WASHINGTON, May 6, 2019 /PRNewswire/ -- Vermont's top two youth volunteers of 2019, Sophia Thomas, 18 and Peter (PJ) Forgione, 14, both of South Burlington, 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. Sophia and PJ – 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 Sophia and PJ Vermont'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.
Sophia, a senior at South Burlington High School, helps brighten the days of children at the University of Vermont Medical Center through her volunteer work in the hospital's pediatric unit. Sophia has felt a connection with the hospital for many years. Growing up, she was a frequent visitor there to see counselors, and her mother was successfully treated there for breast cancer. "Walking into the hospital as a young kid was daunting, but I always knew there were people there to help me," said Sophia. "When I heard about the volunteer program, I knew that it would make a fantastic catalyst for which to show my gratitude." After waiting impatiently for her 17th birthday — the minimum age to volunteer there — Sophia completed the hospital's training regimen in late 2017 and began assisting in the pediatric unit for three hours every Wednesday.
First, Sophia visits patients in their rooms, entertaining them with movies, games, books, art projects or just conversation. Sometimes she just sits with them so their parents can grab a meal or go to the restroom. "Sometimes we talk, sometimes we don't, but there's a shared sense of trust that flows between us," she said. After her room visits, Sophia heads to the playroom, where she cleans hard surfaces, washes dirty toys and wipes down wagons, and then hangs out with the kids there, building with Legos, drawing pictures or jumping in a ball pit. "Not only do I love spending time with the patients, but I also feel I can relate to them because I understand what it's like to be a kid in a hospital," said Sophia.
PJ, an eighth-grader at Christ the King School, spearheaded an effort to fill shoeboxes with useful and fun items for 100 service members in Iraq, and organizes dinners for people at an emergency shelter. Last summer, PJ was eating lunch at a restaurant when he struck up a conversation with a World War II veteran who survived D-Day. "It got me thinking about the sacrifices our troops make every day and how thankful I am for their service and our country," he said. PJ wanted a way to give back to these brave men and women. Then he learned about Operation Shoebox, a nonprofit organization that sends shoeboxes filled with snacks, toiletries and games to soldiers. He set a goal of filling 100 boxes for the nonprofit and went to work. At first he tried to raise money by doing chores and odd jobs. When that effort fell short, PJ asked his friends to bring items for his shoeboxes instead of presents on his birthday, and persuaded his school to conduct a collection drive. The parcels arrived to troops in Iraq just in time for Christmas.
For many years, PJ also has helped his family provide dinners at Anew Place, an emergency shelter for people in need in Burlington. But as an eighth grader, PJ decided he wanted to host a dinner himself. After recruiting friends to help, he plans the menu, shops for groceries, picks vegetables from his family garden, cooks the food at home, and loads it into his mother's car for transport to the shelter. Some nights he serves as many as 26 people, he said. PJ was especially motivated to serve people at the shelter after learning that a significant percentage of homeless people are military veterans. He has also been making regular visits to residents of a long-term care facility since he was in second grade, and has made more than $3,000 in charitable contributions to causes including hunger and hurricane relief.
"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
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.
Editors: For pictures of the Spirit of Community Awards program logo and medallions, visit https://spirit.prudential.com/resources/media.
For B-roll of Vermont's honorees at the 2019 national recognition events, contact Prudential's Harold Banks at (973) 216-4833 or email@example.com.
SOURCE Prudential Financial, Inc.