California’s Catherine Mitchell of Oceanside Named One of America’s Top Ten Youth Volunteers

Catherine Mitchell, 16, of Oceanside, Calif., was named one of America’s top 10 youth volunteers of 2012 today in a ceremony at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, winning a national Prudential Spirit of Community Award for her outstanding volunteer service. Selected from a field of more than 26,000 youth volunteers across the country, Catherine received 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.

New York Giants quarterback and 2012 Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning congratulates Catherine Mitchell, 16 ...

New York Giants quarterback and 2012 Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning congratulates Catherine Mitchell, 16, of Oceanside (center) and Cecilia Cassini, 13, of Encino (right) on being named California's top two youth volunteers for 2012 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. Catherine and Cecilia were honored at a ceremony on Sunday, May 6 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, where they each received a $1,000 award.

Also honored this week in Washington, D.C., was Cecilia Cassini, 13, of Encino. She and Catherine were named California’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 state and the District of Columbia. At that event, each of the 102 State Honorees for 2012 received $1,000 awards as well as personal congratulations from New York Giants quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning. The honorees also received engraved silver medallions and an all-expense-paid trip with their parents to Washington, D.C., for this week’s recognition events.

Catherine, a senior at Guajome Park Academy in Vista, created a business called “Beauty 4 Life” that enables women in Uganda to earn a living and educate their children by selling their handmade paper-bead jewelry in the U.S. Catherine also partners with organizations in Africa to provide English language and business classes for African women, micro-financing for their businesses, health classes and services, and housing and educational support for their children. It all began on a trip to Africa, where Catherine met a former street child, Jackie, whose mother was dying of AIDS. The young girl gave her a handmade bracelet. “The delicate strand was stunningly beautiful,” said Catherine, who figured her friends might like it, too. “It was then that I made a decision to turn my vacation into a vocation.”

She brought a big box of the paper-bead jewelry back to school with her and added tags telling Jackie’s story. Requests began to pour in as word spread among teachers, parents and friends, and kept coming after she built a website, attracted news media coverage and began speaking to audiences about creating and managing service projects. Catherine sends the proceeds to the women who make the jewelry, and is now developing her operation into an organization that provides training, financing and other essentials that enable poor women in Uganda to build sustainable businesses on their own, and thereby improve their lives and their communities with dignity, she said.

Cecilia, a seventh-grader at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, has spoken to hundreds of children at schools, hospitals and shelters to encourage them to find their passions and follow their dreams, and to teach them about her own passion: sewing. She also has donated some dresses she created to homeless shelters and sold others to raise money for a local children’s hospital.

Cecilia began decorating dresses when she was just 3 years old and, when she received a sewing machine on her sixth birthday, taught herself to sew. At age 8, she decided to sew dresses for little girls at a homeless center because, she said, “every little girl deserves a dress.” Two years later, the owner of a clothing boutique agreed to host a trunk sale featuring Cecilia’s creations. Fifty dresses were sold, and the proceeds were donated to the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. The success of this sale “confirmed to me that I did not have to wait to become an adult to follow my dreams” and sparked a desire to communicate this message to other young people, Cecilia said. In what she calls her “Follow Your Dreams” campaign, Cecilia has made presentations to more than 200 students, demonstrating sewing techniques and encouraging students to find and pursue their passions. She also delivers a sewing machine to each school she visits, donated by the Singer Sewing Company.

“Through their extraordinary acts of volunteerism, these students are powerful examples of the way one young person can make a big impact,” said John R. Strangfeld, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc. “We are proud to honor them for their achievements, and hope their stories inspire others to consider how they, too, can make a difference.”

More than 26,000 young people participated in the 2012 awards program last fall through schools, Girl Scout councils, county 4-H organizations, American Red Cross chapters, YMCAs and affiliates of the HandsOn Network. The top middle level and high school applicants in each state were selected in February, and flown to Washington this week with their parents for four days of special recognition events.

