More than a handful of Indian American and South Asian American kids from numerous states were named by Prudential Financial Inc. among the 102 State Honorees for the 2019 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards as Top Youth Volunteers.
Prudential said that the honorees — two from each state and the District of Columbia — are supporting people with disabilities; kids experiencing homelessness; communities affected by Hurricane Harvey; a few have made it their mission to focus attention on teen mental health; and others are raising money and awareness to help children with cancer.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards is a nationwide program honoring students in grades 5 to 12 for outstanding volunteer service.
Among the state honorees are Anishka Perera of Torrington, Connecticut; Anish Bikmal of Cumming, Georgia; Pranav Rajan of Lincoln, Nebraska; Jothi Ramaswamy of Mohegan Lake, New York; Simona Adhikari of Charlotte, North Carolina; Ishika Gupta of Fargo, North Dakota; and Mehr Grewal of Bellevue, Washington.
Perera, an eighth-grader at Talcott Mountain Academy of Science, Mathematics & Technology, collected supplies to make 150 entertainment packages to brighten the days of children undergoing treatment for cancer in a Sri Lankan hospital. During a 2016 visit to Sri Lanka, where his parents were born, Perera visited a government-run hospital that provides free care for the country's poor. In the children's ward, he noticed that there weren't many things to keep young patients entertained during long hospital stays. "I was saddened to see children waiting around for their treatment without much to occupy them," said the youngster, according to a news release.
When he returned home, Perera began asking friends and acquaintances for donations of items such as coloring books, crayons, pencils, puzzles, board games and Play-Doh. Once the donations started coming in, Perera categorized them by age level and started assembling his packages with the help of volunteers.
Last August, he shipped the packages to Sri Lanka and then traveled again to the cancer hospital to distribute them. When he returned home, he posted a video on his website to update the more than 100 donors and volunteers who had participated in his project. Perera said he plans on delivering more entertainment packages and would like to take on more projects to help sick children in Sri Lanka.
Bikmal, a senior at South Forsyth High School, co-founded a nonprofit organization that operates a tutoring academy for local students, and uses the proceeds to benefit charities in India serving subsistence farmers, hungry children and people with cataracts.
On a visit to India several years ago, the 17-year-old had the chance to meet farmers near Mumbai who work 70 hours a week but use agricultural techniques that can damage soil quality and produce harvests too meager to adequately support their families, he said, according to the news release.
"I wanted to help, but how?" he wondered, and then concluded: "Although I can't educate the farmers directly, I can educate students in my local community and then, using the profits from tutoring, I can educate farmers indirectly."
Bikmal and his older brother recruited other high school students to join them in providing academic assistance in a variety of subjects to kids in grades 3-12 through weekly classes, summer camps, motivational talks, college counseling and mentoring relationships. Since then, three branches of their "Motivate and Inspire" academy have taken root, and more than $50,000 has been donated to philanthropic organizations in India to educate and provide tools to 104 farmers, serve approximately 30,000 meals to children in need and pay for 44 cataract surgeries.
As the current president, Bikmal delegates tasks to the academy's tutors, organizes events, manages advertising and finances, and conducts four classes a week himself.
Rajan, 16, a junior at Lincoln East High School, co-founded a statewide organization that gives high school students the chance to combine volunteer service with experiential learning by working on computer-based technology projects for community organizations.
When he was in ninth grade, the Indian American began to question the usefulness of what he was learning in school. He concluded that learning by doing, rather than just studying, would be much more effective, the release noted.
"When students realize the real-life applications of the concepts learned in school, they begin to show interest and take initiative," he said. Rajan also reasoned that if his peers could work on educational projects for local nonprofits and other organizations, both the students and society would benefit, it said.
After many conversations with fellow students and his geography teacher, Rajan found four nearby organizations that needed help solving technological issues, and then assembled teams of high school students to work on them.
Over time, Rajan forged partnerships with other organizations, enlisted the support of two university he and two school district administrators, and recruited more than 50 students to participate in projects. These have included developing an application to reduce doctors' stress levels for a health nonprofit, creating a database for a student-loan concern, building a website for an entrepreneurship organization, and designing an automated data process for an analytics company, it said.
With projects now all over Nebraska, Rajan’s "CodeForChange" organization is starting to take root in California and New Jersey, as well, it added.
Ramaswamy, 17, a senior at Lakeland High School, has partnered with corporations and universities to conduct more than 45 technology workshops for girls in grades 3-12, while connecting them to female role models who have had successful careers in science, tech, engineering and math.
"Thirty-three boys. Zero girls. My jaw dropped," she said, when her brother mentioned the gender ratio of his computer coding class, the release noted.
She knew firsthand how valuable those skills are, because her mother, an engineer, had been able to step back into her career and support the family after the death of her father.
"It fired up my determination to even the playing field," she said. Her response was to start a nonprofit organization called "ThinkSTEAM," with an "a" for "arts" added to STEM subjects.
"I realized that so many girls are incredibly artistic and teaching them how to combine their own creativity with technology is the perfect way to encourage them to learn about STEM," Ramaswamy said in the release.
After creating a website and assembling a board of directors, she asked IBM to help her host a wearable technology workshop to show girls the intersection of technology and fashion.
It was so successful that she collaborated with her school district to put on an all-day series of workshops for 75 middle school girls, the release noted.
So far, Ramaswamy has organized more than 45 workshops in partnership with companies such as Facebook, Amazon and Google, as well as with Columbia and Stanford universities. She also has conducted an annual contest inviting girls in five countries to create videos that encourage girls to pursue STEAM subjects, it said.
