LITTLE ROCK, AR (News release) – Heather Jackson, 17, of Caddo Gap and Colbe Cortez, 12, of Benton today were named Arkansas’ top two youth volunteers of 2015 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism. Heather was nominated by Pike County 4-H in Murfreesboro, and Colbe was nominated by Bethel Middle School in Alexander. The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, now in its 20th year, is conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). 

Heather, a senior at Caddo Hills High School, educates people in her community on disaster preparedness through presentations, brochures, a day camp and “home disaster packs.” Heather began her project in 2009 after leading a 4-H food and clothing drive for victims of a tornado that struck the nearby town of Mena. “I realized how few of them were prepared for the tornado’s devastation,” said Heather. “I decided then to learn as much as I could about disaster preparedness so I could teach others how to handle these emergencies.”

After extensive research, Heather developed a series of illustrated talks and demonstrations that she has presented to more than 3,500 people at schools, 4-H events and numerous group gatherings. She also organized a 4-H day camp to teach young people about preparing for a disaster, produced a brochure on camping safety that is being distributed by the Corps of Engineers, and designed an annual display at the county fair. In addition, Heather developed “Disaster Packs for Homes,” which contain items that can aid families in a quick evacuation from a home or campsite. “I feel disaster preparedness is important because emergencies can come in many forms and people can rebuild their lives much more easily if they are prepared,” said Heather.

Colbe, a seventh-grader at Bethel Middle School, used Christmas gift money to rent a plot in his church’s community garden, and then grew vegetables that he sold to benefit a local shelter for working homeless families. After participating in a variety of volunteer projects with his family, church and school, Colbe decided he wanted to donate money he received at Christmas to a local charity. “In talking with my parents and a family friend about my decision, it was suggested that instead of just giving my Christmas money to a charity, I could invest that money and try to double my investment to help those in need,” Colbe said. After considering the options, Colbe decided to plant a garden that could produce income for Our House Shelter, which provides housing and educational opportunities for families in need. After renting a community garden plot, Colbe bought seeds, plants, and tools he had “no idea how to use.” In the beginning, he had his doubts that he could coax food out of the ground. “All I saw was a bunch of brown dirt marked off by string and labeled with my name on it,” said Colbe. But with the help of his family, he readied the soil and planted his vegetables. Several times a week Colbe watered, fertilized and pulled weeds. A few weeks later, he was ready to harvest his first crop. He then created a sign explaining his project, and each Sunday, sold vegetables at a church produce stand. By the end of the summer, he was able to present the director of the homeless shelter with $584.06 that he had collected from his vegetable sales. He plans to double the size of his garden next summer.

As State Honorees, Heather and Colbe 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 2015.

Distinguished Finalists
The program judges also recognized four other Arkansas students as Distinguished Finalists for their impressive community service activities. Each will receive an engraved bronze medallion.
These are Arkansas’ Distinguished Finalists for 2015:
  • Rebecca Aguilera, 17, of Maumelle, Ark., a senior at Maumelle High School, created “Better Safe Than Sorry,” an internet safety program through which she visits elementary and middle schools throughout central Arkansas to educate young students about the dangers of cyberbullying. Rebecca, who originally started the program as a school project, keeps up with the latest research regarding internet safety to develop and modify her presentations as needed.
  • Mary Bryant, 17, of Jonesboro, Ark., a senior at Valley View High School, founded a charitable organization called “Tied2Hope,” through which she has met hundreds of people undergoing cancer treatments and made fringed fleece blankets based on each person’s custom request, to help comfort them. Mary, who became sensitive to the needs of those undergoing cancer therapy through her physician father, started the organization in 2012, and today word has spread throughout the community with other groups offering to help make the blankets.
  • Hannah Colford, 17, of Maumelle, Ark, a senior at Arkansas Baptist High School, has been an active volunteer with Special Olympics Arkansas for the past 10 years, having served as a unified partner athlete and a volleyball coach, and most recently created and is leading a Project Unify Club for local youth to learn how to become inclusive leaders. Hannah, who has also served as a leader at the organization’s summer sports camp for many summers, organized a series of awareness events to help “Spread the Word to End the Word,” a campaign to help end people’s use of the word “retarded.”
  • Katherine Sanders, 17, of Cave City, Ark., a junior at Batesville High School, founded “Families in Transition,” a donation program that operates a closet filled with gently-used clothing and household items that are then donated to as many as 50 families a month who are in transition due to a crisis in their lives. Katherine, who began the program in 2012, maintains donation boxes at six local schools, sends monthly reminders about donation needs, and picks up and sorts all the donated items.
“Prudential is honored to celebrate the contributions of these remarkable young volunteers,” said Prudential Chairman and CEO John Strangfeld. “By shining a spotlight on the difference they’ve made in their communities, we hope others are inspired to volunteer, too.”

“These students have not only improved their communities through their exemplary volunteer service, but also set a fine example for their peers,” said JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of NASSP. “Each of their stories is proof of the impact one young person can have when they decide to make a difference.”