PHOENIX, Ariz.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Matthew Kaplan, 17, of Phoenix and Benjamin Meyer, 14, of Laveen today were named Arizona's top two youth volunteers of 2015 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism. Matthew was nominated by Tesseract School in Phoenix, and Benjamin was nominated by Emmanuel Lutheran School in Tempe. The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, now in its 20th year, is conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).
Matthew, a senior at Tesseract School, created a four-hour interactive educational program that is helping to discourage bullying among middle level students throughout Arizona and beyond. Several years ago, Matthew watched with dismay as his younger brother was bullied at school by former friends. The bullies weren’t bad kids, said Matthew, “yet, inexplicably, once they were armed with cell phones and social media, they launched words at him that were far more harmful than sticks and stones. I wanted somebody to make them understand the pain they were causing.” By the time Matthew had finished eighth grade, he realized that “somebody” would have to be him.
Recognizing that middle level students are particularly susceptible to peer pressure, Matthew began thinking of a way to “capture and reverse” that pressure, “so that students challenge each other to support rather than discourage each other,” he said. He developed a series of non-competitive group games, small-team challenges and guided discussions designed to foster empathy and mutual respect, and assembled them into a four-hour program called “Be ONE (Open to New Experiences).” Matthew has introduced the program to schools in Arizona, California and Virginia; taken it to youth groups and libraries; and promoted it widely through speaking engagements and a TV public service announcement. Through his program, more than 1,800 students so far have been shown “they can wield their power to build each other up, rather than tear each other down,” said Matthew.
Benjamin, an eighth-grader at Emmanuel Lutheran School, helps stage patriotic shows for veterans and senior citizens at nursing homes, retirement facilities and veterans organizations as a volunteer with a nonprofit organization called The Arizona Swing Kids. “I wanted to be more involved in my community, and be part of something bigger than just myself,” said Benjamin in explaining why he joined the group in 2010. Plus, “I felt it was important to serve and give back to all those who fought in the military,” he said.
Benjamin gives up a day of his weekends to practice or perform as one of the “Swing Kids.” During their shows, Benjamin and other young volunteers conduct a flag procession, and then perform songs and dances set to the music of the World War II and doo-wop eras. Afterwards, “we all go around and talk with the people and listen to their stories, shake their hands or give them hugs,” said Benjamin. In addition, Benjamin helps set up and take down microphones, speakers and other equipment before and after each performance. “We touch many hearts,” he said, “making people happy by remembering the ‘good old days’ and recognizing those who have served our country.”
As State Honorees, Matthew and Benjamin each will receive $1,000, an engraved silver medallion and an all-expense-paid trip in early May to Washington, D.C., where they will join the top two honorees from each of the other states and the District of Columbia for four days of national recognition events. During the trip, 10 students will be named America’s top youth volunteers of 2015.
The program judges also recognized six other Arizona students as Distinguished Finalists for their impressive community service activities. Each will receive an engraved bronze medallion.
These are Arizona's Distinguished Finalists for 2015:
Meagan Bethel, 17, of Tucson, Ariz., a senior at Tucson High Magnet School, has spent the past six years volunteering as a citizen scientist and animal tracker for the Sky Island Alliance, and last year collected data to help establish protections for ocelots seen living in the path of a proposed mine. Meagan has also raised more than $10,000 to protect animals through various fundraising projects, and served as a Reid Park Zoo volunteer and Girl Scout STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Ambassador.
Tara Dugel, 17, of Paradise Valley, Ariz., a junior at Phoenix Country Day School, co-founded “Project SENA (Scholarship and Education for Native Americans)” with her sister in 2012, and has since helped to raise $7,000 to provide scholarships for Native American teens and has developed both a Skype mentoring program and a weekly book club. In addition to serving as president of Project SENA, and as a peer mentor, homework helper and tutor, Tara also organizes an impressive roster of Skype guest mentors such as doctors, lawyers and engineers to help inspire the young teens in the program to reach for their dreams.
Ciella Hatfield-Burke, 17, of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., a senior at Lake Havasu High School, founded “Backpacks for Kids,” a nonprofit organization through which she has provided more than 850 backpacks filled with school supplies to local children in need. Ciella solicits donations, shops for supplies, recruits friends to help pack the bags, and works closely with administrators at seven local schools to implement the program.
Charles Huang, 18, of Oro Valley, Ariz., a senior at BASIS Oro Valley, serves as the president of the Oro Valley Youth Advisory Council, and initiated and implemented its most popular event, the “Dive-In Movie,” which provided opportunities to survey local youth on important issues. As president, Charles runs meetings, oversees committees, and works with the group on new initiatives such as its Senior Tech Program, which teaches local senior citizens about technology.
Emily Jordan, 18, of Phoenix, Ariz., a senior at Xavier College Preparatory High School, created the “Thanksgiving Softball Clinic” for girls who want to learn the basics of softball, and asks participants to bring canned food items to benefit the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen. Emily designs fliers and banners to spread the word, recruits her softball teammates, friends and family to volunteer, and includes a discussion to the clinic participants about their food donations and how important it is to give back to the community.
Reid Maurice, 18, of Phoenix, Ariz., a senior at Shadow Mountain High School, helped raise more than $96,000 to support the Phoenix Children’s Hospital by going on a 76-day, 4,500 bicycle trek called “Pedaling with a Purpose” from Virginia to Oregon with his brother, Ethan. To prepare for the ride, a fundraiser for the hospital that saved Ethan’s life four years earlier, the brothers bought used bicycles, created and kept to a rigorous training schedule, and worked closely with the hospital staff to promote the project in local media.
“Prudential is honored to celebrate the contributions of these remarkable young volunteers,” said Prudential Chairman and CEO John Strangfeld. “By shining a spotlight on the difference they’ve made in their communities, we hope others are inspired to volunteer, too.”
“These students have not only improved their communities through their exemplary volunteer service, but also set a fine example for their peers,” said JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of NASSP. “Each of their stories is proof of the impact one young person can have when they decide to make a difference.”
About The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards represents the United States’ largest youth recognition program based solely on volunteer service. All public and private middle level and high schools in the country, as well as all Girl Scout councils, county 4-H organizations, American Red Cross chapters, YMCAs and HandsOn Network affiliates, were eligible to select a student or member for a local Prudential Spirit of Community Award. These Local Honorees were then reviewed by an independent judging panel, which selected State Honorees and Distinguished Finalists based on criteria including personal initiative, effort, impact and personal growth.
While in Washington, D.C., the 102 State Honorees – one middle level and one high school student from each state and the District of Columbia – will tour the capital’s landmarks, meet top youth volunteers from other parts of the world, attend a gala awards ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and visit their congressional representatives on Capitol Hill. On May 4, 10 of the State Honorees – five middle level and five high school students – will be named America’s top youth volunteers of 2015. These National Honorees will receive additional $5,000 awards, gold medallions, crystal trophies and $5,000 grants from The Prudential Foundation for nonprofit charitable organizations of their choice.
Since the program began in 1995, more than 100,000 young volunteers have been honored at the local, state and national level. The program also is conducted by Prudential subsidiaries in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Ireland, India and China. In addition to granting its own awards, The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program also distributes President’s Volunteer Service Awards to qualifying Local Honorees on behalf of President Barack Obama.
The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) is the leading organization of and voice for middle level and high school principals, assistant principals, and school leaders from across the United States and 35 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