A junior high school student from Orange County and a Northern California high schooler were Tuesday named the state’s top two youth volunteers of 2019 by the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism.
Hannah Karanick, 13, of Anaheim, and Ethan Auyeung, 15, of Los Gatos, 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 2019.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, now in its 24th year, is conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Staff at Orangeview Junior High School, where Hannah is an eighth-grader, nominated her for Middle Level State Honoree recognition for establishing a “closet” at her former elementary school that provides new clothing, laundry products, toiletries, quilts and school supplies to students there whose families cannot afford to buy such necessities.
Her project was sparked by a boy at her school who wore the same clothes every day and had no backpack.
“He was funny and smart, but he was often teased for his hygiene and his clothes, and I saw his eyes fill up with tears many times,” she said.
When the boy and several other students ended up living with Hannah’s family as foster children, “I watched their grades soar and their attitudes turn around,” she said.
After meeting with the principal of her old school and sending an opinion poll to the staff, she came up with the idea of creating the campus “closet” where students could discreetly obtain basic necessities. She asked friends and family members to help her buy supplies, and then began obtaining items from the congregation of a local church.
According to Prudential Financial, nearly 50 children benefited from “Hannah’s Helpful Hands” closet in its first three months.
“I am disappointed that I can’t help more kids at this point,” she said, “but I am committed to expanding the program.”
Auyeung, the High School State Honoree is a sophomore at Los Gatos High School. He was singled out for providing more than 3,000 care packages for homeless and at-risk youth over the past few years, organizing numerous activities for them, and working to raise public awareness of the problem of youth homelessness.
The program judges also recognized nine other California students — most of them from the Southland — as Distinguished Finalists for their community service activities. Each will receive an engraved bronze medallion.
— Ashley Bussell, 17, of Ladera Ranch, a senior at Tesoro High School, who turned her wish to offset medical travel expenses for a friend into the Gas4Katie Cancer Foundation, which has raised more than $75,000 to support families affected by pediatric cancer.
— Jordan Krestul, 17, of Canyon Country, a senior at Canyon High School, who is on a mission to donate new recreational books for elementary school children in low-income communities through Code Read, a nonprofit his sister founded to increase literacy and foster a lifetime love of reading. By hosting fundraisers, recruiting volunteers, managing book supplies, hosting assemblies and running book fairs, he has provided roughly 5,000 children with free books.
— Sebastian Kuhr, 17, of Hermosa Beach, a Loyola High School senior who launched a skateboard fundraiser “SK8 for the Schools” when he was 5 years old. The initiative has since generated more than $50,000 to save music, physical education and library programs at Hermosa Beach schools and raised awareness about concerns around public school funding. He also serves with Leadership Hermosa, collaborating with the city council and others to improve the community.
— Megan Loh, 16, of Placentia, a member of Girl Scouts of Orange County and a junior at Troy High School, who formed a nonprofit called GEARup4Youth to spark girls’ imaginations through fun, girls-only LEGO robotics programming classes held at more than 200 organizations in the U.S. and Malaysia. She also wrote a book, “Easy STEM Activities You Can Do at Home.” With the help of 130 volunteers from 25 schools, she has raised $40,000 and reached 6,500 girls.
— Katherine McPhie, 16, of Irvine, a junior at University High School, who leveraged her project “OPEN SESAME: Coding for Kids” to provide more than 500 hours of programming instruction to children living in shelters, and raised nearly $25,000 to provide the children with Chromebooks and school supplies. She and her partner have exhibited their work at the annual meeting of the National Center for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
— Avika Patel, 16, of Irvine, a Woodbridge High School junior who founded the student-run nonprofit initiative “#innovate,” which hosts workshops and outreach activities to help underserved students learn computer science skills and solve civic problems. She has taught 600 girls, in addition to publishing two books, creating a curriculum for schools in India, running an online student newsletter and speaking at conferences.
“These young volunteers learned and demonstrated that they can make meaningful contributions to individuals and communities through their service,” said Prudential CEO Charles Lowrey. “It’s an honor to recognize their great work, and we hope that shining a spotlight on their service inspires others to consider how they might make a difference.”
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards is billed as 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 affiliates of Points of Light’s HandsOn Network, are eligible to select a student or member for recognition.
The local honorees are reviewed by an independent judging panel, which selects State Honorees and Distinguished Finalists based on such criteria as personal initiative, effort, impact and personal growth.
Since the program began in 1995, more than 125,000 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, China and Brazil.
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