In addition to Catherine, the other National Honorees are:

Candonino Agusen, 17, of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, a junior at Kealakehe High School, who has helped raise more than $64,000 to buy temporary housing kits for people displaced by the earthquake in Japan last year.

Matthew Benjamin, 14, of Tulsa, Okla., an eighth-grader at Regent Preparatory School, who has raised more than $30,000 to build a home for 33 orphans in Uganda by attracting sponsorships as he trained and ran in a half-marathon last year.

Neha Gupta, 15, of Yardley, Pa., a sophomore at Pennsbury High School in Fairless Hills, who has founded a nonprofit organization that has raised more than $375,000 to provide educational and other resources to disadvantaged children in India and the United States.

Samantha Kerker, 17, of Boca Raton, Fla., a junior at Atlantic High School in Delray Beach, who has founded a student club with chapters in all 28 high schools in Palm Beach County to promote monthly service projects benefiting poor people, and is now working to send 60 students on a poverty-focused mission to a third-world country.

Emily Kladar, 12, of Hayden Lake, Idaho, a sixth-grader at Canfield Middle School in Coeur d’Alene, who has created a nonprofit charity with her sister that has raised more than $60,000 to benefit the families of children needing heart surgery.

Raymond Mohler, 14, of Lynbrook, N.Y., an eighth-grader at Lynbrook South Middle School, who has created a foundation to help alleviate the pain, fear and anxiety felt by young hospital patients by providing toys and other gifts, arranging celebrity visits and assembling mobile entertainment centers.

Jordyn Schara, 17, of North Freedom, Wis., a junior at Reedsburg Area High School, who has created a nonprofit organization that collects and disposes of unused or unwanted pharmaceuticals so that they do not end up in the water supply, while raising awareness of prescription drug abuse.

Gracie Schram, 13, of Leawood, Kan., an eighth-grader at Leawood Middle School, who has recorded and sold copies of a CD that raised more than $20,000 to build two fish ponds in Africa and a home for 12 orphaned boys in Haiti.

Ashlee Smith, 13, of Sparks, Nev., a member of the Northern Nevada Chapter of the American Red Cross in Reno and a seventh-grader at Lou Mendive Middle School, who has founded a nonprofit organization that has collected and distributed more than 175,000 toys over the past five years for child victims of house fires and natural disasters.

The national selection committee that chose the National Honorees was chaired by Strangfeld and included Ken Griffith, president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals; Michelle Nunn, president and CEO of the Points of Light & HandsOn 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; Jaclyn Libowitz, chief operating officer and chief of staff for Girl Scouts of the USA; Felix Rouse, vice president of resource development for the southeast region of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America; Elson Nash, senior advisor for strategic partnerships at the Corporation for National and Community Service; Kate Blosveren, associate director for strategic communication and outreach of Achieve, Inc.; and two 2011 Prudential Spirit of Community National Honorees: Sarah Cronk of Bettendorf, Iowa, and Rujul Zaparde of Plainsboro, N.J.

Conducted in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards were created 17 years ago by Prudential Financial to encourage youth volunteerism and to identify and reward young role models. Since then, the program has honored more than 100,000 young volunteers at the local, state and national level.

“These young people have demonstrated remarkable leadership, selflessness and compassion, and they set a fine example for thousands of other students across the U.S. who want to make a difference,” said Ken Griffith, president of NASSP. “The actions of these young volunteers exemplify the best of what America’s youth have to offer.”

More information about The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards and this year’s honorees can be found at or

NASSP (National Association of Secondary School Principals) is the leading organization of and national voice for middle level and high school principals, assistant principals, and all school leaders from across the United States and more than 45 countries around the world. The association provides research-based professional development and resources, networking, and advocacy to build the capacity of middle level and high school leaders to continually improve student performance. Reflecting its longstanding commitment to student leadership development as well, NASSP administers the National Honor Society™, National Junior Honor Society®, National Elementary Honor Society®, and National Association of Student Councils®. For more information about NASSP, located in Reston, VA, visit

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

[Editors: Full-color pictures of the Spirit of Community Awards program logo and medallions are available at]

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Harold Banks
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