Illinois’ Top Youth Volunteers Of 2019 Selected By National Program

Illinois’ Top Youth Volunteers Of 2019 Selected By National Program

SPRINGFIELD, Ill., Feb. 5, 2019 /PRNewswire/ — Aja Capel, 15, of Urbana and Delaney Hall, 12, of Lebanon today were named Illinois’ top two youth volunteers of 2019 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism. As State Honorees, Aja and Delaney 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 2019. 

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 (NASSP).

These are Illinois’ top youth volunteers of 2019:

High School State Honoree: Aja Capel

Nominated by Champaign County 4-H

Aja, a junior at Urbana High School, serves as the lead robotics instructor at a local science museum and has launched an initiative to give minority students more opportunities to learn about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). As a little girl, Aja loved to take things apart. “Nothing in my house was safe,” she said. “My parents enrolled me in robotics at the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum at the age of 4, so I would take other people’s stuff apart.” Born with dyslexia and other learning challenges, Aja found that STEM subjects were a good match for her learning style, and she quickly excelled.

Aja’s teaching prowess and leadership skills were put to the test when the lead instructor failed to show up one day at her robotics class at the science museum. She volunteered to take over and was soon promoted to the job. But “as an African American girl, I was disheartened I was not teaching many kids who looked like me,” she said. When she learned more about the racial and gender gaps in STEM education, she became angry and determined to change things. She went to work applying for grants and creating partnerships with groups in her community. She won a $500 grant to teach a two-day drone-building workshop for 14 African American students, and later secured a $3,300 grant to put on two computer programming camps for 48 minority girls. In addition to amassing more than 250 teaching hours in her robotics class at the museum, Aja has started four robotics teams as a 4-H STEM ambassador and hosted 14 computer coding events as a teen leader in a national 4-H Google coding initiative. She estimated that she has had an impact on 200 young minority students and provided them with more than 880 hours of hands-on STEM exposure and experience.       

Middle Level State Honoree: Delaney Hall

Nominated by Amelia V. Carriel Jr. High School

Delaney, a seventh-grader at Amelia V. Carriel Jr. High School, has held donation drives for a variety of charities to celebrate her birthday over the past five years. When her mother asked Delaney what she wanted for her eighth birthday, she said she “wanted to help dogs” because she had been inspired by a family friend who volunteered for an animal shelter. So Delaney asked her birthday party guests that year to bring pet food and supplies for Gateway Pet Guardians in nearby St. Louis. “It felt so great when I delivered all the food and supplies that I decided to do it again,” she said. Only the next year, and every year since, Delaney picked a different charity to devote her birthday to. “I feel like every year the charity I donated to needs the stuff more than me,” she said.

Each year, Delaney researches local nonprofits, selects one with the help of her mother, and then contacts the organization to learn about its specific needs. One year she collected fabric that was made into blankets for a children’s hospital. One year she collected more than 2,000 pairs of shoes to help pay for a well in India. For another birthday, Delaney picked a shelter for homeless pregnant women to support. And last year, she spent seven months raising more than $5,500 to make and purchase games and toys for abused and neglected children staying at a nearby residential facility, by planning a “hat day” at school, hosting a trivia night and silent auction, and clearing tables at restaurant fundraisers. “It makes me feel good to know that I am making a difference in someone’s life,” said Delaney.    

Distinguished Finalists

The program judges also recognized eight other Illinois students as Distinguished Finalists for their impressive community service activities. Each will receive an engraved bronze medallion.

These are Illinois’ Distinguished Finalists for 2019:

Sophie Draluck, 16, of Highland Park, Ill., a junior at Highland Park High School, founded a charitable organization that has collected in-kind and cash donations to provide more than 21,000 tampons and sanitary napkins to women and girls in need through food pantries, shelters and other nonprofits. She also has motivated several schools to provide free sanitary products in their restrooms.

