Spirit of community

Two South Dakota youth honored for volunteerism

WASHINGTON, D.C. – South Dakota’s top two youth volunteers of 2018, Oscar Kavanagh, 18, of Brookings and Bria Neff, 11, of Sioux Falls, were honored in the nation’s capital April 29 for their outstanding volunteer service during the 23rd annual presentation of The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. 

Kavanagh and Neff – along with 100 other top youth volunteers from across the country – each received $1,000 awards and personal congratulations from Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn at 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, named Kavanagh and Neff South Dakota’s top high school and middle 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.

Kavanagh, a senior at Brookings High School, formed a nonprofit organization, “FREE” (Funding for Reservation Education and Equality), to raise money to buy educational supplies for schools on Native American reservations in his state. 

In 2004, Kavanagh’s family moved from Ireland to run a dairy farm in South Dakota.

“I remember how shocked my parents were to find how the great people of the plains were living in destitution,” Kavanagh said. 

As he grew older, he noticed a general apathy among his classmates over the disparities between life on the reservation and their own environment. 

“They grew up knowing about the reservations and took their plight as unchangeable,” he said. But Kavanagh couldn’t accept that.

Two years ago, he set out to learn all he could about his state’s nine reservations, concentrating especially on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He read books about the Lakota people, met with individuals who had donated books or organized relief efforts on the reservations, and contacted reservation schools to learn about curriculum, student statistics and aid programs. 

After meeting with the staff of the Pine Ridge Indian School, he decided to contribute to its greenhouse project, which teaches students how to grow their own food, an important skill on a huge reservation with minimal access to fresh produce. Raising money through Kickstarter and GoFundMe websites, and through appeals to family and friends, Kavanagh was able to raise more than $1,200 to help pay for upkeep and supplies for the greenhouse, as well as books for classrooms at several reservations.

Neff, a home-schooled fifth-grader, has raised more than $13,000 and worldwide awareness to help save endangered species by selling and displaying her paintings of over 200 vulnerable animals and landscapes. 

When she was 8 years old, Neff won an art contest sponsored by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and learned that there are more than 3,000 endangered species around the world. 

“I was so upset I told my mom I wanted to do something about it,” Neff said. She decided she would paint pictures of endangered animals, sell them and donate the proceeds to organizations that work to ensure a future for these creatures.

Over the past three years, Neff has spent more than 500 hours painting, researching, educating and raising awareness of endangered animals. She sells her paintings on Facebook, Instagram and on her own website, and posts information about various species and the environment on her Facebook page, “Faces of the Endangered.” 

In addition, she has published two educational coloring books, creates conservation cards, and gives presentations to organizations and schools. Her efforts have benefited numerous animal conservation organizations, including IFAW, the Jane Goodall Institute, The Wolf Conservation Center in New York, The Great Plains Zoo, and her local humane society. 

“I want all kids to know they can help save animals and the planet, too,” Neff said. “We just need to work together and believe that we can do great things.”

“These honorees exemplify something we’ve known for a long time – that young volunteers have the power to bring meaningful change to their communities,” said John Strangfeld, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc. “These students have shown leadership and determination well beyond their years, and it’s a privilege to celebrate their service.”

“Through their acts of service, these honorees drive home a powerful lesson for their peers: that one student really can make a difference,” said Daniel P. Kelley, president of NASSP. “We are honored to shine a spotlight on the compassion, drive and ingenuity of each of these young volunteers.”

Youth volunteers in grades 5-12 were invited to apply for 2018 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards last fall through schools, Girl Scout councils, county 4-H organizations, American Red Cross chapters, YMCAs and affiliates of Points of Light’s HandsOn Network. More than 29,000 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, too. In the past 23 years, the program has honored more than 120,000 young volunteers at the local, state and national level.

For more information about The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards and this year’s honorees, visit  http://spirit.prudential.com or www.nassp.org/spirit.

Courtesy photo: Oscar Kavanagh of Brookings, center, and Bria Neff of Sioux Falls, right, were honored in Washington, D.C., last week with The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards.

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