Connecticut's Top Two Youth Volunteers Selected in 20th Annual National Awards Program

South Windsor and Guilford students earn $1,000 awards, engraved medallions and trip to nation’s capital

Honors also bestowed on youth volunteers in East Windsor, Stamford, Colchester and Wallingford

HARTFORD, Conn.--()--Samantha Petersen, 17, of South Windsor and Holly Johnson, 13, of Guilford today were named Connecticut'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. Samantha was nominated by Petersen Homeschool in South Windsor, and Holly was nominated by Elisabeth C. Adams Middle School in Guilford. 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).

Samantha, a home-schooled senior, founded a nonprofit organization that disseminates information about scoliosis, screens children in low-income communities for the disease, and offers emotional support to those undergoing corrective surgery. When Samantha was 11 years old, she was diagnosed with severe scoliosis that was causing intense pain and impeding her breathing and neurological functions. “It took me from being a top state swimmer to disability,” said Samantha. “Even simple tasks such as brushing my hair became a struggle. I was only a kid but I felt old and broken.” Four years later, Samantha underwent a complicated spinal fusion surgery that she calls “the gift of a second chance at life.” It was this chance that inspired her to want to make a difference in the lives of others, many of whom feel powerless and isolated by the disease, she said.

To educate others about scoliosis and raise funds for her nonprofit, Samantha launched a website, distributed informational booklets, applied for grants, and began recruiting teachers, medical professionals, and corporate and community leaders to help. She and her network then began training laypeople and professionals to identify the disease in children by conducting trainings and school screenings, including outreach trips to some of the poorest communities in the country. Samantha also works to bring comfort to scoliosis patients in hospitals in the U.S. and abroad by providing blankets and post-operative “PillowPets” sewn by volunteers in 30 chapters of her organization. “I strive for a day when everyone, everywhere, has access to and receives proper medical care so they all have the chance to live healthy, productive lives,” Samantha said.

Holly, an eighth-grader at Elisabeth C. Adams Middle School, coaches children in recreational and Special Olympics gymnastics at a local community center. Holly has been involved in service projects such as food and recycling drives through the Girl Scouts for years and, more recently, joined a school service organization called “Peer Helpers,” which sends students out into the community to participate in a wide variety of volunteer activities. When she heard that the local gymnastics team needed someone to help coach, this avid young gymnast jumped at the chance to combine two of her favorite things: gymnastics and helping others. “Gymnastics is a big part of my life, and seeing children improve makes me feel proud of not only them, but of the hard work that I put into helping someone else achieve their goals,” said Holly.

She works with the local gymnastics team approximately eight hours a week. Holly also volunteers as a training buddy to an athlete with special needs for a Special Olympics team. She trains the young gymnast and then competes alongside her. In addition, Holly is working toward certification as an instructor through USA Gymnastics, and also plans to raise money to buy equipment for the Special Olympics team, such as a vault. She said she loves watching her students become more confident as they hone their skills. “I remember helping a little girl get over her fear of the balance beam. She ended up being extremely talented and she loved it,” said Holly.

As State Honorees, Samantha and Holly 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.

Distinguished Finalists

The program judges also recognized four other Connecticut students as Distinguished Finalists for their impressive community service activities. Each will receive an engraved bronze medallion.

These are Connecticut's Distinguished Finalists for 2015:

Mikaela-Rose Blanchard, 18, of East Windsor, Conn., a senior at East Windsor High School, created a dancers’ showcase event called “Strength” that raised $2,600 to support two scholarship funds created in memory of students who had died. Mikaela-Rose, who created the event as a way to give back for the scholarships that she has received, worked with fifty dancers from five local dance companies, organized the staging and the lighting, coordinated a crew of volunteers, and managed the entire event.

Bridget Smith, 18, of Stamford, Conn., a member of the Girl Scouts of Connecticut in Hartford and a senior at the Academy of Information Technology & Engineering, developed a hands-on, interactive exhibit to teach children about emergency preparedness and has displayed her exhibit at the Stepping Stones Children’s Museum and at a local firehouse, exposing her message to 500 people. Bridget, who was motivated to create this project after Hurricane Sandy, built four different stations for her exhibit, with topics such as personal preparedness kits, family preparedness kits, family meeting places and online resources.

Colin Wrinn, 17, of Colchester, Conn., a senior at Xavier High School, has been a Special Olympics volunteer and unified athlete on the track and swimming teams for the past nine years. Colin, who got involved along with his entire family when his sister, Kylie, became an athlete, teaches the athletes form and technique, works out with them during regular practices, assists during regional and state meets, and has recruited other volunteers to join the organization.

Jane Zhang, 17, of Wallingford, Conn., a senior at Choate Rosemary Hall, founded a nonprofit organization she calls “Spearmint,” that has raised $5,000 through grants and sponsorships to help educate citizens in Wenling, China about the dangers of environmental pollution through her “Save Environment, Save Life” campaign. Jane, who was born in America but has lived in China and has gotten sick from the pollution, has hosted several clean-up events, earned support from local government and media, and writes a blog about environmental issues.

“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.

For information on all of this year’s Prudential Spirit of Community State Honorees and Distinguished Finalists, visit or


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

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

Editors: For full-color pictures of the Spirit of Community Awards program logo and medallions, click here:


Prudential Financial
Harold Banks, 973-802-8974 or 973-216-4833


Prudential Financial
Harold Banks, 973-802-8974 or 973-216-4833