NEW JERSEY – Isobel Costello, 17, of Andover and Darius Brown, 13, of Newark today were named New Jersey’s top two youth volunteers of 2020 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism. As State Honorees, Isobel and Darius each will receive $1,000, an engraved silver medallion and an all-expense-paid trip in early May to Washington, D.C., where they will join the top two honorees from each of the other states and the District of Columbia for four days of national recognition events. During the trip, 10 students will be named America’s top youth volunteers of 2020.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, now in its 25th year, is conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).
These are New Jersey’s top youth volunteers of 2020:
High School State Honoree: Isobel Costello
Nominated by Newton High School
Isobel, 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, Isobel 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,” said Isobel.
With help from her mother and sisters and permission from her school district, Isobel started providing 10 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, Isobel spends about 15 hours a week on her project. 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.
Middle Level State Honoree: Darius Brown
Nominated by North Star Academy
Darius, a seventh-grader at North Star Academy, 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, Darius, 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 that they are more likely to be adopted, he said.
Darius 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 “Beaux & Paws,” 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 six 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. “Animals should not be treated any less than humans,” he said. “We all deserve to live a good life and be happy and loved.”
The program judges also recognized six other New Jersey students as Distinguished Finalists for their impressive community service activities. Each will receive an engraved bronze medallion.
These are New Jersey’s Distinguished Finalists for 2020:
Anna Marina Accumanno, 18, of East Hanover, New Jersey, a senior at Hanover Park High School, has volunteered hundreds of hours working with children with special needs, spending summers working with Hanover Park’s Extended Year Program and, during the school year, spending one morning each week working at a special education school. As a volunteer, Anna observes and records students’ milestones and setbacks, helps reinforce lessons and helps students gain independence.
Emily Averbach, 18, of Short Hills, New Jersey, a senior at Winston Preparatory School, started “Help For The Homeless,” a project that supports people experiencing homelessness; she has collected and distributed more than 7,000 travel-sized toiletries, 600 pairs of socks and nearly 600 sack lunches and snacks. Emily has recruited more than 200 people to help collect and assemble hygiene kits, and runs a social media account to raise awareness of homelessness.
Kylie Balish, 12, of Bridgewater, New Jersey, a seventh-grader at Immaculate Conception School, started “Kylie’s Kids,” a nonprofit organization that holds special events including a “Kings and Queens Gala Ball,” as well as fashion and talent shows, for children with special needs. To raise money and awareness for her cause, which has benefitted more than 20 children, Kylie sells chips and candy, partners with local businesses and held a fundraising run/walk.
Irene Hwang, 17, of Ramsey, New Jersey, a senior at Bergen County Academies, regularly volunteers her time to One2One, a nonprofit organization that offers language classes and community services to the Hispanic population in Nyack, New York; she gives English lessons to small groups on a weekly basis featuring information about immigrant rights. Though lessons are primarily conducted in English, Irene uses skills from her advanced Spanish class to explain key concepts in her students’ native language.
Oliver Simon, 18, of Morristown, New Jersey, a senior at Morristown-Beard School, is the co-founder of “Extra Helpings Delivered,” through which he helps make and deliver more than 100 meals per month for senior citizens experiencing food insecurity; he also helps coordinate efforts, recruit and train volunteers and run social media accounts to increase awareness of his cause. Oliver, whose family regularly delivers meals at Thanksgiving, started this project after realizing the recipients could use support year-round.
Amanda Zheng, 18, of Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, a senior at Union County Magnet High School, volunteers with STEM You Can!, a nonprofit organization that offers free STEM-related camps to girls; she designed and ran two summer STEM camps, which involved securing grant funding, partnering with a library to secure event space, designing a curriculum and learning materials, and recruiting other volunteers. Amanda also serves as a director of school partnerships, providing STEM-related curricula to local schools.
“In our 25th year of honoring young volunteers, we are as inspired as ever by the work students are doing to address the needs of a changing world,” said Charles Lowrey, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc. “We hope that their resolve, their initiative and their perspectives on society’s challenges move others to consider how they can make a difference, too.”
“Middle level and high school students are doing remarkable things to shape the future of their communities through volunteer service. They inspire all students and schools to drive learning with real-world challenges,” said JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of NASSP. “Congratulations to each of the 2020 honorees – it’s an honor to celebrate your commitment to creating positive change.”
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards represents the United States’ largest youth recognition program based solely on volunteer service. All public and private middle level and high schools in the country, as well as all Girl Scout councils, county 4-H organizations, American Red Cross chapters, YMCAs and Points of Light Global Network members, were eligible to select a student or member for a local Prudential Spirit of Community Award. These Local Honorees were then reviewed by an independent judging panel, which selected State Honorees and Distinguished Finalists based on criteria including personal initiative, effort, impact and personal growth.
While in Washington, D.C., the 102 State Honorees – one middle level and one high school student from each state and the District of Columbia – will tour the capital’s landmarks, meet top youth volunteers from other parts of the world, attend a gala awards ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and visit their congressional representatives on Capitol Hill. On May 4, 10 of the State Honorees – five middle level and five high school students – will be named America’s top youth volunteers of 2020. These National Honorees will receive additional $5,000 scholarships, gold medallions, crystal trophies and $5,000 grants from Prudential for nonprofit charitable organizations of their choice.
Since the program began in 1995, more than 130,000 young volunteers have been honored at the local, state and national level. The program also is conducted by Prudential subsidiaries in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Ireland, India, China and Brazil. In addition to granting its own awards, The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program also distributes President’s Volunteer Service Awards to qualifying Local Honorees.