New Yorks Top Two Youth Volunteers Selected in 16th Annual National Awards Program

Paarth Shah, 16, of Horseheads and Sarah Connor, 11, of Northport today were named New York state’s top two youth volunteers for 2011 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism. The awards program, now in its 16th year, is conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).

Paarth was nominated by Horseheads High School in Horseheads, and Sarah was nominated by Northport Middle School in Northport. As State Honorees, 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 several days of national recognition events. Ten of them will be named America’s top youth volunteers for 2011 at that time.

Paarth, a junior at Horseheads High School, has raised $23,000 to renovate computer lab facilities at schools in India. During a trip to India with his parents in 2003, Paarth was struck by the level of poverty he saw there. So, when he saw TV news reports of flooding in the town of Surat three years later, “I was deeply saddened by the loss of life and property due to the torrential rains and ravaging waters,” he said. “Every time I would eat, drink or have fun, the thought of those in Surat plagued me.”

Paarth recruited two friends to help him raise money by conducting a penny drive, making presentations to local businesses and community organizations, and appealing for donations at local Indian events. Paarth returned to India and paid to renovate computer lab facilities at two schools in Surat and install 60 computers, benefiting more than 3,000 students. He also conducted a workshop for the students on the importance of community service. While he was there, Paarth encountered a poor woman crying in the street because her son had died and she didn’t have the money to cremate him. Paarth is now working to raise another $20,000 to build a crematorium for the village.

Sarah, a sixth-grader at Northport Middle School, has been raising awareness of environmental issues for several years, and is now gathering funds to replace 20 trees that were cut down in her town. “When I was 7, I started hearing more and more about the trouble the earth was in,” said Sarah. “I read a lot of books, saw movies, and learned everything I could.” For her 8th birthday party, she and her guests cleaned up a local park and made birdhouses out of recycled water bottles. Then a visit to a museum exhibit on climate change “really opened my eyes and made me see that we had to start making big changes,” she said.

In addition, the program judges recognized eight other New York students as Distinguished Finalists for their impressive community service activities. Each will receive an engraved bronze medallion:

Stephanie Breed, 17, of Fayetteville, a senior at Fayetteville-Manlius High School, collected nearly 5,500 books through community book drives through her organization “Books Are Food for Thought,” and distributed them to locations through central New York that provide free meals for needy children. Stephanie, who personally delivers the books to children during scheduled story times, plans to expand her program into other communities so that every child owns at least one book.

John Farese, 17, of Sayville, a junior at Sayville High School, founded “Operation Sports Equipment” in 2007 and has since collected, refurbished, and distributed more than 10,000 pieces of gently used sports equipment to Little Leagues in underprivileged areas, and to other countries, including the Dominican Republic and Guatemala. John’s grandfather, who had a meager childhood and could not afford to play sports, inspired John to give all children the chance to play and enjoy sports.

McKenna Heffner, 14, of Corning, a freshman at Corning Painted Post East High School and a Girl Scout with the Girl Scouts of NYPENN Pathways in Cicero , has raised nearly $14,000 in cash and in-kind gifts to support wishes for 15 terminally ill children through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To raise the funds, McKenna hosted a kids’ talent showcase and silent auction, solicited donations and in-kind gifts from individuals and businesses, and created a website to collect additional donations.

Brian McPartland, 17, of Brewster, a senior at Brewster High School, has raised more than $40,000 to support the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s efforts to find a cure. Brian, who has cystic fibrosis, has organized numerous fund-raising events such as carnivals and sporting events, has participated in national benefit walks, founded his school’s Cystic Fibrosis Club, and has spoken to students and community leaders to raise awareness about the disease.

Robert Porco, 17, of Watermill, a senior at Southampton High School in Southampton, is a founding member of “Kids Stock the House,” a project that helped raise $18,000 and in-kind items for the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island. Robert wrote dozens of letters to local businesses, decorated more than 100 collection boxes, and dedicated countless hours collecting and distributing donations.

