Hernandez, Weld named as State finalists for Prudential Spirit of Community Awards

AUSTIN, Texas – Ian McKenna Goncalo, 14, of Austin and Matthew Reel, 12, of Spring today were named Texas’ top two youth volunteers of 2019 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism. As State Honorees, Ian and Matthew 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 otherstates 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 (NASSP).

These are Texas’ top youth volunteers of 2019:

High School State Honoree: Ian McKenna Goncalo

Nominated by Travis County 4-H

Ian, a sophomore at Liberal Arts and Science Academy, planted vegetable and fruit gardens at four schools and in his backyard that have yielded more than nine tons of fresh produce for families in need over the past six years. When Ian was 8 years old, he helped deliver Christmas gifts and food to the family of a girl in his younger sister’s class. “She had never gotten a visit from Santa, nor had a meal outside of the school breakfast and lunch program,” Ian said. “She believed the reason Santa had never come was because he hated poor people. I learned the true meaning of Christmas that day.” Ian soon realized there were a lot more children facing hunger in his community, and felt called to do something about it. But when he tried to volunteer at a food bank, he was told he was too young. Then it came to him: He liked gardening. Why not grow food for hungry people?

Ian proposed creating a “Giving Garden” to his gardening club advisor, who loved the idea. He then got permission to build the garden at an elementary school, developed a design, recruited volunteers, sought donations and reached out to Home Depot for help. By the end of construction day, Ian’s team had built nine raised beds and planted 15 fruit trees that would help feed 54 families that year. In the following years, Ian built gardens at three more schools, as well as one in his own backyard. He estimates his “Giving Gardens” have provided more than 18,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables to a local food bank, hunger relief organizations and directly to families. He also has set up a farm stand to distribute his produce in a low-income area, and hosted community dinners that have served 1,750 nutritious meals. In addition to speaking about hunger issues at school, business and community events, Ian has raised more than $60,000 to create his gardens and to support an organization that encourages young people to fight hunger with gardens in their own communities.      

 

Middle Level State Honoree: Matthew Reel

Nominated by Cox Intermediate School

Matthew, a sixth-grader at Cox Intermediate School, has been helping to feed hungry kids and adults since 2015 by distributing food packets through a Houston mission and packing food into backpacks for students who might otherwise go hungry on weekends. In 2015, when Matthew was 8 years old, his church hosted a family night to make “blessing bags” for the homeless. But by the time it was Matthew’s turn to make a bag, there were hardly any supplies left, so he asked his mother to take him to the store to buy more. After he had filled his bag, he found a homeless man to give it to. “When I handed it to the man,” said Matthew, “he looked at me, smiled and said, ‘May God bless you, little boy!’ It was then that I knew I was meant to help feed those in need.” He announced to his parents that for his upcoming birthday, he didn’t want a party or presents but instead items to make food packets for the homeless.

Over the next few years, Matthew solicited donations via email and online appeals, recruited volunteers to help, and packaged small food items into more than 1,000 gallon Ziploc bags. He then delivered them to the Star of Hope Mission, which serves the needs of homeless men, women and children. Additional items that wouldn’t fit into bags were used by the mission to prepare meals. Later, Matthew learned how hunger affects students’ academic performance. “It was upsetting to me to think that kids my age were not doing well in school because they didn’t have enough to eat,” he said. So he started a backpack program with the goal of providing five families with weekend food. He persuaded four schools to hold food drives for him, and received additional support from scout groups and a church. The next year, with the help of a grant, Matthew expanded his program to 15 families, and began adding items such as toiletries, first aid supplies, arts and crafts materials and books to his backpacks. He hopes to keep growing his program “so that every kid has the same advantages with their education without lack of food affecting them,” he said.      

 

Distinguished Finalists

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

These are Texas’ Distinguished Finalists for 2019:

Trevor Burke, 18, of Dallas, Texas, a senior at St. Mark’s School of Texas, fought to preserve a critically endangered ecosystem, Blackland Prairie, by removing invasive species, planting native grasses and wildflowers, and by raising Northern Bobwhite Quail to introduce back into the prairie. Along with recruiting more than 100 volunteers to help with his preservation project, Trevor has also educated the public through interactive presentations and a TEDxTalk about his efforts.

