Alaska's top two youth volunteers of 2020, Zoe Nelles, 18, of Palmer and Caleb Song, 14, of Anchorage, were recognized this weekend for their outstanding volunteer service during the 25th annual, and first-ever virtual, Prudential Spirit of Community Awards national recognition celebration.
In recognition of the spirit of service that they have demonstrated in their communities, Zoe and Caleb – along with 100 other top youth volunteers from across the country – were also each given $2,500 to donate toward the local COVID-19 response efforts of a nonprofit organization of their choice. These funds come in addition to the $1,000 scholarship and engraved silver medallion they earned as Alaska's top youth volunteers of 2020.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program, sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), named Zoe and Caleb Alaska's top high school and middle level youth volunteers in February.
“Over the past 25 years, this program has honored students spanning three generations, and the common thread between them has been the determination of young people to respond to the challenges of the moment,” said Charles Lowrey, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial. “Who better than this group of young leaders from all over the country to help identify and direct resources to community needs arising from COVID-19?”
As State Honorees, Zoe and Caleb also earned an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C. for the program’s annual national recognition events; the trip, however, was canceled due to COVID-19 and changed to a three-day online celebration this past weekend. In addition to remarks and congratulations from actress Kristen Bell, honorees had opportunities to connect with each other through online project-sharing sessions, learn about service and advocacy from accomplished past Spirit of Community honorees, hear congratulatory remarks from Lowrey and NASSP Executive Director and CEO JoAnn Bartoletti, and more.
“We admire these young leaders for their ability to assess the needs of the communities they serve and find meaningful ways to address them,” said Bartoletti. “At a time when everyone is looking for optimism, these students are a bright light for their peers and the adults in their lives.”
About the Honorees
Zoe, a senior at Palmer High School, provides bags of nonperishable food every Friday to 60 students in need who receive free meals at school during the week, but who may have little to eat on the weekends. She came up with the idea for “The Sandwich Project” in the fall of 2018 after hearing that another school had a similar program that fed 20 children. “I was surprised by the number and wondered if we had this large of a need at Palmer,” Zoe said.
To begin, she asked her school nurse to identify students who were at risk of weekend hunger and persuaded a teacher to be her advisor. She then started assembling bags of nonperishable food items in her own kitchen for seven students. As the need became more apparent, Zoe’s program began to grow with the help of donations from community members, a food drive at her school and appeals on social media. When she received a grant from a local foundation, she expanded her project to two local elementary schools. Zoe then arranged additional assistance from a local food bank, which contributes ingredients for her food bags; from her school’s culinary arts teacher, who offers space in her classroom to store food and make the meals; and from her school's National Honor Society members, who help assemble the food bags. “Being a kid is hard enough,” said Zoe, “but not knowing if you are going to eat over the weekend is unimaginable.”
Caleb, an eighth-grader at Northern Lights ABC School, plays an active role in the efforts of his parents’ church ministry to aid people experiencing homelessness in his community. “I have been assisting the homeless since I can remember,” said Caleb. As a toddler, Caleb accompanied his parents to a homeless shelter, and then gradually began helping with various aspects of his parents’ homeless ministry. As Caleb got older, the jobs he was tasked with grew more complex. “Helping the homeless,” he discovered, “is neither simple nor easy. It requires passion, confidence and sacrifice.”
Currently, Caleb sets up the sound system, greets people and assists at the information desk at his parents’ homeless church. He also makes lemonade, prepares and serves dinner trays, plays the violin and cleans up after meals. At Christmastime, he has helped raise money to buy gifts for people at the shelter. In addition, he visits other local shelters, a soup kitchen, an assisted-living home and a hospital, where he hands out snacks and fliers. He finds time to do all this on both weekends and weekdays, coordinating his volunteer activities with school and other responsibilities. “I have seen hardened souls transform because of the work I do, even though it may be small,” said Caleb.
About The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards
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 25 years, the program has honored more than 130,000 young volunteers at the local, state and national level.
For more information about The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards and this year’s honorees, visit http://spirit.prudential.com. For more information about the National Association of Secondary School Principals, visit www.nassp.org. For more information about Prudential Financial, visit www.news.prudential.com.