OKLAHOMA CITY, Feb. 5, 2019 /PRNewswire/ -- Alexa Russell, 17, of Pryor and Sydney Borchardt, 13, of Oklahoma City today were named Oklahoma'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, Alexa and Sydney 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 Oklahoma's top youth volunteers of 2019:
High School State Honoree: Alexa Russell
Nominated by Northeast Oklahoma-American Red Cross
Alexa, a senior at Pryor High School, created a school-based program designed to help middle and high school students overcome personal tragedies and challenges by showing them they're not alone. After her little brother died, Alexa says she "spent a year of my life pretending to have it all together, hiding my feelings and my grief from everyone around me." But when she finally decided to open up and "begin living authentically, others began sharing their own hearts with me as well," she said. That gave her strength and deeper friendships, and prompted her to give others the benefit of her experience through a program she named "Hearts Wide Open" (HWO).
To implement her program, Alexa developed a curriculum that's adaptable to any middle or high school. It starts by making a video featuring students willing to share their personal stories about grief, addiction, depression, divorce, bullying or other trauma. After the video is shown to the student body, the entire school gathers for an assembly to engage in team-building games, listen to motivational speakers and participate in group activities that demonstrate how to cope with life's tragedies in positive ways and how to help others who need support. Alexa's program has now expanded to three school districts. By encouraging students to speak out about their problems, and showing them that others have had similar experiences, HWO is helping to heal pain and even save lives, said Alexa. "No student is ever alone," she said. "There is always someone who understands."
Middle Level State Honoree: Sydney Borchardt
Nominated by Southridge Junior High School
Sydney, an eighth-grader at Southridge Junior High School, is the leader of a local support group for girls with scoliosis, and fulfills that role by chairing monthly meetings, responding to requests for information and comforting girls who are undergoing surgery. After Sydney was diagnosed with scoliosis when she was 10, she had to endure years of wearing a back brace, doing chiropractic and yoga exercises, and finally having a spinal operation. During that time, her mother discovered Curvy Girls, an international network of scoliosis support groups, but found that the Oklahoma chapter had no members and needed a leader. "I told my mom that I wanted to become the leader and find new members," said Sydney. "It's important for myself and other girls to be able to discuss our feelings in a safe environment where we are understood."
Sydney and her mother distributed fliers about Curvy Girls to doctors' offices, and were featured in a local magazine. In just a few short months, the revitalized support group had grown to 17 members. Sydney schedules and officiates meetings once a month in both Oklahoma City and Tulsa, where group members talk not only about their scoliosis, but also about issues they are having at home and school. They also work on projects that benefit the scoliosis community. In between meetings, Sydney stays in touch with them through email and social media. In addition, Sydney makes gift bags for scoliosis surgical patients and visits them in the hospital. Girls with scoliosis need to know, she said, that "they are not alone on their journey."
The program judges also recognized four other Oklahoma students as Distinguished Finalists for their impressive community service activities. Each will receive an engraved bronze medallion.
These are Oklahoma's Distinguished Finalists for 2019:
Claire Grace, 16, of Stillwater, Okla., a junior at Stillwater High School, founded the "Show Compassion Foundation," an organization that educates people about the importance of showing compassion and inclusivity towards those with special needs. Inspired by her sister, who has a unique chromosomal arrangement, Claire raised money through benefit concerts, served as an educational speaker and established three grants for organizations offering social opportunities for people with special needs.
Tori Kostas, 16, of Broken Arrow, Okla., a junior at Summit Christian Academy, has used her experience with Type 1 diabetes to support families experiencing a new diabetes diagnosis; along with recruiting participants for fundraising events including a golf tournament and an annual walk, she served as a champion ambassador for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation of Oklahoma. Tori is determined to help educate families, doctors and state and national leaders, in hopes that there will someday be a cure.
Sophie O'Reilly, 17, of Tulsa, Okla., a junior at Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences, is a dedicated and active volunteer for Poetic Justice, an organization that offers writing workshops to incarcerated women in Oklahoma. Along with transcribing women's hand-written poems for the organization's annual anthology, Sophie is developing a curriculum to run a rhetoric and debate class, which she hopes will help inspire confidence and perseverance in class participants.
Alyssa Payne, 17, of Choctaw, Okla., a junior at Choctaw High School, has volunteered hundreds of hours working with and advocating for foster children; in the last two years, she has launched educational social media pages, served as teen board secretary for a local fundraising organization, and mentored foster children in her community. Alyssa has also helped organize several fundraising and service events, including an annual movie night, sock and school supply drives and a holiday present-wrapping event.
"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.