Alaska’s Top Youth Volunteers of 2020 selected by national program

Feb. 4th, 2020: Zoe Nelles, age 17, of Palmer and Caleb Song, age 13, of Anchorage today were named Alaska’s top two youth volunteers of 2020 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism.

As State Honorees, Zoe and Caleb 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 2020.

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, now in its 25th year, is conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).

These are Alaska’s top youth volunteers of 2020:

High School State Honoree: Zoe Nelles

Nominated by Palmer High School

Zoe, a senior at Palmer High School, provides bags of nonperishable food every Friday to 60 students in need who receive free meals at school during the week, but who may have little to eat on the weekends. She came up with the idea for “The Sandwich Project” in the fall of 2018 after hearing that another school had a similar program that fed 20 children.

“I was surprised by the number and wondered if we had this large of a need at Palmer,” Zoe said.

To begin, she asked her school nurse to identify students who were at risk of weekend hunger and persuaded a teacher to be her advisor. She then started assembling bags of nonperishable food items in her own kitchen for seven students.

As the need became more apparent, Zoe’s program began to grow with the help of donations from community members, a food drive at her school and appeals on social media. When she received a grant from a local foundation, she expanded her project to two local elementary schools.

Zoe then arranged additional assistance from a local food bank, which contributes ingredients for her food bags; from her school’s culinary arts teacher, who offers space in her classroom to store food and make the meals; and from her school’s National Honor Society members, who help assemble the food bags.

“Being a kid is hard enough,” said Zoe, “but not knowing if you are going to eat over the weekend is unimaginable.”

Middle Level State Honoree: Caleb Song

Nominated by Northern Lights ABC School

Caleb, an eighth-grader at Northern Lights ABC School, plays an active role in the efforts of his parents’ church ministry to aid people experiencing homelessness in his community.

“I have been assisting the homeless since I can remember,” said Caleb. As a toddler, Caleb accompanied his parents to a homeless shelter, and then gradually began helping with various aspects of the shelter’s operation. As Caleb got older, the jobs he was tasked with grew more complex.

“Helping the homeless,” he discovered, “is neither simple nor easy. It requires passion, confidence and sacrifice.”

Currently, Caleb sets up the shelter’s sound system, greets people and assists at an information desk. He also makes lemonade, prepares and serves dinner trays, plays the violin and cleans up after meals.

At Christmastime, he has helped raise money to buy gifts for people at the shelter. In addition, he visits other local shelters, a soup kitchen, an assisted-living home and a hospital, where he hands out snacks and fliers.

He finds time to do all this on both weekends and weekdays, coordinating his volunteer activities with school and other responsibilities.

“I have seen hardened souls transform because of the work I do, even though it may be small,” said Caleb.

Distinguished Finalists

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

These are Alaska’s Distinguished Finalists for 2020:

Anna Devolld, 14, of Soldotna, Alaska, a freshman at Connections Alaska Homeschool Program, is the founder of “Promote Our Pollinators (P.O.P.),” through which she gives presentations about the environmental importance of pollinators, distributes informational materials and hands out “pollinator packs” to encourage habitat creation. Anna works with businesses, schools, senior centers and Rotary clubs to spread awareness, and is collaborating with her local government to install permanent pollinator garden signs in community spaces.

Natalie Fraser, 18, of Anchorage, Alaska, a senior at West High School, is the founder and co-chair of “Mental Health Advocacy Through Storytelling (MHATS),” a student group that promotes mental health awareness through personal storytelling. Along with participating in group sessions, Natalie and other MHAT members hosted a live storytelling show, appeared on Alaska public radio, presented at youth leadership conferences and spoke in front of state lawmakers to support related healthcare legislation.

“In our 25th year of honoring young volunteers, we are as inspired as ever by the work students are doing to address the needs of a changing world,” said Charles Lowrey, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc. “We hope that their resolve, their initiative and their perspectives on society’s challenges move others to consider how they can make a difference, too.”

“Middle level and high school students are doing remarkable things to shape the future of their communities through volunteer service. They inspire all students and schools to drive learning with real-world challenges,” said JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of NASSP. “Congratulations to each of the 2020 honorees – it’s an honor to celebrate your commitment to creating positive change.”