Emily Clark, 15, of Houston, Texas, a member of the Girl Scouts of San Jacinto Council and a sophomore at St. Agnes Academy School, founded and runs “Hope’s Closet,” which provides toiletry kits and clothing to teenage victims of human trafficking. Partnering with The Children’s Assessment Center, Emily organized clothing and toiletry donations, spread awareness about human trafficking and prepared a guidebook for partner groups to replicate her initiative in other cities.

Paige Cook, 13, of Cleburne, Texas, a seventh-grader at A.D. Wheat Middle School, started “The Wheat Middle School Pencil Pal,” which has supplied more than 27,000 pencils to students in her school district, alleviating the burden from low-income families and teachers to buy school supplies. Paige, who has hearing and speech impairments, was inspired to start this project as a way to give back to the teachers who have supported and encouraged her academic success.

Claudia Favela, 18, of Spring, Texas, a senior at Klein High School, created and leads a community outreach team committed to childhood cancer awareness, and has dedicated hundreds of hours to mentoring and organizing social events for patients, collecting movies to donate to hospitals, raising money for research, and educating others about the lack of funding for childhood cancer research. A survivor of osteosarcoma, Claudia’s volunteer efforts are inspired by a friend who died from cancer in 2017.

Rylea Fields, 14, of Mansfield, Texas, a freshman at Mansfield Legacy High School, is the founder of “Rylea’s Ribbons,” which has donated and sold thousands of hair ribbons to benefit a variety of organizations, including local and national shelters and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Rylea was inspired to start making and donating ribbons in the second grade, after hearing the story of a classmate who had experienced homelessness.

Lauryn Hernandez, 16, of San Antonio, Texas, a sophomore at Communications Arts High School, started “Lauryn’s Hat Wish,” which has donated hundreds of hats to oncology patients at the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. Lauryn, who has collected donations through social media campaigns and by partnering with local businesses, started this project after she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and noticed the lack of hat options for children and teenagers in the donation box at her oncology clinic.

Melissa Khasbagan, 17, of Austin, Texas, a junior at Westlake High School, is the founder of “1,000 Books,” a nonprofit that has donated thousands of English-language books and educational materials to children in nine countries. Also the creator of “The Teen Entrepreneur Podcast,” Melissa hopes to empower children and teens through education, inspiring them to become global changemakers themselves.

Bhavna Reddy, 12, of Southlake, Texas, a seventh-grader at Carroll Middle School, raised money to provide sanitary napkins and helped conduct menstrual hygiene management workshops for girls in India. An active member of the leadership program with the Save The Child Foundation, Bhavna has also collected and delivered school supplies and clothing to orphanages in India and participates in an annual street cleanup in Plano, Texas.

Crystal Wang, 17, of Houston, Texas, a senior at Memorial High School, is the founder and executive president of “Students for Oncological Aid and Relief” (SOAR), a student-led nonprofit that provides financial and emotional support to patients with cancer. With nine chapters and more than 500 members nationally, SOAR has impacted more than 1,200 patients and families by distributing care packages, cards, and a scholarship for cancer fighters and survivors.

Karagan Weld, 17, of Helotes, Texas, a member of Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas and a senior at Legacy of Educational Excellence (LEE) High School, spent hundreds of hours successfully lobbying for the Texas cyberbullying legislation David’s Law by speaking at public events, schools, PTA meetings and with state lawmakers. Impacted by the suicide of the San Antonio teen the bill was named for, and by her own experiences being cyberbullied, Karagan gave oral and written testimony on the state senate floor to spread awareness of the toxic effects of cyberbullying.

“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.”

“Each of these honorees is proof that students have the energy, creativity and unique perspectives to create positive change,” said JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of NASSP. “We commend each of the 2019 honorees for their outstanding volunteer service, and for the invaluable example they’ve set for their peers.” 

 

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 affiliates of Points of Light’s HandsOn Network, 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 6, 10 of the State Honorees – five middle level and five high school students – will be named America’s top youth volunteers of 2019. 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 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. 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.

For information on all of this year’s Prudential Spirit of Community State Honorees and Distinguished Finalists, visit http://spirit.prudential.com or www.nassp.org/spirit.

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