JUNEAU, Alaska, Feb. 6, 2018 /PRNewswire/ — Vanessa Duhrsen, 17, of Anchorage and Jessica Perry, 12, of Kenai today were named Alaska’s top two youth volunteers of 2018 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism. As State Honorees, Vanessa and Jessica each will receive $1,000, an engraved silver medallion and an all-expense-paid trip in late April 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 2018.

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards logo

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, now in its 23rd year, is conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).

These are Alaska’s top youth volunteers of 2018:

High School State Honoree: Vanessa Duhrsen

Nominated by West High School in Anchorage

Vanessa, a senior at West High School, developed a sustainable after-school program to promote healthier lifestyles among students in rural Native Alaskan villages by teaching and encouraging them to cross-country ski. “I have grown up cross-country skiing,” said Vanessa, “and I want to share with others the joy and positivity that skiing has given me.” So, over the past two years, she has volunteered as a ski instructor for a nonprofit that conducts week-long Nordic skiing clinics for kids in rural communities. But after joining the nonprofit’s board, “I began to realize that one week volunteer visits were not enough to engrain skiing into village life,” she said. To address this concern, Vanessa created a program called “Skiku Schoolmates” to help communities maintain skiing activities throughout the year.

With backing from the nonprofit, she crafted a plan to move to the town of Kotzebue on Alaska’s west coast for four months to begin implementing her program. She secured housing from a state agency, applied for grants, solicited support from school principals, and gathered hundreds of donated skis, boots and poles. She’ll start with after school instruction and coaching at the town’s elementary school, then give middle and high school students the opportunity to ski every day after school. She also plans to provide community leaders with the training and resources necessary to continue her program after she leaves. Vanessa strongly believes that an outdoor activity like skiing is not only fun and useful, but can help alleviate some of the problems prevalent in rural Alaska, such as obesity, substance abuse and violence. 

Middle Level State Honoree: Jessica Perry

Nominated by Nikiski Middle/High School in Nikiski

Jessica, a seventh-grader at Nikiski Middle/High School, has been a dedicated volunteer since the summer of 2016 with her local Boys & Girls Club, providing hands-on support on activities ranging from housekeeping to helping with art projects. Jessica was inspired to help the club by several of its staff members. “They showed me how to help and act, which inspired me to help the children at B&G,” Jessica said. So she talked to staffers to learn how she might be able to help. “I felt like it was important because now the simple things that the staff had to take time out of their busy life to do, I now could do for the staff,” Jessica said. 

After learning where she might be able to make a difference, Jessica got to work. She has helped with teaching choir, healthy habits instruction and art projects. She’s also provided cleanup and housekeeping support, and helped staff members with their planning. Jessica made a special effort to learn perseverance, patience and how to talk to kids. She recruited her best friend to volunteer, too. Over the course of her time volunteering with the Boys & Girls Club, Jessica has supported nearly 100 kids and the entire staff – and has even received an award for her efforts. “The main thing I have gotten out of my volunteer work is a newfound appreciation for kids,” Jessica said.   

Distinguished Finalists

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

These are Alaska’s Distinguished Finalists for 2018:

Jagan Nautiyal, 15, of Fairbanks, Alaska, a freshman at Lathrop High School, has volunteered hundreds of hours over the past two years to help treat and care for sick and injured animals at an emergency veterinary clinic; he estimates that his volunteering has saved pet owners $7,000 so far by freeing up vet techs to work on critical procedures. Jagan also serves as an assistant coach for the Ice Puppies youth hockey team.

Mayzie Potton, 18, of Kenai, Alaska, a senior at Kenai Central High School, has helped put new books in the hands of more than 1,000 kids as co-founder of “TBooks,” an organization that has fundraised to provide literature to schools and students in several communities. During her summer living and teaching in Swaziland, Mayzie extended the program’s reach to an orphanage, and is now establishing a literature-based cultural exchange between students in Swaziland and Kenai.

“Prudential is proud to recognize these remarkable young people for using their energy, creativity and compassion to bring meaningful change to their communities,” said Prudential Chairman and CEO John Strangfeld. “We hope their stories inspire others to consider how they can do the same.”

“These middle level and high school students have not only improved the lives of the people and communities they’ve served – they also set an important example for their peers,” said JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of NASSP. “These honorees prove that you’re never too young to make a difference.”

About The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards represents the United States’ largest youth recognition program based solely on volunteer service. All public and private middle level and high schools in the country, as well as all Girl Scout councils, county 4-H organizations, American Red Cross chapters, YMCAs and affiliates of Points of Light’s HandsOn Network, were eligible to select a student or member for a local Prudential Spirit of Community Award. These Local Honorees were then reviewed by an independent judging panel, which selected State Honorees and Distinguished Finalists based on criteria including personal initiative, effort, impact and personal growth. 

While in Washington, D.C., the 102 State Honorees – one middle level and one high school student from each state and the District of Columbia – will tour the capital’s landmarks, meet top youth volunteers from other parts of the world, attend a gala awards ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and visit their congressional representatives on Capitol Hill. On April 30, 10 of the State Honorees – five middle level and five high school students – will be named America’s top youth volunteers of 2018. These National Honorees will receive additional $5,000 awards, gold medallions, crystal trophies and $5,000 grants from The Prudential Foundation for nonprofit charitable organizations of their choice.  

Since the program began in 1995, more than 120,000 young volunteers have been honored at the local, state and national level. The program also is conducted by Prudential subsidiaries in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Ireland, India, China, Brazil and Poland. In addition to granting its own awards, The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program also distributes President’s Volunteer Service Awards to qualifying Local Honorees.

For information on all of this year’s Prudential Spirit of Community State Honorees and Distinguished Finalists, visit http://spirit.prudential.com or www.nassp.org/spirit.


The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) is the leading organization of and voice for middle level and high school principals, assistant principals, and school leaders from across the United States. The association connects and engages school leaders through advocacy, research, education, and student programs. NASSP advocates on behalf of all school leaders to ensure the success of each student and strengthens school leadership practices through the design and delivery of high quality professional learning experiences. Reflecting its long-standing commitment to student leadership development, NASSP administers the National Honor Society, National Junior Honor Society, National Elementary Honor Society, and National Student Council. For more information about NASSP, located in Reston, VA, visit www.nassp.org.

About Prudential Financial

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 www.news.prudential.com.

For Spirit of Community Awards program logo and medallion graphics, please visit https://spirit.prudential.com/resources/media 

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