For a special community-focused group of students meeting in the nation’s capital and chosen from a pool of thousands of entrants, May 4, 2015, marked the culmination of a four-day celebration of their commitment to service. That celebration concluded with 10 students ranging in age from 12 to 18 honored in a special ceremony in Washington, D.C., for their public service and exceptional displays of volunteerism.

These 10 students were selected from a narrowed group of 102 finalists-one middle school student and one high school student from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. All 102 finalists participated in several days of special recognition events. Each finalist also received a $1,000 award.

A Rigorous Selection Process

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program was created in 1995 through a partnership between Prudential and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) with the intent of honoring middle and high school students for exceptional service to their communities at the local, state, and national levels. Today, the program is the largest youth recognition program in the country that is based exclusively on volunteer community service.

The selection committee that chose the National Honorees was chaired by John Strangfeld, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc. The committee included a number of distinguished members: NASSP’s 2014-15 president, G.A. Buie; Andrea Bastiani Archibald, chief girl expert for Girl Scouts of the USA; Robert Bisi, senior public affairs manager for the Corporation for National and Community Service; Tracy Hoover, president of Points of Light; Reneé Jackson, senior manager of education programs at the National PTA; Maxine Margaritis, vice president of volunteer services for the American Red Cross; Delia Pompa, senior vice president for programs at the National Council of La Raza; Jennifer Sirangelo, president and CEO of the National 4-H Council; Dru Tomlin, director of middle level services for the Association for Middle Level Education; and Kevin Washington, president and CEO of YMCA of the USA.

The committee also included two 2014 National Honorees: Sean Egan of Staten Island, NY, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, and Kinsey Morrison of Goshen, KY, a freshman at Stanford University.

Leadership, Compassion, and Perseverance

The size of the pool of participants is a true testament to the public spirit shared by so many of America’s youth.

“As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, we are delighted to recognize the 2015 honorees for their exemplary volunteer service,” says John Strangfeld, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc. “These young people have demonstrated leadership, compassion, and perseverance, and we look forward to seeing all they accomplish in the future.”

The program’s stated goals are to celebrate young people who, even at an early age, are making a true difference in their communities and inspiring others to put service to their neighborhoods, towns, cities, states, and nation at the top of their minds. Over the past 20 years, more than 370,000 young Americans have participated in the program, and more than 115,000 of them have been officially recognized for their volunteer efforts.

Each year the program names 10 national honorees as America’s top youth volunteers. This year’s state honoree finalists were selected from a field of over 33,000 middle and high school student volunteers. The selection criteria included factors such as initiative, effort, impact, and the personal growth demonstrated in the course of the honorees’ volunteer service.

While only a few students move on to state, and eventually national recognition, each student’s contribution has the potential to positively impact the lives of others.

A Wide Range of Innovative Civic Support

The top 10 finalists chosen for 2015 demonstrated an impressive array of ideas put into action to make an impact on their communities. Here’s a look at the students and their contributions:

  • Jake Gallin, 13, of New Rochelle, NY, a seventh grader at Albert Leonard Middle School, founded an organization called “Stars for Cars.” He has raised more than $12,000 for the United Service Organization (USO) by selling star-shaped magnetic car decals that honor families of soldiers who have served in the U.S. armed forces.
  • Raghav Ganesh, 13, of San Jose, CA, a seventh grader at Joaquin Miller Middle School, designed and built a device that uses sensors to detect objects beyond the reach of the white canes used by many visually impaired people.
  • Carolina Gonzalez, 18, of Coral Gables, FL, a senior at Our Lady of Lourdes Academy in Miami, started a nonprofit organization that has helped more than 500 undocumented young immigrants apply for temporary residence and employment in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. In addition, the organization has raised more than $22,000 to pay the application fees of those who cannot afford them.
  • Eric Li, 14, of Manvel, TX, an eighth grader at Pearland Junior High West, founded a nonprofit organization with his siblings that has collected nearly $200,000 in cash and in-kind donations to help children around the world recover from major disasters.
  • Arturo (AJ) Mattia, 15, of Turnersville, NJ, a freshman at Holy Cross Academy, survived bone cancer and a leg amputation to become a prominent champion for pediatric cancer awareness and fundraising.
  • Morlan Osgood, 16, of Loveland, OH, a junior at Loveland High School, co-founded an educational program that has helped more than 14,000 students in grades 2-12 develop their interest and skills in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) through summer camps, after-school classes, conference workshops, and other activities.
  • Samantha Petersen, 18, of South Windsor, CT, a home-schooled senior, founded a nonprofit organization that disseminates information about scoliosis, screens children in low-income communities for the disease, and offers emotional support to those undergoing corrective surgery.
  • Elizabeth Quesenberry, 17, of Wilmington, DE, a senior at Padua Academy High School, overcame a diagnosis of brain cancer to start a nonprofit organization that has raised $100,000 over the past six years to increase awareness of childhood cancer, help fund the search for a cure, and ease the financial pressure on families of young cancer patients.
  • Carter Ries, 14, of Fayetteville, GA, an eighth grader at Konos Academy, created a weeklong educational curriculum with his younger sister that is teaching kids about the importance of reducing plastic pollution.
  • Caleb White, 12, of Commerce Township, MI, a seventh grader at Clifford H. Smart Middle School, hands out boxes of food, toiletries, and warm garments to the homeless on the streets of Detroit each year during the Christmas season. Last August he threw a back-to-school party that provided 800 children in need with backpacks stuffed with new school supplies.  

“These honorees represent the best of what America’s youth has to offer,” says G.A. Buie, 2014-15 president of NASSP. “They have set a powerful example for their peers by proving that one young person really can make a difference, and it is a privilege to shine a spotlight on their good works.”

Generation Z certainly seems poised to make a positive impact on their communities, and Prudential is helping to guide them along the way. Already students around the country are likely coming up with their ideas for next year’s Spirit of Community Awards. We’re looking forward to seeing what they come up with! —

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.  

Learn more about applying for the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards at