WASHINGTON, D.C. – M'Lea Scott, a 14-year-old Craigmont student, was one of Tennessee's top two youth volunteers of 2013 honored in the nation's capital Monday night.
Scott, an eighth-grader, and Hannah Bryant, 17, of Columbia were saluted for outstanding volunteer service during the 18th annual presentation of The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards.
M'Lea and Hannah – along with 100 other top youth volunteers from across the country – each received $1,000 awards and personal congratulations from Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey and Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix. The setting was an award ceremony and gala dinner reception held at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program, sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), named M'Lea and Hannah Tennessee's top middle and high-school level youth volunteers in February. In addition to their cash awards, they each received an engraved silver medallion and an all-expense-paid trip with a parent to Washington, D.C., for four days of recognition events.
M'Lea started her "Pennies for the Homeless" campaign to help support the Memphis Union Mission, which feeds the hungry. She was moved to get involved one Sunday morning when she and her grandmother were getting out of the car to go to church. A young man approached them, said he was homeless, and asked for a dollar to get something to eat.
"My grandmother had only the check she had written for church and I did not have a dollar," said M'Lea. "This disturbed me so that I could not concentrate on the message being preached because my focus was still on the young man in need of a meal."
On the way home, she and her grandmother discussed the plight of the homeless and M'Lea learned that many are children or veterans.
Believing that even in tough economic times people would be willing to donate pennies to a good cause, M'Lea launched her penny drive. To promote her campaign, she spoke to her church congregation, family, friends, and local school administrators asking for pledges and donations. The local media helped spread the word.
After a year of collecting donations, M'Lea and her father entered their bank with a big box of pennies and cash totaling $1,000, which she donated entirely to the Memphis Union Mission. M'Lea brought her check to the mission on Thanksgiving eve and got to meet some of the people the funds would help. The director told her the donation would provide a filling and healthy meal for 600 hungry people.
"I learned the greatest act of love and kindness does not require a lot of money, but action and motion," she said.
"We commend these honorees not only for the impact of their service and their spirit of giving, but also for inspiring others to consider that they can make a difference, too," said John Strangfeld, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc.
Hannah, a junior at Zion Christian Academy, has given brand-new purses stuffed with personal items to hundreds of girls in need in her community over the past five years. "Hannah's Purse Drive" was born one day when she was cleaning out her closet.
"I had so many brand-new purses that I had barely used," Hannah said. "I did not just want to give them to Goodwill. I wished I had a way to give (a purse) to some girl who would love and cherish it."
Then, she figured out a way to make it happen.
Hannah conducts several fundraisers throughout the year to fund the expenses of her "ministry." The biggest so far has been a "ragball" tournament that attracted 120 participants and raised $4,200.
With her proceeds, she shops all year long for purses plus a wide variety of items to put in them including clothing accessories, jewelry, cosmetics, toiletries, stuffed animals and Bibles.
"I never knew that a purse could do so much," Hannah said.
"These students are fine examples of what is possible when young people roll up their sleeves and commit themselves to helping others," said Denise Greene-Wilkinson, president of NASSP.
More than 28,000 middle level and high school students nationwide participated in this year's program.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program was created in 1995 to identify and recognize young people for outstanding volunteer service – and, in so doing, inspire others to volunteer as well.