Allison Dyer, 18, of Swansea, Ill., a senior at Belleville Township High School East, organized an annual banquet that has raised more than $27,000 over the past three years for three local charities that serve people in need. To ensure that her “Blessing Belleville” initiative continues after she graduates, Allison taught two freshman girls how to plan and manage similar events.

Gabriella Frank, 15, of Downers Grove, Ill., a freshman at Downers Grove North High School, has distributed more than 2,500 bags of toiletries over the past eight years to homeless people and hurricane victims, and collected 5,000 books and hundreds of pounds of school supplies for schools in the Caribbean. She also collects items for a food pantry and an animal shelter each month.

Karen Ge, 17, of Lisle, Ill., a senior at Naperville North High School, started a free tutoring service that helps students prepare for SAT, ACT and Cognitive Abilities tests through one-on-one tutoring, practice sessions, workshops and online initiatives. Her “Aquahouse Tutoring” organization also has launched an annual mathematics tournament for middle school students, and sent tutors across the country to deliver math lectures.

Sophia Happ, 15, of Monticello, Ill., a freshman at Monticello High School, has conducted an annual drive over the past five years that has yielded nearly 30,000 books for kids who have little access to reading materials. She places collection boxes at schools throughout her district, and then delivers the donations to a home for abused or neglected children, a nonprofit that serves struggling families and other service organizations.

Zachary Katula, 17, of Yorkville, Ill., a senior at Yorkville High School, co-founded a charity that has collected more than $150,000 worth of clothing over the past 10 years from the “lost and found” closets of seven area schools, and distributed it to local children through a food pantry. Working with dozens of high school volunteers, Zachary cleans, repairs and delivers high-quality apparel to the pantry for distribution to families in need.

Prarthana Prashanth, 15, of Aurora, Ill., a sophomore at Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, implemented a free weekly math tutoring program at two local libraries, where 16 high school volunteers help approximately 60 kids in kindergarten through third grade build their math skills and confidence for an hour every Sunday in the spring and fall. Using a curriculum developed by a high school student in California, Prarthana works directly with the kids, trains fellow tutors and communicates with parents.

Elizabeth Weidner, 15, of Dieterich, Ill., a member of Effingham County 4-H and a freshman at Teutopolis High School, is fighting to focus public attention on the urgency of childhood cancer through a website, social media, speeches, lobbying efforts and the recognition she’s received as a top contender in several pageants. Elizabeth, who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma three years ago, also raises money to promote cancer research, collects comfort items for pediatric patients and serves as an ambassador for several foundations serving sick children.

“These young volunteers learned and demonstrated that they can make meaningful contributions to individuals and communities through their service,” said Prudential CEO Charles Lowrey. “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.”

“Each of these honorees is proof that students have the energy, creativity and unique perspectives to create positive change,” said JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of NASSP. “We commend each of the 2019 honorees for their outstanding volunteer service, and for the invaluable example they’ve set for their peers.” 

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 Points of Light’s HandsOn Network, 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 6, 10 of the State Honorees – five middle level and five high school students – will be named America’s top youth volunteers of 2019. These National 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 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.

For information on all of this year’s Prudential Spirit of Community State Honorees and Distinguished Finalists, visit or


The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) is the leading organization of and voice for principals and other school leaders across the United States. NASSP seeks to transform education through school leadership, recognizing that the fulfillment of each student’s potential relies on great leaders in every school committed to the success of each student. Reflecting its long-standing commitment to student leadership development, NASSP administers the National Honor Society, National Junior Honor Society, National Elementary Honor Society, and National Student Council. Learn more at

About Prudential Financial

Prudential Financial, Inc. (NYSE: PRU), a financial services leader, has operations in the United States, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Prudential’s diverse and talented employees are committed to helping individual and institutional customers grow and protect their wealth through a variety of products and services, including life insurance, annuities, retirement-related services, mutual funds and investment management. In the U.S., Prudential’s iconic Rock symbol has stood for strength, stability, expertise and innovation for more than a century. For more information, please visit

For Spirit of Community Awards program logo and medallion graphics, please visit

SOURCE Prudential Financial, Inc.

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