ThinkSTEAM now has student ambassadors organizing workshops for girls in eight states. In total, Ramaswamy estimates that her organization has engaged more than 1,000 girls, according to Prudential.
Adhikari, 16, a junior at Ardrey Kell High School, taught 24 girls in rural Nepal to make bracelets, and then sold them in the U.S. and United Kingdom to raise more than $6,000 for the girls and their small village.
On a trip to Nepal with her mother four years ago, Adhikari spent some time in a school and witnessed the stark differences in the way many girls and boys are treated in that country.
"In rural Nepal, more time, more money and more energy is placed on boys," she explained in the release. "Many girls drop out of school by the 10th grade, marry young and start families, and end up having limited educational opportunities."
Although she was only 12 at the time, she wanted to do something to help the girls she met at the school. "I felt that with just a little encouragement and instruction, that maybe I could somehow change the course of their lives, even if it was just by a little bit," she added.
Because she was very interested in jewelry, Adhikari organized a one-day session to show 24 girls how to make wrap bracelets with local beads and buttons. After she returned home, she arranged to have friends or family members who were traveling to Nepal bring back batches of bracelets made by the girls, the release said.
Adhikari then sold them at conventions and found a vendor who agreed to sell them at craft fairs across the U.S. Proceeds from the sale of 400 bracelets went back to the girls in Nepal, who used the money to pay for tutoring, invest in small businesses, contribute to their households or just save for the future.
With a little extra profit, she bought solar lamps for a neighboring village in Nepal, created a school library and purchased a loom for women to make sweaters.
Gupta, 17, a senior at Davies High School, started a nonprofit organization two years ago that donates bassinets for babies whose families lack a secure place for them to sleep.
While volunteering at the American Indian Resource Center, Gupta met a young mother with a son who was born eight weeks prematurely and did not have a safe place of his own to sleep. "He was pale and barely moving," said Gupta, who also was a premature infant. "I thought of my own bassinet, how it kept me warm, safe, and healthy." As a volunteer at the center, she had visited several Native American reservations and from conversations with center staff knew that the rate of sudden infant death syndrome was higher than average in this population and was sometimes due to unsafe sleeping arrangements, the release said.
So Gupta began researching the issue and decided to create "Cradle Me Care" to try and reduce infant mortality in her state. After gaining nonprofit status, she developed a website, began organizing fundraisers such as raffles and door-to-door appeals, applied for grants, contacted the media to promote her events, and developed relationships with local healthcare and social services agencies for referrals, it said.
So far, she has purchased more than 100 bassinets and distributed them to organizations that help parents in need in two states and three tribal communities. In addition to her bassinet project, Gupta continues to be an active volunteer at the American Indian Resource Center, where she helped organize and lead a summit on disparities in tribal oral health, it said. She also has helped monitor and analyze local, state and federal policies that impact the health of Native Americans.
Grewal, 11, a sixth-grader at Odle Middle School, has volunteered with a Seattle charitable organization for the past four years, and during that time has initiated campaigns to promote correct hand-washing and healthy eating, and assisted in the group's semiannual health camps, according to Prudential.
When a recent flu epidemic was sweeping the country, Grewal asked herself: "What can we do to prevent this?" With some research, she learned that hand-washing was the most effective way. "This simple measure could actually save lives!" she said in the release.
So she began making presentations about the importance of hand hygiene at schools and community centers, and demonstrating the proper technique for washing hands. "My goal," she said, "is to put across the simple message that hand-washing is like a do-it-yourself vaccine, which can protect the vulnerable from getting disease." Grewal also is working with an infectious disease physician to observe hand-hygiene compliance at a hospital in Detroit, it said.
In addition, Grewal started a nutritional counseling program and enlisted the support of a nutritionist to educate people about healthy diet options, and provide individualized meal plans tailored to their specific health conditions.
She makes posters and brochures for the program, distributes meal plans and other resources, and translates into Hindi and Punjab if necessary, the release added.
She also helps out at a food bank and participates in blanket and clothing drives in the winter.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, now in its 24th year, is conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Each of the 102 State Honorees will receive $1,000, an engraved silver medallion and an all-expense-paid trip in early May to Washington, D.C., for four days of national recognition events. During the trip, 10 of the State Honorees – five middle level and five high school students – will be named America's top youth volunteers of 2019. Each of these National Honorees will receive a $5,000 award; a gold medallion; a crystal trophy for their nominating school or organization; and a $5,000 Prudential Foundation grant for a nonprofit charitable organization of their choice.
In addition to the State Honorees, the program's judges recognized 234 students nationwide, several of whom are Indian American or South Asian American, as Distinguished Finalists for their impressive community service activities. Each will receive an engraved bronze medallion. More than 450 other applicants were awarded Certificates of Excellence for their volunteer work, Prudential said in its release.
"These young volunteers learned and demonstrated that they can make meaningful contributions to individuals and communities through their service," said Prudential CEO Charles Lowrey in a statement. "It's an honor to recognize their great work, and we hope that shining a spotlight on their service inspires others to consider how they might make a difference."
Added JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of NASSP: "Each of these honorees is proof that students have the energy, creativity and unique perspectives to create positive change. We commend each of the 2019 honorees for their outstanding volunteer service, and for the invaluable example they've set for their peers."
Since the program began in 1995, more than 125,000 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, the company said.