WASHINGTON, April 30, 2018 /PRNewswire/ -- New Jersey's top two youth volunteers of 2018, Alexa Grabelle, 16, of Voorhees and Rileigh Leighton, 14, of Williamstown, were honored in the nation's capital last night for their outstanding volunteer service during the 23rd annual presentation of The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. Alexa and Rileigh – along with 100 other top youth volunteers from across the country – each received $1,000 awards and personal congratulations from Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn at an award ceremony and gala dinner reception held at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program, sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), named Alexa and Rileigh New Jersey's top high school and middle level youth volunteers in February. In addition to their cash awards, they each received an engraved silver medallion and an all-expense-paid trip with a parent to Washington, D.C., for four days of recognition events.
Alexa, nominated by the Volunteer Center of South Jersey and a junior at Eastern Regional High School, founded a literacy service organization 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 who often lack age-appropriate books. "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 modest goal of collecting books for one classroom, but ended up with enough for a whole school. Over the past six years, Alexa has expanded her reach to seven states and three other countries. In addition to direct donations to children, her books go to libraries, summer programs, nonprofits, homeless shelters and a children's hospital. In addition to collecting, sorting and transporting her books, Alexa and her army of volunteers from across the country set up and run "pop-up" stores where children can fill a bag with free books to kick-start their own home library. Alexa also persuades companies and other organizations to conduct their own no-cost 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.
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.
"These honorees exemplify something we've known for a long time – that young volunteers have the power to bring meaningful change to their communities," said John Strangfeld, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc. "These students have shown leadership and determination well beyond their years, and it's a privilege to celebrate their service."
"Through their acts of service, these honorees drive home a powerful lesson for their peers: that one student really can make a difference," said Daniel P. Kelley, president of NASSP. "We are honored to shine a spotlight on the compassion, drive and ingenuity of each of these young volunteers."
Youth volunteers in grades 5-12 were invited to apply for 2018 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards last fall through schools, Girl Scout councils, county 4-H organizations, American Red Cross chapters, YMCAs and affiliates of Points of Light's HandsOn Network. More than 29,000 middle level and high school students nationwide participated in this year's program.
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 23 years, the program has honored more than 120,000 young volunteers at the local, state and national level.
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.
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