The Woodlands HS Student Named Finalist in Texas' Top Youth Volunteers of 2020 Selected by National Program

By: Harold Banks
| Published 02/04/2020

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THE WOODLANDS, TX – Matthew Yekell, 17, of Houston and Charlize Lopez, 14, of Sugar Land today were named Texas' 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, Matthew and Charlize 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 Texas' top youth volunteers of 2020:

High School State Honoree: Matthew Yekell

Nominated by St. John's School

Matthew, a senior at St. John's School, organized collection drives involving 19 schools last year to gather donations for a drop-in center serving LGBTQ+ youth, spruces up donated apparel that is worn or damaged, and cooks a meal once a week for homeless young people at the center. “I grew up afraid of what could happen if my parents knew I was gay,” Matthew said. But after years of being afraid to be himself, Matthew came out to his parents, who supported him. Unfortunately, not all LGBTQ youth are so lucky, he said. “Many are kicked out of their homes by their families.” Tony’s Place provides these young people with food, hot showers, laundry facilities, clothing, hygiene kits, computer access and other services. But its work was in jeopardy after Hurricane Harvey destroyed the warehouse where the facility’s donations were kept.

In October 2018, Matthew reached out to gay rights activists in schools around Houston to host donation drives for Tony’s Place. He was responsible for picking up all of the donations, cleaning and organizing them, and delivering them to Tony’s. Since some of the donated clothing was worn, stained or torn, Matthew began “revitalizing” those pieces, using donated fabrics and supplies and working with interested students to redesign them into stylish pieces. He also took it upon himself to cook a weekly dinner for Tony’s Place every Saturday. Using a $3,000 prize he won to purchase food, he and his mother feed 40-50 hungry young people every weekend; last year, they served more than 1,000 meals. In addition, he researched and posted an online resource guide for homeless youth who are not able to come to Tony’s Place.

Middle Level State Honoree: Charlize Lopez

Nominated by Quail Valley Middle School

Charlize, an eighth-grader at Quail Valley Middle School, has collected nearly 1,000 coats and other cold weather items over the past four years to donate to people in need in her community. “My project began as a wish,” Charlize said, explaining that every year her church invites congregants to fulfill the wishes of children in need in its area. Charlize chose to grant the wish of an 11-year-old girl, but her requested gift really got Charlize thinking. “All she wanted was a fleece jacket for Christmas,” she said. “I was touched because her choice of a gift was an everyday need and not a toy. It made me think of all the children struggling through each day, battling it out in the cold.”

That was when she decided to launch her annual “Warm Coats Warm Hearts” drive. To begin, she wrote letters to her school principal, her mother’s workplace and her karate center, asking for permission to set up collection boxes at their locations. She made fliers and explained her project to her classmates. To spread the word further, she persuaded members of a broadcast club at a local middle school to film her talking about her mission. Every week during her drive, she emptied the donation boxes, and at the end of the project she handed out coats, blankets, scarves and food at a homeless shelter, with the help of her father and 16 other families. Charlize donated the remaining items to a shelter for domestic violence victims and to a youth immigration detention center. “There are people out there who need help,” she said, “and it is the job of those who are more fortunate to help them.”

Distinguished Finalists

The program judges also recognized 10 other Texas students as Distinguished Finalists for their impressive community service activities. Each will receive an engraved bronze medallion.

These are Texas' Distinguished Finalists for 2020:

Faith Baxter, 18, of Hays, Texas, a member of Hays County 4-H and a senior at Dripping Springs High School, co-founded “Center of the Plate,” which donated more than 6,400 pounds of meat to families dealing with food insecurity; her efforts include soliciting food donations from 4-H club members and local grocery stores, securing freezers and distributing meat to families. Faith and her sister started this initiative after learning that fresh meat is rarely available at their local food pantries.

Arden Crowe, 18, of Denton, Texas, a member of Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas and a senior at Hebron High School, started a health initiative in collaboration with her tribe, the Choctaw Nation, to help reduce the high rate of diabetes in the community; she worked with food distribution centers to develop recipe cards and nutrition facts and held in-person cooking demonstrations. Arden’s recipes were also included in the Choctaw newspaper, which reaches 90,000 tribal members.

Hannah Edelstein, 17, of Brownsville, Texas, a senior at Veterans Memorial Early College High School, renovated the laundry facilities at a women’s shelter in her community; her efforts included spreading awareness of the center’s needs, soliciting donations to cover the cost of commercial-grade washers and dryers, and helping complete the renovation itself. Hannah was inspired to start this project after learning that women at the shelter previously had to take the bus to a laundromat.

Ashley Gibson, 16, of The Woodlands, Texas, a member of Girl Scouts of San Jacinto and a junior at The Woodlands High School, completed a service project called “Aiming for School Safety,” creating a training presentation, short film and website to teach middle and high school students what to do in an active shooter situation; she also helped coordinate an active shooter practice drill. Ashley started this project after learning that not all schools offer comprehensive shooter safety training.

Carter King, 17, of Johnson City, Texas, a junior at Dripping Springs High School, serves as president of his high school’s Unified Champions program, a Special Olympics initiative that partners student volunteers with athletes who have special needs; his efforts include planning activities to enhance participants’ athletic and social skills and spreading awareness of his cause. Carter also organized a spirit week at his school, which featured a Unified basketball game and pep rally.

Blake Perry, 15, of Dallas, Texas, a sophomore at Lakehill Preparatory School, organized a clothing, shoe and school supply drive to benefit refugee children; after spreading awareness of his cause at his church, he collected, sorted and delivered the donations to Catholic Charities in San Antonio. Blake, who ultimately collected more than $12,000 worth of supplies, also recruited the help of 20 of his fellow Boy Scouts to help with the project.

Abigail Plunkett, 17, of Houston, Texas, a home-schooled senior, created and runs the “Curtain Call For All Theatre Program” for children with cognitive or physical disabilities; her efforts include fundraising for her cause, installing a wheelchair ramp at a local theater and running a two-week long theater camp. Abigail, a theater enthusiast who hopes to become a physical therapist, also recruited volunteers so that each of her 12 campers had an assigned “teen acting assistant.”

Blessing Roland-Magaji, 18, of Arlington, Texas, a senior at Arlington High School, ran a winter clothing and baby supply drive in her community to benefit women experiencing homelessness; she has spread awareness at her school, partnered with churches and organized volunteer shifts at a local women’s shelter. Through this project, which took place over a period of three months, Blessing collected and donated more than 10 boxes of supplies.

Hannah Wani, 16, of Houston, Texas, a junior at Michael E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions, co-founded and runs “Student for Cause (SFC),” a nonprofit that has donated uniforms, school supplies and extracurricular activity dues to more than 800 students in her community. Hannah, who raised money by soliciting donations from her community, as well from companies, said she was inspired to start this project after learning that more than 70 percent of students in her school district are considered economically disadvantaged.

Shirley Zhu, 16, of Houston, Texas, a junior at Bellaire High School, established and runs “Project Fresh Hub,” which provides fresh produce and baked goods to people living in food deserts; her efforts include spreading awareness of food deserts, partnering with grocery stores, bakeries and a nonprofit, developing an app, and organizing monthly markets to distribute the donations. Project Fresh Hub has donated more than 5,500 pounds of food to benefit nearly 900 people.

“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.”

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