NEW JERSEY – New Jersey’s top two youth volunteers of 2020, Isobel Costello, 18, of Andover and Darius Brown, 13, of Newark, were recognized this past 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, Isobel and Darius – 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 New Jersey’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 Isobel and Darius New Jersey’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,” Charles Lowrey, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial said. “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, Isobel and Darius 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,” Bartoletti said. “At a time when everyone is looking for optimism, these students are a bright light for their peers and the adults in their lives.”
Costello, a senior at Newton High School, sends home bags of weekend food and hygiene items with more than a hundred elementary and middle schoolers in need at seven Sussex County schools, providing more than 10,000 meals last year alone. In the fall of 2016, when she was a freshman, she heard kids at school talking about not having food or basic items on the weekends, when they didn’t have access to free meals at school. “The issue of juvenile food insufficiency is important because it is extremely hard to educate a student with an empty stomach who is not comfortable or focused enough to learn,” Costello said.
With help from her mother and sisters and permission from her school district, Costello started providing 28 children with food bags filled with items that she and her family shopped for and then packed at home. As more children were identified by a school liaison, it became clear that she needed help. So she formed a nonprofit called “The Weekend Bag Program Inc.,” recruited student and adult volunteers to join her, and found a permanent space to store and pack food bags. She also established relationships with churches, scout troops, 4-H clubs and community organizations to help collect donations and raise money. On average, she spends about 15 hours a week on her program. After she and fellow volunteers pack the bags, she delivers them to the schools participating in the program, which then distribute them anonymously to children who might otherwise go hungry.
Brown, a seventh-grader at North Star Academy, is the founder of “Beaux & Paws,” an initiative through which he has helped hundreds of dogs find loving homes by making stylish bow ties for them, donating these handmade creations to animal shelters across the country and in the United Kingdom, and promoting dressed-up dogs on his social media accounts. When he was 8, who was born with speech, fine motor skills and comprehension delay, began working to develop his motor skills by cutting fabric for the hair bows his older sister was making. “I discovered my love for fashion and started making bow ties for myself,” he said. Then, after he heard about all the dogs that were displaced and sent to shelters in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017, “I decided to use my passion for making bow ties to help dogs look cute and dapper so they are more likely to get adopted faster,” Brown said.
Brown began making canine bow ties and donating them to an ASPCA shelter. He also posted pictures of shelter dogs wearing his bow ties on his Instagram page, which now has more than 50,000 followers. As his project expanded, he founded an initiative called “PAW-SOME MISSION,” raised funds online to cover expenses, and started shipping his bow ties to animal shelters all over the country. Darius also has visited shelters in seven states to help with adoption events. He figures his efforts have made it possible to find permanent homes for hundreds of dogs that might otherwise have been euthanized. “Dogs deserve to live a good life and be happy and loved, just as humans [do],” he said.
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, click here.