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The 25th annual—and first-ever virtual—youth volunteer awards was a celebration of creativity, commitment and purpose.

By Kara Corridan

May 08, 2020

This year marks a milestone for The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards: its 25th annual celebration. So, its organizers had planned a particularly memorable tribute to its middle and high school honorees in celebration of their outstanding volunteer service. But the team could never have imagined just how different this celebration would be.

As businesses and schools across the country closed their doors in March, Spirit of Community’s 2020 honorees saw their lives and service activities upended. Many of them responded by pivoting their projects to meet the needs of the moment. John Michael Stagliano, 17, of South Carolina, for instance, paused furnishing the houses of families transitioning out of homelessness to harvest and donate produce for a shelter. Lucy Blaylock, 11, of Tennessee, turned her attention from making blankets for children experiencing challenges to making face masks. Jacob Van, a 13-year-old from Oregon, shifted his fundraising efforts toward buying pizzas for front-line health care workers.

They weren’t the only ones pivoting. Deep into the planning of the annual four-day weekend in Washington, D.C., it became clear to Prudential and its Spirit program partner, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, that, due to COVID-19, meeting in person would be impossible. So, the team quickly recreated the event as a three-day online program that aspired to be as thoughtful and unique as the honorees themselves, filled with live project-sharing sessions and alumni panels, as well as a Q&A with a special guest.

"At a time when the world truly needs to come together, this generation of changemakers is setting an example for all of us."

- Prudential Chairman and CEO Charles Lowrey

“We created this program because we knew there were amazing stories of young volunteers out there that we wanted to tell,” Prudential Chairman and CEO Charles Lowrey said in an address to the honorees last Sunday. “At a time when the world truly needs to come together, I take comfort in knowing that this generation of changemakers is setting an example for all of us with their creativity, initiative, fortitude and perseverance.”

The 102 students—two from each state, plus the District of Columbia—were selected from nearly 29,000 applicants. Honorees champion a range of heartfelt causes. One 18-year-old in Minnesota founded a nonprofit boutique providing free clothing and personal-care items for teenage girls in need. A 14-year-old in Utah organizes programs for a transitional housing facility for veterans. In Nevada, a 15-year-old formed a youth orchestra that performs at senior care facilities and children’s hospitals.

All 102 honorees were awarded a $1,000 scholarship. In light of this year’s unusual circumstances, the students also received $2,500 grants to be directed to a nonprofit of their choice that’s supporting local COVID-19 relief efforts.

“The weekend wasn’t what anyone anticipated for our 25th anniversary celebration when we started planning last year,” says Greg Loder, vice president, Diversity, Inclusion & Impact, and executive director of The Prudential Spirit of Community Initiative. “But we worked hard to make sure the Spirit Class of 2020 could come away with a sense of the bigger-picture value of their service, and connections that can serve and inspire them in the next phases of their lives.”

Since its launch 25 years ago, Spirit of Community has honored more than 2,500 middle and high schoolers as top youth volunteers in their states. In that time, many have gone on to positions of leadership and service. Alumni include CEOs, politicians, an urban farmer, a Miss America and a West Point instructor. And in another first, one alum is the parent of a 2020 honoree: Lauren Lisowe, selected in 1998, is the mother of 12-year-old Braden Lisowe of Arkansas, who shops for, prepares and delivers meals to those in need.

The celebration culminated with Lowrey’s remarks, followed by a virtual visit from actress Kristen Bell. And then the spotlight shone brightly on the young changemakers. “The hardest part of moving from in-person to virtual was that we wouldn’t have the chance to bring the students across the stage,” says Ryan Scott, director, Prudential Productions, Global Communications. So, his crew partnered with the Spirit of Community program team to create a video that featured all 102 honorees and gave every single student and their accomplishments their much-deserved moment in the sun.

For 13-year-old Abigail Panariso from Nevada, the event exceeded her expectations: “This is better than I ever thought it would be, being done virtually,” she wrote in the open chat as the weekend concluded. “Even though we are not in D.C., I cannot dwell on what could have been. Grateful for this weekend.”

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