Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps pays tribute to Washington, D.C. students
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The District of Columbia’s top two youth volunteers of 2017, Ayomide Okuleye, 17 and Debora Abera, 11, were honored in the nation’s capital last night for their outstanding volunteer service during the 22nd annual presentation of The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. Ayomide and Debora – along with 100 other top youth volunteers from across the country – each received $1,000 awards and personal congratulations from Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps 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 Ayomide and Debora the District of Columbia’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 invitation to four days of national recognition events in Washington, D.C.
Ayomide, a senior at School Without Walls Senior High School, started a club at her school that provided hygiene supplies and winter clothing to homeless people in its first year, and is dedicated to addressing a different social issue each year. Ayomide became passionate about volunteering while working with a nonprofit that teaches students how to cook, as well as how to teach cooking skills to others. “That experience empowered me to help people in many ways,” she said, and so eventually she wanted to start her own service project.
After discussing issues that affect the African American community, Ayomide decided to create a school club called “Black Teen Alliance.” “When a problem arises in your community, people should ban together and try to find a way to mitigate or solve the issue,” she explained. As fellow students came together to participate in Ayomide’s club, they talked at length about problems they wanted to solve and decided to focus initially on homelessness. Ayomide gave presentations about their plan at school assemblies, set up a fundraising website, and coordinated events in which club members sold milkshakes, waffles, pizzas and cotton candy. The $1,000 raised was used to assemble 100 healthcare bags for a homeless coalition in Washington. The club also conducted a winter clothing drive for the coalition.
Debora, a sixth-grader at St. Augustine Catholic School, is a firm believer in the power of volunteerism and has actively looked for ways to serve others since her earliest school days. Debora said she likes to volunteer because “when we volunteer our time, money or talents, we help make our planet a better, happier home where people work together to make life easier for all,” she said. “Also, I do it because it makes me feel good.”
Debora first got involved in volunteering by reading to children at her school and sorting books in the library. “I always loved when someone read to me when I was little,” she said. “The love I have for reading emanates from that experience.” She also found it particularly meaningful to volunteer at an annual Thanksgiving feast for nearly 5,000 community members, where she served beverages to homeless people. “It was a humbling experience to see the smiling faces of people who were very grateful for a Thanksgiving meal,” said Debora. She also volunteers at her school by doing things like assisting younger students during Mass and running errands for her teacher.
“These honorees have done exemplary work to contribute to the health and vitality of their communities, and we look forward to seeing the great things they achieve in the future,” said John Strangfeld, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc. “Congratulations to each of these extraordinary young volunteers.”
“It’s a privilege to celebrate these students not only for outstanding volunteer service, but for the example they’ve set for their peers,” said Jayne Ellspermann, president of NASSP. “These honorees prove that one person truly can make a difference.”
Youth volunteers in grades 5-12 were invited to apply for 2017 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards last fall through schools, Girl Scout councils, county 4-H organizations, American Red Cross chapters, YMCAs and affiliates of the HandsOn Network. More than 31,000 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 22 years, the program has honored more than 120,000 young volunteers at the local, state and national level.