JUNEAU, Alaska – Teressa Baldwin, 18, of Sitka and Keefer Brown, 13, of Wasilla today were named Alaska’s top two youth volunteers for 2012 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism. Teressa was nominated by Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, and Keefer was nominated by Teeland Middle School in Wasilla. The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, now in its 17th year, is conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).
Teressa, a senior at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, started a nonprofit organization that encourages Alaskan high school student councils and community leaders to implement free suicide prevention programs in their schools. Originally from a village in Alaska’s Arctic region, Teressa has lost several family members and friends to suicide. “A suicide there would affect the whole community, but never was a surprise,” she said. When she moved to Sitka, “I thought I would get away from the enclosed feeling of being face to face with this subject. But I was wrong. This issue affects all corners of Alaska.”
Teressa soon realized that she was not the type of person who could just stand by and watch it happen, so she began sharing the story of how suicide affected her life. Last year, she was appointed by the governor to a statewide suicide prevention council, and then decided to create a program called “Hope4Alaska” that schools can use to educate their students about the warning signs of suicide, and how to help a peer at risk. This program can be implemented through assemblies, retreats or training sessions, and usually includes a community event and a presentation by Teressa. She is currently working with 18 schools and estimates that more than 4,000 Alaskans have benefited from her program so far.
Keefer, a seventh-grader at Teeland Middle School, raised more than $3,500 to help rehabilitate sick and injured seals at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward by making and selling candles and other items decorated with shells and seaweed that he collected on the beach. During a school field trip in 2010, Keefer learned that he could “adopt” an animal at the SeaLife Center for $50. “I chose a harbor seal because I like their playful attitude, soulful eyes and intelligent nature,” he explained.
After discussing the idea with his parents, Keefer raised the $50 by selling candles decorated with items he collected on the beach. “I spend a lot of time during the summer at my grandparents’ cabin in Seldovia and like to walk the beach and collect shells and other items washed up during high tide,” he said. He spoke with many tourists and local residents about his candles and his fundraising goal, and ended up raising $1,300 that first summer. The next summer he sold decorated picture frames, mirrors and wreaths, in addition to candles, earning another $2,300 for the SeaLife Center. To show its appreciation, the center honored Keefer at a gala in Anchorage, and allowed him to name a baby seal and attend the release of two harbor seals into the wild. “It was a great day,” said Keefer, adding that he is now inspired to do even more to “help the declining population of harbor seals.”
As State Honorees, Teressa and Keefer 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 several days of national recognition events. Ten of them will be named America’s top youth volunteers for 2012 at that time.
In addition, the program judges recognized two other Alaska students as Distinguished Finalists or their impressive community service activities. Each will receive an engraved bronze medallion:
Regan Fitzgerald, 18, of Anchorage, Alaska, a senior at West Anchorage High School, collected money to provide more than 200 diapers and pacifiers to moms living at the Clare House, a temporary shelter for abused women and their children. Regan also collected more than 100 toys for children at Clare House, and plans to continue raising funds and awareness to support the project she calls “Promising Pacies.”
Courtney Stroh, 15, of Kenai, Alaska, a sophomore at Kenai Central High School, developed an environmental awareness project known as “R.O.C. the Kenai,” which stands for Respecting Our Community and the Kenai River. Courtney has worked with local environmental and government groups, and local fishermen and residents, to encourage personal efforts and government regulation to keep the Kenai coastline clean of fish remains following summer dip net fishing season.
“Through their selfless acts of service, these award recipients have greatly improved the lives of others,” said Prudential Chairman and CEO John Strangfeld. “We hope their stories and their dedication inspire other young people to do the same.”
“We are so pleased to celebrate these student volunteers,” said JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of NASSP. “It’s important to highlight them as powerful examples of how young people can make a difference.”
About The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards
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 affiliates of HandsOn Network, were eligible to select a student or member for a local Prudential Spirit of Community Award. More than 5,000 Local Honorees were then reviewed by an independent judging panel, which selected State Honorees and Distinguished Finalists based on criteria including personal initiative, creativity, 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, attend a gala awards ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and visit their congressional representatives on Capitol Hill. In addition, 10 of them – five middle level and five high school students – will be named National Honorees on May 7. These honorees will receive additional $5,000 awards, gold medallions, crystal trophies and $5,000 grants from The Prudential Foundation for nonprofit charitable organizations of their choice.
Since the program began in 1995, more than 100,000 young volunteers nationwide have been honored by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards at the local, state or national level. The program also is conducted by Prudential subsidiaries in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Ireland and India. 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 on behalf of President Barack Obama.