Georgia’s top two youth volunteers of 2020, 17-year-old Neha Devineni, of Atlanta and 12-year-old Hailey Bankhead, of Jonesboro, were recognized this weekend for their outstanding volunteer service during the 25th annual, and first-ever virtual, Prudential Spirit of Community Awards national recognition celebration and got a shoutout from actress Kristen Bell.
In recognition of the spirit of service that they have demonstrated in their communities, Neha and Hailey – along with 100 other top youth volunteers from across the country – were also each given $2,500 to donate toward the local COVID-19 response efforts of a nonprofit organization of their choice. These funds come in addition to the $1,000 scholarship and engraved silver medallion they earned as Georgia’s top youth volunteers of 2020.
As State Honorees, Neha and Hailey also earned an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C. for the program’s annual national recognition events; the trip, however, was canceled due to COVID-19 and changed to a three-day online celebration this past weekend. In addition to remarks and congratulations from actress Kristen Bell, honorees had opportunities to connect with each other through online project-sharing sessions, learn about service and advocacy from accomplished past Spirit of Community honorees, hear congratulatory remarks from Lowrey and NASSP Executive Director and CEO JoAnn Bartoletti, and more.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program, sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals, named Neha and Hailey Georgia’s top high school and middle level youth volunteers in February.
“Over the past 25 years, this program has honored students spanning three generations, and the common thread between them has been the determination of young people to respond to the challenges of the moment,” said Charles Lowrey, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial. “Who better than this group of young leaders from all over the country to help identify and direct resources to community needs arising from COVID-19?”
“We admire these young leaders for their ability to assess the needs of the communities they serve and find meaningful ways to address them,” said Bartoletti. “At a time when everyone is looking for optimism, these students are a bright light for their peers and the adults in their lives.”
About the Honorees
Neha, a senior at Riverwood International Charter School, founded a nonprofit organization in 2017 that now encompasses more than 100 young people in several states and overseas who are working to improve the lives of children in need, particularly in the areas of nutrition, sanitation and education. On a trip to India, Neha saw unimaginable poverty. “What I witnessed was heartbreaking,” she said. “Children younger than me were going to work in fields and factories and living in makeshift tents on the sides of the street.” She returned home determined to help youth living in poverty and began by traveling around Georgia to assess the needs of children there. Two things stood out: the number of children living in poverty, and the lack of effort being made to improve their lives.
Envisioning an organization run by young people for young people, Neha founded ASA (for “Aspire, Serve, Achieve”). She spoke at schools and local events to challenge students to get involved and organized events for students to talk about poverty-related issues such as nutrition, sanitation and education. Gradually, students from other communities in Georgia, Michigan, Texas and as far away as India applied to open chapters and launch their own projects. One local project that Neha likes to highlight was her group’s efforts to pay for the funeral expenses of a classmate’s mother, and to start an education fund so the classmate could attend school in Atlanta. Another was an initiative to raise funds to buy a car and provide money for food and other expenses for a teenager who was trying to keep her young siblings from being sent to foster homes.
Hailey, a sixth-grader at Mundy’s Mill Middle School, is a cancer survivor who is working to ease the burden of other young cancer patients by providing hundreds of activity bags, organizing arts and crafts activities at two hospitals every month, and buying gift cards and meals for patients’ families. When Hailey was 5 years old, she was diagnosed with Stage IV Wilm’s cancer, a rare kidney tumor. Despite months of painful treatments, Hailey fought back. “I am in remission and on a mission,” she said. “I fight to make hospital stays for kids like me more tolerable, less lonely, less fearful, and to give hope where hope is lost.”
To accomplish her objective, Hailey works with The Hailey Bankhead Foundation, started by her mother, to raise money. She assists with an annual 5K walk/run, solicits support from local businesses, and plays an active role in planning and managing a gala fundraiser called “A Night Under the Stars.” With some of the proceeds, Hailey has created 450 custom-designed “Hailey’s Hope Bags” containing games, books, puzzles, cosmetics and other items designed to entertain and cheer up hospitalized kids. She also has purchased 2,800 arts and crafts kits for the activity sessions that she and fellow volunteers hold for kids at two Atlanta hospitals each month. In addition, Hailey buys gift cards for families struggling with the high costs of transportation and living expenses while their children receive treatment. “I strive to do what I can to make things a little less scary for kids battling adult-size diseases,” said Hailey.
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