WASHINGTON--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Pennsylvania's top two youth volunteers of 2014, Alexis Werner, 18, of Pittsburgh and Nikolas Toocheck, 11, of West Chester, were honored in the nation’s capital last night for their outstanding volunteer service during the 19th annual presentation of The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. Alexis and Nikolas – along with 100 other top youth volunteers from across the country – each received $1,000 awards and personal congratulations from Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker 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 Alexis and Nikolas Pennsylvania'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.
Alexis, a senior at Shaler Area High School, formed a student-run organization designed to aid homeless veterans and promote greater appreciation for the sacrifices U.S. service members have made serving their country. Alexis’s stepfather returned from his final tour of duty in Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder. “He was a casualty of the war,” she said. “This was undoubtedly the worst point of my life, but the most pivotal point as well.” She realized that, instead of just being upset about her family’s situation, she could take action. “This is when my nonprofit, ‘Seeds of Hope,’ sprouted. It was my turn to step up and advocate for others like my stepdad.”
Alexis’s effort encompasses three distinct projects. The first was recruiting students and other community members to plant “victory gardens.” So far, 15 gardens have yielded more than 1,000 pounds of fresh produce for organizations serving homeless veterans. The second is a children’s book that talks about the role of veterans, and encourages healthy eating and community service. A thousand copies have been given to children in Pennsylvania, and readings have been held at 15 elementary schools. Finally, “Seeds of Hope” is producing a documentary film that tells the stories of veterans who have come home over the years with post-traumatic stress disorder. “Our goal is to create a culture of empathy and understanding for what veterans deal with on a daily basis,” said Alexis.
Nikolas, a fifth-grader at Hillendale Elementary School, is on a quest to raise money to buy new coats for kids in need by running a marathon on each of the seven continents. Nikolas has always loved running with his dad. Over the years, as his running distances became longer, he decided to tackle marathons. Then he learned that there were marathons all over the world. “I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to run one on every continent?” Nikolas said. “And then I thought it would be awesome to help people while I do it!” Nikolas created a campaign called, “Running the World for Children.”
For as long as he can remember, Nikolas has been involved with the nonprofit Operation Warm, which was started by his grandfather 15 years ago to provide new winter coats to children who otherwise might not have one. When he was very young, Nikolas would donate money from his piggy bank to the cause, help his mother shop for coats, and distribute them. But as he grew older, he wanted to do more. To begin his campaign, he stepped up his training in preparation for his first 26.2-mile run. With the help of his family, he solicits donations of $1 for every step he runs by speaking to groups, explaining his mission at races and other events, and reaching out through a website and social media. Nikolas completed his first marathon at the end of 2012 in Delaware. Since then he has run marathons in Antarctica South America and Australia. His efforts so far have raised approximately $30,000, enough to buy coats for 1,500 children. “Lots of these kids haven’t ever received anything new before, so it’s more than a coat” said Nikolas. “They feel special and happy with their very own new coat!”
“These honorees are shining examples of what is possible when young people use their energy and initiative to help their communities,” said John Strangfeld, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc. “We are proud to recognize their accomplishments, and look forward to seeing the great things they achieve in the future.”
“Through their service, these students have not only made a difference in the lives of others – they’ve provided their peers with a powerful example of what it looks like to be an outstanding youth volunteer,” said Barbara-Jane (BJ) Paris, president of NASSP. “Congratulations to each of the 2014 honorees for a job well done.”
Youth volunteers in grades 5-12 were invited to apply for 2014 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards last fall through schools, Girl Scout councils, county 4-H organizations, American Red Cross chapters, YMCAs and affiliates of the HandsOn Network. More than 30,000 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 19 years, the program has honored more than 100,000 young volunteers at the local, state and national level.
The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) is the leading organization of and national voice for middle level and high school principals, assistant principals, and all school leaders from across the United States and more than 36 countries around the world. The association connects and engages school leaders through advocacy, research, education, and student programs. NASSP advocates on behalf of all school leaders to ensure the success of each student and strengthens school leadership practices through the design and delivery of high quality professional learning experiences. 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 Association of Student Councils. For more information about NASSP, located in Reston, VA, visit 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 full-color pictures of the Spirit of Community Awards program logo and medallions, click here: http://bit.ly/Xi4oFW