Rhode Island's top two youth volunteers of 2019, Kierra Giarrusso, 18, of Exeter and Emily Raimondi, 11, of Cumberland, 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.
Kierra and Emily – 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 Kierra and Emily Rhode Island'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.
Kierra, a senior at Exeter-West Greenwich Regional High School, worked with a classmate to develop a week-long summer educational program that enabled 30 elementary school students to learn basic science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) concepts by conducting fun experiments.
Kierra struggled with math when she was in elementary school, and recognized that she needed to work on her skills during the summer as well as during the school year. "I was always assigned summer reading projects, but never math," she said. "Students need to engage in programs during the summer to support the retention of math and science information, as well as reading."
So in March 2018, Kierra set out to address that issue by starting the first STEAM summer program in the Exeter-West Greenwich area. With the help of her classmate, she researched similar programs in other places, drafted a curriculum, and tested experiments to use in her program. Within one week of distributing registration forms, 30 kids in second to fourth grade had signed up, filling all of the available slots.
Once the program began last August, high school students and a teacher recruited by Kierra helped supervise hands-on activities that employed things such as sugar crystals, lava lamps, salt painting, an egg drop and a car engineering challenge to teach the young attendees STEAM concepts. It was truly rewarding, said Kierra, "to see their eyes light up with delight when they understood the concepts." She plans to offer two sessions of her program next year, along with a nighttime session for older students, and already has a waiting list of interested participants.
Emily, a fifth-grader at Garvin Memorial School, collects gifts for kids from low-income families and for homeless pets in an animal shelter, and has raised nearly $10,000 over the past four years for people with spinal cord injuries.
At Christmastime, instead of exchanging gifts with family and friends, Emily hosts a party for the Toys for Tots program, which distributes toys to children whose parents cannot afford to buy them Christmas presents. And then, on her birthday, she throws another party and asks friends to bring donations of pet food and pet toys, instead of gifts for her. "I bring all of the donations to the animal shelter, which is always so much fun because I love going to see all the dogs and cats and knowing that they will be happier," said Emily.
But Emily's biggest project is raising money for the Travis Roy Foundation, established by a Boston University hockey player who was paralyzed from the neck down 11 seconds into his first game. "I was in an accident and my neck hurt and I was scared I was going to be like Travis," she said. "Everything was OK, but I wanted to be sure that people who had spinal cord injuries would get the help they needed."
To raise funds, Emily sells cakes that she bakes from scratch and decorates. She also hosts skating events and board-breaking karate parties, and publicizes these activities by speaking to classes at her school and making Facebook videos explaining spinal cord injuries. "Through community service I learned that I can do many kind things, and that it means a lot to other people, and that makes me happy," said Emily.
"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.
For more information about The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards and this year's honorees, visit http://spirit.prudential.com or www.nassp.org/spirit.
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