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Top S.D. Youth Volunteers Selected by National Program
South Dakota Ag Connection - 02/08/2019

Abby Neff, 16, of Sioux Falls, and Owen Ponto, 12, of Rapid City, were named South Dakota's 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, Abby and Owen 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 South Dakota's top youth volunteers of 2019:

Abby, a junior at Lutheran High School of Sioux Falls, has provided more than 25,000 recycled crayons and other art and educational materials to an estimated 10,000 children in need in 30 states and overseas. While volunteering as a teen teacher at an after-school program for low-income youth, Abby saw how excited the children were to do art projects. When they ran out of time, "I would tell them to just finish it at home," Abby said. Then she learned that many of her students couldn't finish their projects because they didn't have crayons at home. "My heart hurt, so I decided to make sure that all of these kids in the program had adequate art supplies," she said. That was the genesis of her "Recycled Rainbows" nonprofit organization.

Abby recalled that many restaurants provide small boxes of crayons to keep youngsters busy while their families eat, and then throw them away. So she called local restaurants and within a few weeks, she had a number of eateries saving their used crayons for her. Abby also created a website and addressed community groups to ask for donations of old crayons. With the help of her younger sister, she sanitized, dried, melted and then remolded the crayons into shapes such as animals, flowers and even robots. She then offered her recycled crayons to hospitals, Boys and Girls Clubs, park programs, and other nonprofit organizations that serve children in need. In addition to her crayons, Abby assembled more than 300 bags filled with science, math, art, reading and technology/engineering activities for children. She also sold her crayons to the public in order to donate the proceeds to charities that focus on art and the environment, and she speaks at schools about recycling and the importance of dreaming big to change the world.

Owen, a seventh-grader at Saint Thomas More High School, initiated an annual hill-climbing event that has raised $17,000 so far to help find a cure for Parkinson's disease. Owen has seen firsthand what it's like to have this disease; two grandparents -- one from each side of his family -- are living with Parkinson's. "It pains me to see that they both are not able to do the things they used to do," said Owen. One day in early 2017, he was playing golf with his family when the idea of a fundraiser occurred to him. He and his parents started thinking about ways to raise money and Owen, who loves to hike, decided it would be fun to invite community members to hike up a well-known hill in Rapid City.

After he had settled on the location and date for his first "Climb for a Cure" event, Owen began writing letters seeking sponsorships and personally delivering them to local businesses. He also called and asked people to donate money, gift baskets and other items that could be auctioned off on the day of the climb. He arranged for family and friends to cook food and bake desserts for the fundraiser, worked with a local T-shirt company to design a shirt for participants to wear, and organized yard games such as corn hole, Frisbee, horseshoes and football for after the hike. On the day of the climb, Owen and his family set up tables, decorations, games and food. Owen led the climb, the auction and raffles. He has conducted his fundraiser for two years now, and plans to continue. "I want people with Parkinson's to know that there are people in the world who are trying hard to help find a cure for their terrible disease," said Owen.

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

- Korbin Leddy, 15, of Stockholm, a member of Grant County 4-H and a freshman at Milbank High School, has donated more than 750 pounds of fresh produce from his family's garden and runs an annual "Feed the Need Food Drive" to benefit his local food pantry. An active 4-H member, Korbin has recruited other students to donate their garden surplus and helped pack more than 24,000 fortified rice meals for Native American reservations and disaster relief efforts.

- Faith Weiland, 18, of Beresford, a senior at Beresford High School, led a mission trip of 18 volunteers to help with Hurricane Harvey relief, working in a Houston food bank packing meals, sorting fruit and assembling lunches for after-school programs. A dedicated member of the youth group at her local church, Faith recruited volunteers and organized fundraisers to make their mission trip possible.

"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."

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