Youth award

Alaska's top two youth volunteers of 2019, Carlee Rizzo, 18, of Kenai and Ashley Perry, 14, of Anchorage, were honored in the nation’s capital last night for their outstanding volunteer service during the 24th annual presentation of The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. Carlee and Ashley – along with 100 other top youth volunteers from across the country – received a $1,000 award and personal congratulations from award-winning actress Viola Davis at an award ceremony and gala dinner reception held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program, sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), named Carlee and Ashley Alaska's top high school and middle level youth volunteers in February. In addition to their cash awards, they each received an engraved silver medallion and an all-expense-paid trip with a parent to Washington, D.C., for four days of recognition events. 

Carlee, a senior at Nikiski Middle/High School, created an organization that has raised more than $16,000 so that 300 teachers in her large and remote school district can help students whose families are suffering through hard times. As the daughter of two teachers, Carlee grew up watching her parents struggle to help students in need stay on track in school, often dipping into their own pockets to provide school supplies or decent clothing. By the time she was a freshman, she had witnessed a friend living in a car with her mother, families facing the frigid Alaska winter without heat in their houses, and kids going hungry on weekends. “There are always students that need help,” said Carlee. “I realized that someone had to do something, and that someone was me. I could not be one of those people who stand by and watch others suffer.”

Carlee formed a board of teachers to consider requests from colleagues with students who need a helping hand. Then she went to work raising money for her Nikiski Children’s Fund. She sold donated baked goods at dozens of play productions, sponsored concerts, started an annual fall festival at her school, and organized a yearly charity softball game between her hometown fire department and local law enforcement. Her efforts have provided winter coats and shoes for grade-school children, weekend food for kids on school lunch programs, driving lessons for teens, temporary housing for homeless youth, and transportation for kids who otherwise would have to walk miles to school on dark Alaskan highways. She has also covered electric bills to keep the power on in students’ homes. 

Ashley, an eighth-grader at Mears Middle School, started a program that enables struggling young readers to build their skills and confidence by reading out loud to animals in shelters. She also places “blessing boxes” filled with nonperishable food, hygiene products and apparel items at Anchorage schools for students in need, arranges for celebrities to visit hospitalized children, and raises awareness of Turner syndrome. Ashley was born with this rare genetic disorder, which makes her prone to infections and has required 20 surgeries so far. In 2014, she was named Alaska’s Children’s Miracle Network Champion. “With that role, I quickly learned that I was put on this earth for a reason and I can make a difference despite my health issues,” said Ashley.

After hearing about a program in another state that paired young readers with animals awaiting adoption, Ashley decided Alaska needed something similar. “When I was younger, I hated to read out loud and I was afraid of making a mistake,” said Ashley. “If I could have read to an animal, I think I would have been more excited to read.” After selling her idea to local animal shelters, Ashley sent flyers to local schools and libraries to recruit young readers. Nine shelters in Alaska and 15 outside the state are now participating in her reading program. To launch her “blessing boxes,” Ashley made a presentation to all of the principals in her school district, then asked homebuilders to help construct the boxes and urged friends and community members to donate supplies. Forty-five schools in the Anchorage area have now agreed to host one of Ashley’s boxes.

“We’re impressed and inspired by the way these honorees have identified problems facing their communities and stepped up to the challenge to make a difference,” said Charles Lowrey, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc. “It’s a privilege to celebrate their leadership and compassion, and we look forward to seeing the great things they accomplish in the future.”

“These students have not only done important work in support of people in need – they’ve also shown their peers that young people can, and do, create meaningful change,” said Christine Handy, president of NASSP. “We commend each of these young volunteers for all they’ve contributed to their communities.”

Youth volunteers in grades 5-12 were invited to apply for 2019 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards last fall through schools, Girl Scout councils, county 4-H organizations, American Red Cross chapters, YMCAs and affiliates of Points of Light’s HandsOn Network. More than 29,000 middle level and high school students nationwide participated in this year’s program.

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program was created in 1995 to identify and recognize young people for outstanding volunteer service – and, in so doing, inspire others to volunteer, too. In the past 24 years, the program has honored more than 125,000 young volunteers at the local, state and national level.

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