MONTPELIER, Vt., May 4, 2020 /PRNewswire/ -- Vermont's top two youth volunteers of 2020, Lena Ashooh, 16, of Shelburne and Ashwil Bell, 12, of Jericho, were recognized this weekend for their outstanding volunteer service during the 25th annual, and first-ever virtual, Prudential Spirit of Community Awards national recognition celebration.
In recognition of the spirit of service that they have demonstrated in their communities, Lena and Ashwil – along with 100 other top youth volunteers from across the country – were also each given $2,500 to donate toward the local COVID-19 response efforts of a nonprofit organization of their choice. These funds come in addition to the $1,000 scholarship and engraved silver medallion they earned as Vermont's top youth volunteers of 2020.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program, sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), named Lena and Ashwil Vermont's top high school and middle level youth volunteers in February.
"Over the past 25 years, this program has honored students spanning three generations, and the common thread between them has been the determination of young people to respond to the challenges of the moment," said Charles Lowrey, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial. "Who better than this group of young leaders from all over the country to help identify and direct resources to community needs arising from COVID-19?"
As State Honorees, Lena and Ashwil also earned an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C. for the program's annual national recognition events; the trip, however, was canceled due to COVID-19 and changed to a three-day online celebration this past weekend. In addition to remarks and congratulations from actress Kristen Bell, honorees had opportunities to connect with each other through online project-sharing sessions, learn about service and advocacy from accomplished past Spirit of Community honorees, hear congratulatory remarks from Lowrey and NASSP Executive Director and CEO JoAnn Bartoletti, and more.
"We admire these young leaders for their ability to assess the needs of the communities they serve and find meaningful ways to address them," said Bartoletti. "At a time when everyone is looking for optimism, these students are a bright light for their peers and the adults in their lives."
About the Honorees
Lena (pictured left), a member of Chittenden County 4-H and a junior at Champlain Valley Union High School, organized a free two-day storytelling conference last July that brought together rural and migrant youth from across Vermont to overcome language and cultural barriers, share life experiences and foster connection. Lena's involvement in two groups laid the groundwork for her organization. As a 4-Her, she learned about the complexities and difficulties of working and living on a farm. And as a youth leader with the Bread Loaf Teacher Network's NextGeneration Leadership Network, which brings together civic-minded youth to fight social injustice, she saw how the power of written and spoken expression can help address social crises.
Drawing on those experiences, Lena envisioned an annual event that would bring together young people who live on Vermont farms and young people who relocate independently or with their families to obtain seasonal or temporary employment in agriculture. Through a partnership with the Vermont Migrant Education Program and the BLT NextGen Network, Lena created "Mi Vida, Mi Voz" (My Life, My Voice) last February. She obtained a $3,000 grant and appealed to businesses, corporations and organizations for donations of food, supplies and money. She then recruited artists, educators and writers to participate in the conference and worked out logistics for 20 young people to attend. "The gathering celebrated powerful stories, surprising similarities, great food, and lots of laughter," said Lena. As one of the youth participants noted, she said, "we all have more in common than we think." Mi Vida, Mi Voz is now a year-round, youth-led creative network and nonprofit, and Lena is busy working on next summer's conference.
Ashwil (pictured right), a sixth-grader at Mater Christi School, raised money to buy solar cookers for refugee families in Chad, designed and staffed a food concession stand for Special Olympics bowling events, and organized a campaign to promote awareness of the effects of plastic bags on the environment. "I have always been around individuals who contribute to the community," said Ashwil, whose parents operate a school for kids with disabilities. "I recognized from an early age that it takes effort to make a difference."
When Ashwil was 5 years old, a teenager she knew was working on a project to help women in Darfuri refugee camps. It was difficult for them to get firewood for cooking fires, so the girl was trying to raise money to buy solar cookers. She asked Ashwil to donate her artwork for an auction, which raised $400 for the cause. Later, Ashwil operated a concession stand at every home game of a local Special Olympics Unified bowling team, raising $400 to buy a beehive and bees for a school bee curriculum. In addition, Ashwil, inspired by a group of southern California teens who made a video about the environmental problems caused by plastic bags, started a campaign to ban their use at her school. "The school no longer allows plastic bags for lunches or garbage," she said. Currently, she is working to organize a conference to promote women's empowerment and confidence.
About The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards
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 25 years, the program has honored more than 130,000 young volunteers at the local, state and national level. For more information about The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards and this year's honorees, visit http://spirit.prudential.com. For more information about the National Association of Secondary School Principals, visit www.nassp.org. For more information about Prudential Financial, visit www.news.prudential.com.
Learn more at spirit.prudential.com
SOURCE Prudential Financial, Inc.