TALLAHASSEE, Fla.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Carolina Gonzalez, 18, of Coral Gables and N'Jhari Jackson, 12, of Tampa today were named Florida'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. Carolina was nominated by Our Lady of Lourdes Academy in Miami, and N'Jhari was nominated by The Paideia School of Tampa Bay in Tampa. 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).
Carolina, a senior at Our Lady of Lourdes Academy, started a nonprofit organization that has helped more than 500 undocumented young immigrants apply for temporary residence and employment in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and has raised more than $22,000 to pay the application fees of those who cannot afford them. Carolina’s grandparents fled Cuba to give their family and future generations a better life, Carolina said. “Since the time I was able to hold a conversation, my mother would remind me of what they went through. And always at the end of the discussion, she would accentuate how, because of her parents’ decision, I was born an American citizen,” said Carolina. “It has been engraved in me to never take my citizenship for granted.”
Carolina had been volunteering in various ways since she was 5, but was trying to think of some way to do more for her peers in her community. When her father, an immigration lawyer, mentioned how difficult it was for young immigrants to apply for deferred status, Carolina realized she had her answer. She began organizing clinics for DACA applicants and recruiting pro-bono lawyers to help them through the complex and time-consuming application process. She also raises funds to give small grants to applicants who cannot afford the $465 application fee. “I am not only giving them hope for their future, but also giving them the chance to achieve the American dream,” said Carolina.
N'Jhari, a seventh-grader at The Paideia School of Tampa Bay, has delivered more than 4,000 stuffed animals and goodie-filled backpacks to hospitals in three states and two foreign countries to ease the fear and loneliness of young patients. A few years ago, N’Jhari needed surgery. “On my way into the operating room, a nice nurse handed me a stuffed Clifford to hold onto to help calm my fear,” he said. “It worked and everything went well!” When N’Jhari heard that his friend Bryce was also in the hospital, he emptied his piggy bank to buy him a stuffed animal. Realizing then that most hospitalized children needed something to comfort them during their stays, N’Jhari told his mother he “would find a way to get a buddy to every kid who was without their real buddies.”
N’Jhari made flyers to post at schools and around town asking for donations of new stuffed animals for his program, “Pajama Buddy Voyage.” Then, with help from family, friends and fellow Boy Scouts, he began delivering his stuffed “pajama buddies” to a local Shriners Hospital. Soon, he had enough animals to expand his deliveries to additional hospitals in Florida, Illinois, Atlanta, Germany and China. N’Jhari also solicits donations to fill backpacks with items such as e-readers, books, iPods, snacks and other gifts for children who are either homebound or confined to lengthy hospital stays. In addition, he delivers blankets and other items to wounded soldiers and ailing veterans, and has raised $1,800 to help cover the medical expenses of an Atlanta girl battling advanced kidney cancer.
As State Honorees, Carolina and N'Jhari 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 eight other Florida students as Distinguished Finalists for their impressive community service activities. Each will receive an engraved bronze medallion.
These are Florida's Distinguished Finalists for 2015:
Rachel Barcellona, 18, of Palm Harbor, Fla., a senior at Dunedin High School, is a national spokesperson for the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, and uses her own personal experiences as a person with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, to help others overcome their challenges. Rachel, who speaks motivationally at autism conferences and participates in community service projects to benefit the autistic community, was recently named Miss Largo Outstanding Teen and used her position as an opportunity to gain more exposure for her mission to help those with autism identify “ability beyond disability.”
Alain Carles, 17, of Miami, Fla., a junior at Ransom Everglades School, has raised $13,000 to purchase and distribute gift cards and basic hygiene items for our country’s veterans through his nonprofit organization, “Little-Help,” which he started in 2012. Alain, who first learned of the many struggles our nation’s veterans endure while volunteering at a veteran’s hospital, recruited a team of 15 friends and family to help with the various fundraising events including a restaurant fundraiser, a car wash and a partnership with a national hotel chain for the donation of toiletry items.
Katerina Garcia, 16, of Southwest Ranches, Fla., a junior at Archbishop Edward McCarthy High School, founded the “Sunshine Kids’ Club” in her neighborhood in an effort to enable children to build friendships while also committing to perform community service projects such as road cleanups, park preservation projects and tutoring children. Katerina, who founded the club along with her brother when she was 12 years old, also volunteers as a tutor with the Hope Outreach Center, YMCA and a local basketball team.
Sydney Hamilton, 16, of Key West, Fla., a junior at Key West High School, created “Sydney’s Hope Project,” for which she provides uplifting activities, games and events for children undergoing cancer treatment at Miami Children’s Hospital. Sydney, who is a childhood cancer survivor, recruited more than 30 volunteers to help plan and implement the activities with the children.
Joshua Katz, 12, of Lake Worth, Fla., a seventh-grader at Franklin Academy Charter School, spent the summer of 2014 planning his “POW-MIA-OREE” memorial project, which involved a live reading of the 16,000 soldiers buried at the South Florida National Cemetery at a ceremony in honor of National POW-MIA Remembrance Day. Joshua, who recruited his Boy Scout troop to help with his project, also created a custom commemorative token to place on each gravesite, which each family was able to take home.
Eve Moll, 16, of Davie, Fla., a junior at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, founded “ArtbyEve,” an organization through which she has helped to raise $60,000 for various charitable organizations by creating original artwork and turning it into printed notecards. Eve, who began the project in 2009 to help raise funds to support a friend’s leukemia treatment, has since been invited to create charity artwork for organizations including the Humane Society, Purple Lemonade, ARC Broward and Miami Children’s Hospital.
Jared Shadkin, 15, of Aventura, Fla., a freshman at iPreparatory Academy, is an artist who has donated more than $45,000 from the sale of his paintings to the Bachmann Strauss Dystonia and Parkinson’s Foundation, and other similar charities, in an effort to find a cure for dystonia, a rare neuromuscular movement disorder that Jared was diagnosed with at the age of 10. Jared, who originally began painting as a way to relieve the stress of his illness, soon founded an art website to expand his reach, raise awareness, and use his paintings to make a difference.
Oliver Stern, 14, of Miami Beach, Fla., an eighth-grader at Ransom Everglades School, founded “Our Abilities,” an organization that has raised $43,000 in equipment and financial donations to provide hearing devices for 60 families who could not afford them, while also providing elementary educational programming to help others better understand the experiences of a child with hearing, sight or mobility problems. Oliver, who was born deaf and with a cleft lip and palate, has hosted the program for four years, uniquely inspired by his own challenges to ensure that others do not treat those with disabilities as “different” or “weird.”
“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