Kayla Abramowitz of North Palm Beach, Florida Named One of America’s Top 10 Youth Volunteers of 2016 (Business Wire)

Academy Award-winning actress Hilary Swank congratulates Sydney Hamilton, 17, of Key West (center) and Kayla Abramowitz, 14, of North Palm Beach (right) on being named Florida's top two youth volunteers for 2016 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. Sydney and Kayla were honored at a ceremony on Sunday, May 1 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, where they each received a $1,000 award. (Photo: Zach Harrison Photography) Academy Award-winning actress Hilary Swank congratulates Sydney Hamilton, 17, of Key West (center) and Kayla Abramowitz, 14, of North Palm Beach (right) on being named Florida’s top two youth volunteers for 2016 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. Sydney and Kayla were honored at a ceremony on Sunday, May 1 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, where they each received a $1,000 award. (Photo: Zach Harrison Photography)

WASHINGTON–Kayla Abramowitz, 14, of North Palm Beach, Fla., was named one of America’s top 10 youth volunteers of 2016 today by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards during the program’s 21st annual national award ceremony at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. Selected from a field of more than 29,000 youth volunteers from across the country, Kayla has earned the title of National Honoree, along with a personal award of $5,000, an engraved gold medallion, a crystal trophy for her school, and a $5,000 grant from The Prudential Foundation for a nonprofit charitable organization of her choice.

Also honored this week in Washington, D.C., was Sydney Hamilton, 17, of Key West. Sydney and Kayla were named Florida’s top youth volunteers in February, and were officially recognized last night at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History along with the top two youth volunteers in each other state and the District of Columbia. At that event, each of the 102 State Honorees for 2016 received $1,000 awards as well as personal congratulations from Academy Award-winning actress Hilary Swank. The honorees each also received engraved silver medallions and all-expense-paid trips with a parent to Washington, D.C., for this week’s recognition events.

Kayla, an eighth-grader at Watson B. Duncan Middle School, has collected nearly 10,000 DVDs, books and other items for 81 hospitals and Ronald McDonald Houses in all 50 states through her nonprofit organization, “Kayla Cares 4 Kids.” Kayla, who has juvenile arthritis and Crohn’s disease, knows firsthand how boring hospital stays can be, especially for kids who are hospitalized for long periods. After a two-week stay at a hospital that had a limited DVD selection, Kayla returned home and noticed some old DVDs her family didn’t watch anymore. She asked if she could donate them. “The hospital was so happy to receive just two DVDs from me,” she said. “That’s when I realized I could do much more.”

Kayla set a goal of collecting 100 DVDs for the hospital and went to work. She made a flier and began knocking on doors in her neighborhood. Then she got her Girl Scout troop involved and asked her principal for permission to have a schoolwide collection drive, with a pizza party for the class collecting the most. After the local paper published a story on her project and her parents created a Facebook page for her, the family living room was soon piled high with hundreds of DVDs, books, video games, game consoles and electronic items. She began speaking in front of schools and business groups to promote her organization and was chosen by the Chamber of Commerce as the Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Her new goal is to donate items to every children’s hospital and Ronald McDonald house in the U.S. “I’ve learned that no matter how small something starts out, with enough passion and effort, you can make it bigger than anyone ever dreamed,” Kayla said.

Sydney, a senior at Key West High School, started “Sydney’s Hope Project” two years ago to provide games, supervise craft projects and organize special events to brighten the lives of children undergoing treatment for cancer at the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. Sydney was expected to live only a month or two when she was diagnosed with rare liver cancer before age 2, but after much treatment, was declared cancer-free. “As a 15-year cancer survivor, I have lived and endured the challenges that a child with cancer must overcome to survive,” Sydney said. She was reminded of those challenges two years ago when a young family friend was diagnosed with the same cancer that she had overcome. At that point, Sydney knew she wanted to do something to help young cancer patients.

There is no pediatric oncology unit in the Florida Keys, where Sydney lives, so she decided she would make the eight-hour round trip to Miami to provide fun activities for young cancer patients there. As founder and chairperson of Sydney’s Hope Project, she fundraises through social media, plans a variety of fun activities for the kids, coordinates with hospital staff to schedule a visit about every six weeks, and recruits and trains volunteers to help. In addition, Sydney won a $20,000 grant to implement the “Bravery Beads” program at the hospital, which awards children a special bead for every procedure or event they endure during their treatment. Sydney said her mission is not only to ease the burden borne by pediatric oncology patients, but also to show young people “how each and every one of us has the ability to improve a day in the life of a child with cancer.”

