WASHINGTON, May 6, 2019 /PRNewswire/ -- Texas' top two youth volunteers of 2019, Ian McKenna Goncalo, 14, of Austin and Matthew Reel, 12, of Spring, were honored in the nation's capital last night for their outstanding volunteer service during the 24th annual presentation of The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. Ian and Matthew – along with 100 other top youth volunteers from across the country – received a $1,000 award and personal congratulations from award-winning actress Viola Davis 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 Ian and Matthew Texas' 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.
Ian, a member of Travis County 4-H and a sophomore at Liberal Arts and Science Academy, planted vegetable and fruit gardens at four schools and in his backyard that have yielded more than nine tons of fresh produce for families in need over the past six years. When Ian was 8 years old, he helped deliver Christmas gifts and food to the family of a girl in his younger sister's class. "She had never gotten a visit from Santa, nor had a meal outside of the school breakfast and lunch program," Ian said. "She believed the reason Santa had never come was because he hated poor people. I learned the true meaning of Christmas that day." Ian soon realized there were a lot more children facing hunger in his community, and felt called to do something about it. But when he tried to volunteer at a food bank, he was told he was too young. Then it came to him: He liked gardening. Why not grow food for hungry people?
Ian proposed creating a "Giving Garden" to his gardening club advisor, who loved the idea. He then got permission to build the garden at an elementary school, developed a design, recruited volunteers, sought donations and reached out to Home Depot for help. By the end of construction day, Ian's team had built nine raised beds and planted 15 fruit trees that would help feed 54 families that year. In the following years, Ian built gardens at three more schools, as well as one in his own backyard. He estimates his "Giving Gardens" have provided more than 18,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables to a local food bank, hunger relief organizations and directly to families. He also has set up a farm stand to distribute his produce in a low-income area, and hosted community dinners that have served 1,750 nutritious meals. In addition to speaking about hunger issues at school, business and community events, Ian has raised more than $70,000 to create his gardens and to support an organization that encourages young people to fight hunger with gardens in their own communities.
Matthew, a sixth-grader at Cox Intermediate School, has been helping to feed hungry kids and adults since 2015 by distributing food packets through a Houston mission and packing food into backpacks for students who might otherwise go hungry on weekends. In 2015, when Matthew was 8 years old, his church hosted a family night to make "blessing bags" for the homeless. But by the time it was Matthew's turn to make a bag, there were hardly any supplies left, so he asked his mother to take him to the store to buy more. After he had filled his bag, he found a homeless man to give it to. "When I handed it to the man," said Matthew, "he looked at me, smiled and said, 'May God bless you, little boy!' It was then that I knew I was meant to help feed those in need." He announced to his parents that for his upcoming birthday, he didn't want a party or presents but instead items to make food packets for the homeless.
Over the next few years, Matthew solicited donations via email and online appeals, recruited volunteers to help, and packaged small food items into more than 1,000 gallon Ziploc bags. He then delivered them to the Star of Hope Mission, which serves the needs of homeless men, women and children. Additional items that wouldn't fit into bags were used by the mission to prepare meals. Later, Matthew learned how hunger affects students' academic performance. "It was upsetting to me to think that kids my age were not doing well in school because they didn't have enough to eat," he said. So he started a backpack program with the goal of providing five families with weekend food. He persuaded four schools to hold food drives for him, and received additional support from scout groups and a church. The next year, with the help of a grant, Matthew expanded his program to 15 families, and began adding items such as toiletries, first aid supplies, arts and crafts materials and books to his backpacks. He now supports 25 families, providing enough food for 4-5 meals every weekend and on school breaks. He hopes to keep growing his program "so that every kid has the same advantages with their education without lack of food affecting them," he said.
"We're impressed and inspired by the way these honorees have identified problems facing their communities and stepped up to the challenge to make a difference," said Charles Lowrey, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc. "It's a privilege to celebrate their leadership and compassion, and we look forward to seeing the great things they accomplish in the future."
"These students have not only done important work in support of people in need – they've also shown their peers that young people can, and do, create meaningful change," said Christine Handy, president of NASSP. "We commend each of these young volunteers for all they've contributed to their communities."
Youth volunteers in grades 5-12 were invited to apply for 2019 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 24 years, the program has honored more than 125,000 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.
About Prudential Financial
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Editors: For pictures of the Spirit of Community Awards program logo and medallions, visit https://spirit.prudential.com/resources/media.
For B-roll of Texas' honorees at the 2019 national recognition events, contact Prudential's Harold Banks at (973) 216-4833 or email@example.com.
SOURCE Prudential Financial, Inc.