10, Alexa and her classmates were encouraged by their teacher to read over the summer to avoid losing reading skills. Intrigued by this concept,
Alexa did some research and learned that the "summer slide" disproportionately affects students from low-income households without age-appropriate books in their homes. "I realized how lucky I was to have books at home and wanted to help others kick-start their own home libraries," she said.
Alexa started with the goal of collecting books for one classroom, but ended up with enough for a whole school. Then she created marketing materials to solicit donated books, and began recruiting volunteers to help her. In five years, she had collected more than 70,000 books for children in southern New Jersey and the Philadelphia area, and now has nearly doubled that total by expanding her reach to seven states and three other countries. Her books go to libraries, summer programs, nonprofits, homeless shelters and a children's hospital, as well as to individual children. In addition to collecting, sorting and transporting her books, Alexa and her army of volunteers set up and run distribution and family literacy events. Alexa also persuades companies and other organizations to conduct their own book drives for her project, and in some cases connects them directly with underserved schools. "Regardless of background, all children must have an equal opportunity to obtain educational resources and skills needed to succeed in school and life!" said Alexa.
Middle Level State Honoree: Rileigh Leighton Nominated by Williamstown Middle School in Williamstown
Rileigh, an eighth-grader at Williamstown Middle School, is the founder and CEO of a nonprofit organization called "Rileigh's Rainbows" that she uses to provide free school supplies to students in need in her school district. "When I was in the fourth grade I noticed that many of my classmates did not have all the necessary school supplies to start their school year off properly," she said. "This made me very sad. I knew I had to somehow help my fellow classmates."
So, four years ago, Rileigh asked her grade school principal to pick three students who couldn't afford school supplies. Then, with money her parents gave her, she bought things like pencils, binders and book bags for them. Energized by that experience, Rileigh asked her parents to help her set up a nonprofit charity to raise more money, and wrote letters to family members requesting donations. That generated enough money to purchase school supplies for 10 more students. The following year, Rileigh was able to provide supplies to 100 kids in her district after friends and family members helped her organize a fundraising "paint night." And last year, Rileigh held another very successful event, which, along with additional donations, made it possible for her to buy school supplies for 150 students. "I have been very blessed and lucky, and I wanted to share my good fortune with others who may need assistance," said Rileigh.
The program judges also recognized six other New Jersey students as Distinguished Finalists for their impressive community service activities. Each will receive an engraved bronze medallion.
These are New Jersey's Distinguished Finalists for 2018:
Teertha Ayanji, 15, of Belle Mead, N.J., a sophomore at Montgomery High School, teaches robotics classes at a school for kids with special needs, guiding students through programming and other activities designed to introduce them to a future career option. Inspired to start the class by his experience volunteering with Special Olympics and a junior robotics camp, Teertha worked with the school's director and his own school's robotics team to bring his idea to life.
Salman Chughtai, 17, of Belle Mead, N.J., a senior at Montgomery High School, developed a curriculum, raised money for supplies, then traveled to Guatemala to inspire a love of science in fourth- through sixth-graders through three weeks of hands-on science experiments. Salman donated laptops and a TV and provided internet access and a list of educational websites to the school where he taught so that the learning could continue and he could keep teaching via video calls after he returned home.
Thomas Colitsas, 15, of West Windsor Township, N.J., nominated by Princeton Family YMCA and a sophomore at West Windsor Plainsboro High School South, started a program that is mobilizing more than 40 high school volunteers to provide math tutoring, fun activities and friendship to second-graders at a Trenton elementary school. After learning that his school didn't offer a volunteer tutoring club like the one he had in mind, Thomas recruited donor and student support to create a program of his own.
Julia Delorenzo, 18, of East Hanover, N.J., a senior at Hanover Park High School, is a volunteer member of the East Hanover First Aid Squad, dedicating 13 hours every Tuesday and 24 hours every sixth Saturday to responding to calls and attending to patients in need of medical assistance. Julia has responded to about 70 calls in her first year with the squad, and was recently elected to serve as its recording secretary.
Erin Foreman, 17, of Forked River, N.J., a junior at Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science, started a program that provides seniors and people with serious medical conditions with lock boxes to give first responders easy access to their house keys. Erin earned the support of her local police department for the project, and acquired and installed the program's first lock boxes with support from businesses and a community group.
Meghan Vizzard, 18, of Mount Laurel, N.J., a senior at Lenape High School, is the founder of "Cozies 4 Chemo," a nonprofit that has led volunteers in creating more than 6,500 blankets for people undergoing cancer treatment. Meghan, inspired to start the initiative after making her cousin a much-loved blanket while she was undergoing chemotherapy, solicits community support for her cause by planning and leading blanket-making events and recruiting for the program's annual 5K fun run.
"Prudential is proud to recognize these remarkable young people for using their energy, creativity and compassion to bring meaningful change to their communities," said Prudential Chairman and CEO John Strangfeld. "We hope their stories inspire others to consider how they can do the same."
"These middle level and high school students have not only improved the lives of the people and communities they've served – they also set an important example for their peers," said JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of NASSP. "These honorees prove that you're never too young to make a difference."
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 April 30, 10 of the State Honorees – five middle level and five high school students – will be named America's top youth volunteers of 2018. 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 120,000 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, Brazil and Poland. 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 middle level and high school principals, assistant principals, and school leaders from across the United States. The association connects and engages school leaders through advocacy, research, education, and student programs. NASSP advocates on behalf of all school leaders to ensure the success of each student and strengthens school leadership practices through the design and delivery of high quality professional learning experiences. 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. For more information about NASSP, located in Reston, VA, visit www.nassp.org.
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