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards is a national youth recognition program sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).

“By using their time and talents to better their communities, these young people have achieved great things – and become examples for us all,” said John Strangfeld, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc. “Congratulations to an exemplary group of honorees.”

“These students have demonstrated a truly remarkable level of leadership and commitment in the course of their volunteer service, and it’s an honor to celebrate their accomplishments,” said Michael Allison, president of NASSP. “We commend each and every one of them for a job well done.”

In addition to Kayla, these are the other 2016 National Honorees:

Connor Archer, 18, of Stillwater, Maine, a senior at Old Town High School, works to educate the public about autism and the challenges faced by people with autism like himself, and has raised more than $12,000 for organizations that help people with special needs.

Grace Davis, 11, of Louisville, Ky., a fifth-grader at Greathouse Shryock Traditional Elementary School, has helped raise more than $140,000 over the past four years to care for babies born prematurely by distributing piggy banks to students in her community and encouraging them to fill them up.

Maria Keller, 15, of Plymouth, Minn., a sophomore at Orono High School, founded a nonprofit called “Read Indeed” when she was 8 years old, and has since collected more than 1.7 million books for children in need in 50 states and 17 other countries.

James Lea, 17, of Las Vegas, Nev., a junior at Faith Lutheran Middle School and High School, helps brighten the holiday season for children who have recently lost a parent by surprising their families with an anonymous gift each day for 12 days, tied to the theme of the song “12 Days of Christmas.”

Jungin Angie Lee, 17, of Naperville, Ill., a junior at Metea Valley High School, co-founded a nonprofit organization that has generated nearly $200,000 over the past nine years through annual fundraising events to help find a cure for her rare neuromuscular disease.

Zachary Rice, 13, of Long Valley, N.J., an eighth-grader at Long Valley Middle School, initiated an annual 5K run/walk that has raised more than $50,000 over the past three years to provide gaming systems and other fun distractions for young patients at Goryeb Children’s Hospital in Morristown.

Jackson Silverman, 10, of Charleston, S.C., a fifth-grader at Advanced Studies Magnet-Haut Gap Middle School, persuaded a local food bank to let him start a youth volunteer program there in 2013 that has by now packed more than 14,000 weekend lunch bags for kids in need.

Clare Szalkowski, 10, of Dubuque, Iowa, a fifth-grader at Hoover Elementary School, started “Clare Cares” over two years ago to “build friendships and make our community a better place” by organizing projects that benefit bullied children, homeless and hungry people, and others in need of assistance.

Alisha Zhao, 17, of Portland, Ore., a junior at Lincoln High School, created a club at her school to provide services to local homeless people, and then founded a nonprofit organization called “Kids First Project” to expand her efforts and focus on the needs of homeless youth.

The distinguished selection committee that chose the National Honorees was chaired by Strangfeld and included Allison of NASSP; Andrea Bastiani Archibald, chief girl expert for Girl Scouts of the USA; Robert Bisi, senior public affairs manager for the Corporation for National and Community Service; Tracy Hoover, president of Points of Light; Reneé Jackson, senior manager of education programs at the National PTA; Maxine Margaritis, vice president of volunteer services for the American Red Cross; Peggy McLeod, Ed.D., deputy vice president, education and workforce development at the National Council of La Raza; Dru Tomlin, director of middle level services for the Association for Middle Level Education; Frederick J. Riley, national director, urban & youth development at YMCA of the USA; and two 2015 National Honorees: AJ Mattia of Washington Township, N.J., a sophomore at Holy Cross Academy, and Morlan Osgood of Loveland, Ohio, a senior at Loveland High School.

Youth volunteers in grades 5-12 were invited to apply for 2016 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.

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 21 years, the program has honored more than 115,000 young volunteers at the local, state and national level.

For more information about The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards and this year’s honorees, visit http://spirit.prudential.com or www.nassp.org/spirit.

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