Two local students recently received awards presented by Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps for their outstanding volunteer service.
During the 22nd annual Prudential Spirit of Community Awards at the National Museum of Natural History on Sunday, May 7, Ayomide Okuleye, 17, and Debora Abera, 11, along with 100 other top youth volunteers from across the country, each received $1,000 awards for their efforts to help others.
Ayomide, a senior at School Without Walls Senior High School in Northwest, started a club at her school that provided hygiene supplies and winter clothing to homeless people in its first year. The club dedicates itself to addressing a different social issue each year.
Ayomide became passionate about volunteering while working with a nonprofit that teaches students how to cook, as well as how to teach cooking skills to others.
“That experience empowered me to help people in many ways,” she said.
Her time there led her to want to start her own service project. After discussing issues that affect the African-American community, Ayomide decided to create a school club called Black Teen Alliance.
“When a problem arises in your community, people should ban together and try to find a way to mitigate or solve the issue,” she explained.
As fellow students came together to participate in Ayomide’s club, they talked at length about problems they wanted to solve and decided to focus initially on homelessness.
Ayomide gave presentations about their plan at school assemblies, set up a fundraising website, and coordinated events in which club members sold milkshakes, waffles, pizzas and cotton candy.
They used the $1,000 proceeds to assemble 100 health care bags for a homeless coalition in Washington. The club also conducted a winter clothing drive for the coalition.
Debora, a sixth-grader at St. Augustine Catholic School in Northwest, said she firmly believes in the power of volunteerism.
“When we volunteer our time, money or talents, we help make our planet a better, happier home where people work together to make life easier for all,” she said. “Also, I do it because it makes me feel good.”
Debora first got involved in volunteering by reading to children at her school and sorting books in the library.
“I always loved when someone read to me when I was little,” she said. “The love I have for reading emanates from that experience.”
She also found it particularly meaningful to volunteer at an annual Thanksgiving feast for nearly 5,000 community members, where she served beverages to homeless people.
“It was a humbling experience to see the smiling faces of people who were very grateful for a Thanksgiving meal,” Debora said.
Created in 1995, the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program identifies and recognizes young people for outstanding volunteer service and inspire others to do the same.
In the past 22 years, the program has honored more than 120,000 young volunteers at the local, state and national level.
“These honorees have done exemplary work to contribute to the health and vitality of their communities, and we look forward to seeing the great things they achieve in the future,” said John Strangfeld, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc. “Congratulations to each of these extraordinary young volunteers.”
Youth volunteers in grades 5-12 received invitations to apply for the 2017 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards last fall through schools, Girl Scout councils, county 4-H organizations, American Red Cross chapters, YMCAs and affiliates of the HandsOn Network.
More than 31,000 middle and high school students nationwide participated in this year’s program.
“It’s a privilege to celebrate these students not only for outstanding volunteer service, but for the example they’ve set for their peers,” said Jayne Ellspermann, president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “These honorees prove that one person truly can make a difference.”