Kristen Rischert-Garcia, 16, of New York, a junior at Trinity School, raised more than $3,000 through the club she co-founded, “Trinity H.A.N.D.S. (Humanitarian Aid for Natural Disaster Survivors), to rebuild a daycare center in the Philippines that was devastated by a typhoon. Kristen, who organized bake sales, T-shirt sales and benefit dinners to raise the funds, also sent donations to help build a classroom in earthquake-damaged Haiti.

Daniel Ullman, 17, of Rye Brook, a senior at Blind Brook High School, collected more than $4,000 and two vanloads of supplies to benefit the homeless of New York by hosting a sleep-out event with 130 participants to raise awareness about homelessness. The event, “Sleep for Solutions,” rose from Daniel’s lifelong desire to improve the plight of the homeless through the organization he founded, “HEARTH For All,” which stands for “Homelessness, Education, Awareness, Relief, Tolerance, Hope.”

Alec Urbach, 15 of Roslyn Heights, a sophomore at the New York Film Academy, produced and sent educational healthcare films and dental supplies to children in third world countries through his organization, “Giving from the Ground Up.” Alec, who founded his organization in 2009, has delivered his animated film accompanied with toothbrushes, toothpaste, floss and mouthwash to more than 1,500 children in Ghana and El Salvador.

“These award recipients have proven that young people across America are critical to the future of our neighborhoods, our nation, and our world,” said John R. Strangfeld, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial. “Each and every one of these honorees deserve our respect and admiration, and we hope by shining a light on them, they will continue to serve as an example for others.”

“The young people recognized by the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards demonstrate an enormous capacity for giving and reaching out to those in need,” said Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “NASSP is proud to honor these student leaders because they are wonderful examples of the high caliber of young people in our nation’s schools today.”

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 HandsOn Network, were eligible to select a student or member for a local Prudential Spirit of Community Award this past November. More than 5,000 Local Honorees were then reviewed by an independent judging panel, which selected State Honorees and Distinguished Finalists based on criteria such as personal initiative, creativity, effort, impact and personal growth.

While in Washington, D.C., the 102 State Honorees will tour the capital’s landmarks, attend a gala awards ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and visit their congressional representatives on Capitol Hill. In addition, 10 of them – five middle level and five high school students – will be named National Honorees on May 2 by a prestigious national selection committee. These 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.

Serving on the national selection committee will be John Strangfeld of Prudential; Jana Frieler, president of NASSP; Michelle Nunn, president and CEO of the Points of Light Institute and Hands On Network; Marguerite Kondracke, president and CEO of the America’s Promise Alliance; Donald T. Floyd Jr., president and CEO of National 4-H Council; Pamela Farr, the American Red Cross’ national chair of volunteers; Elson Nash, associate director for project management at the Corporation for National and Community Service; Michael Cohen, president and CEO of Achieve, Inc.; and two 2010 Prudential Spirit of Community National Honorees: Shannon McNamara of Basking Ridge, N.J., and Benjamin Sater of Plano, Texas.

In addition to granting its own awards, The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program will be distributing President’s Volunteer Service Awards to more than 2,800 of its Local Honorees this year on behalf of President Barack Obama. The President’s Volunteer Service Award recognizes Americans of all ages who have volunteered significant amounts of their time to serve their communities and their country.

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards represent the United States’ largest youth recognition program based solely on volunteer service. Since the program began in 1995, more than 95,000 young volunteers nationwide have been honored at the local, state or national level. Many prominent public figures have assisted in saluting these honorees over the years, including Jimmy Carter, Barbara Bush, Magic Johnson, John Glenn, Madeleine Albright, Rudy Giuliani, Whoopi Goldberg, Colin Powell, Peyton Manning, Laura Bush, and Condoleezza Rice. The program also is conducted by Prudential subsidiaries in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Ireland and India.