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South Dakota's Top Two Youth Volunteers Selected in 11th Annual National Awards Program; Rapid City and Spearfish Students Earn $1,000 Awards, Engraved Medallions and Trip to Nation's Capital.

PIERRE, S.D. -- Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota to Co-Chair National Selection Committee That Will Name America's Top 10 Youth Volunteers in May

Leah Nixon, 17, of Rapid City and Abbey Merchen, 14, of Spearfish today were named South Dakota's top two youth volunteers for 2006 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism. The awards program, now in its 11th year, is conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).

Leah was nominated by St. Thomas More High School in Rapid City, and Abbey was nominated by Spearfish Middle School in Spearfish. As State Honorees, 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 - one middle level and one high school youth - from each of the other states and the District of Columbia for several days of national recognition events. Ten of them will be named America's top youth volunteers for 2006 at that time.

Leah, a junior at St. Thomas More High School, has helped raise more than $100,000 to build homes for six needy families through the Black Hills Area chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Leah began her fund-raising after her older sister, Grace, came home from a conference where she had been challenged to raise $100,000 for the home-building charity. "I knew that my sister wouldn't be able to raise this money all by herself," Leah said, so she offered to put her graphic design and computer skills to work on the project. "One of our family friends owns a Habitat home," said Leah. "Seeing the power of Habitat at work has inspired me to work diligently to reach this goal."

Leah designed a logo, business cards, letterhead and a Web site for their "Ladybug Ladies" fund-raising campaign. Together with her sister, Leah also wrote campaign letters, addressed potential donors at public meetings, and appealed for donations through their Web site. In addition to raising money, "we educated community members about the desperate need for adequate housing in our community," said Leah. The campaign has now exceeded its goal, and contributions continue to roll in. "It wasn't easy, but the rewards are so great with the joy you bring to others and yourself," she said.

Abbey, an eighth-grader at Spearfish Middle School, has dedicated herself over the past five years to taking care of animals and performing other important functions at the Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary near her home. "I feel this is important because the sanctuary is the animals' last chance at living," said Abbey.

In addition to caring for unwanted, abused and neglected domestic animals at the sanctuary, such as cats, dogs, horses and sheep, Abbey also works with injured or orphaned wildlife that cannot be returned to the wild, including mountain lions, bears, leopards, lions, Arctic fox, emus, camels and peacocks. Abbey helps prepare food and water for the animals, cleans their pens, and has helped to build animal enclosures and fences. She also helps clean the volunteer lounge, and educates visiting families and groups about the animals by giving guided tours of the sanctuary.

In addition, the program judges recognized two other South Dakota students as Distinguished Finalists for their impressive community service activities. Each will receive an engraved bronze medallion:

Stephanie Cooper, 18, of Brookings, a senior at Brookings High School, has been an active volunteer in the activities for National Family Month, sponsored by her school's Family, Career and Community Leaders of America chapter. For the past two years, Stephanie has chaired the activities, which included developing care packages for newborns and giving computer lessons to senior citizens.

Brianne Nelson, 17, of Volga, a senior at Sioux Valley High School, organized "Krazy for Kids," a series of service projects focused on helping children in need. Brianne conducted research to identify specific needs, recruited volunteers, and implemented a variety of projects, including a stuffed-animal drive for homeless children, a Christmas gift drive, and a fund-raiser to benefit a local food pantry.

"The recipients of these awards vividly demonstrate that young people across America are making remarkable contributions to the health and vitality of their communities," said Art Ryan, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial. "They truly deserve all of the praise and encouragement we can give them."

"The young people recognized by the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards demonstrate an enormous capacity for giving and reaching out to those in need," said Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "NASSP is proud to honor them as they are wonderful examples of the high caliber of young people in our nation's schools today."

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 Volunteer Centers, were eligible to select a student or member for a local Prudential Spirit of Community Award this past November. Nearly 8,000 Local Honorees were then reviewed by state-level judges, who selected State Honorees and Distinguished Finalists based on criteria such as personal initiative, creativity, effort, impact and personal growth.

While in Washington, D.C., the 102 State Honorees will tour the capital's landmarks, attend a gala awards ceremony at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and visit their congressional representatives on Capitol Hill. In addition, 10 of them - five middle level and five high school students - will be named National Honorees on May 8 by a prestigious national selection committee. These 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.

U.S. Senators Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia will serve as co-chairs of the national selection committee. Also serving on the committee will be Ryan of Prudential; actor Richard Dreyfuss; Alma Powell, chair of America's Promise - The Alliance for Youth; Robert Goodwin, President and CEO of the Points of Light Foundation; Amy B. Cohen, Director of Learn and Serve America at the Corporation for National and Community Service; Kathy Cloninger, CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA; Donald T. Floyd Jr., President and CEO of National 4-H Council; Ken Gladish, National Executive Director of YMCA of the USA; David Vodila, President of NASSP; and two 2005 Prudential Spirit of Community National Honorees: Devin Cohen of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., and Lindsey Williams of St. Joseph, Mo.

In addition to granting its own awards, The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program will be distributing President's Volunteer Service Awards to nearly 4,200 of its Local Honorees this year on behalf of the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation. The President's Volunteer Service Award recognizes Americans of all ages who have volunteered significant amounts of their time to serve their communities and their country.

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program is supported by National 4-H Council, Girl Scouts of the USA, American Red Cross, YMCA of the USA, Points of Light Foundation, American Association of School Administrators, National Middle School Association, National School Boards Association, Council of the Great City Schools, National School Public Relations Association, and many other national youth and service organizations.

The awards are part of a broad initiative created by Prudential to encourage young people to become involved in community service. Other elements of the initiative include a community leadership training program for high school students, now administered by the Points of Light Foundation; and a variety of educational materials for young people and teachers relating to youth volunteerism.

For information on all of this year's Prudential Spirit of Community State Honorees and Distinguished Finalists, visit, or

NASSP - the preeminent organization and the national voice for middle level and high school principals, assistant principals and aspiring school leaders - provides its members the professional resources to serve as visionary leaders. NASSP promotes the intellectual growth, academic achievement, character development, leadership development, and physical well-being of youth through its programs and student leadership services. NASSP administers the National Honor Society(TM), National Junior Honor Society(TM), and National Association of Student Councils(TM).

Prudential Financial companies serve individual and institutional customers worldwide and include The Prudential Insurance Company of America, one of the largest life insurance companies in the United States. These companies offer a variety of products and services, including life insurance, mutual funds, annuities, pension and retirement related services and administration, asset management, securities brokerage, banking and trust services, real estate brokerage franchises and relocation services. For more information, visit
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Date:Feb 14, 2006
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