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

Omaha and Wisner students earn $1,000 awards, engraved medallions and trip to nation’s capital

Honors also bestowed on youth volunteers in Lincoln and Broken Bow

LINCOLN, Neb.--()--Melissa Newkirk, 17, of Omaha and Cole Jacobsen, 13, of Wisner today were named Nebraska'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. Melissa was nominated by Saddlebrook Elementary School in Omaha, and Cole was nominated by Cuming County 4-H in West Point. 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).

Melissa, a senior at Burke High School, leveraged her volunteer work with a national pet therapy organization to create a program that helps students at a local elementary school improve their literacy skills by having them read out loud to therapy dogs. Melissa was looking for an opportunity to combine her love of animals with a desire to work with people when she discovered Paws for Friendship. After becoming certified with this national organization, she and her dog began visiting a nearby hospital once a month to cheer up patients there.

At the time, Melissa was also volunteering at a local library, and noticed that fewer children were using the library’s resources. “Kids seemed to have lost a love of reading,” she said. That’s when she hit upon the idea of using her therapy dog, Abbie, to help children practice their reading. Melissa recruited 12 fellow Paws for Friendship volunteers and their dogs to work with kids at her former elementary school, arranged to hold reading sessions at the school on Monday nights, and asked the school’s principal to identify struggling readers. She also collected donated books, stickers and dog-themed stamp sets to reward good attendance. Melissa’s program helped 20 students improve their reading abilities during its first year, and is now well into year two.

Cole, a seventh-grader at Wisner-Pilger Public Schools, constructed more than 180 wooden card holders to make it easier for residents of a dozen nursing homes in three counties to play cards with friends and family. For the past two summers, Cole has spent one day a week playing cards with seniors at a local nursing home. One of the residents, a diabetic man with one arm and one leg, needed a card holder to participate. “I realized how important this small piece of adaptive equipment is to him,” said Cole, “and thought more people who suffered from a stroke, diabetes, arthritis or other illness might also benefit from having a card holder.”

After the activity directors of several nursing homes confirmed the need for card holders, Cole bought over $200 worth of supplies with money from 4-H county fair winnings and a job stacking wood. He also appealed to his community for donations of wood through flyers and a message in a church bulletin. With more than 50 pounds of wood to work with, Cole cut, sanded and stained each piece, and applied felt to the bottoms. He then delivered more than 180 finished card holders to 12 nursing homes. “I learned that anything can be accomplished if you set a goal, form a plan, and work hard,” said Cole. “Even with a small budget, you can touch many lives.”

As State Honorees, Melissa and Cole 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 two other Nebraska students as Distinguished Finalists for their impressive community service activities. Each will receive an engraved bronze medallion.

These are Nebraska's Distinguished Finalists for 2015:

My'Kah Knowlin, 13, of Lincoln, Neb., an eighth-grader at Lux Middle School, has collected and donated more than 3,000 books and 5,000 toys for children in need, and hosted a Christmas party for preschool students and their siblings at a school where a majority of students are on a subsidized lunch program. My’Kah began her volunteering as a second grader when she was the victim of bullying and racial prejudice, and decided that serving the community could help her empower other minority children in her community.

Kendra Staab, 18, of Broken Bow, Neb., a senior at Broken Bow High School, constructed a Frisbee golf course at the local Melham Park after securing $340 in sponsorship dollars to pay for materials. Kendra plotted out a course layout, secured the approval of the parks department and town council, and built and mounted the baskets herself.

“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