Actress Kristen Bell congratulates Houston and Sugar Land students at this weekend’s Prudential Spirit of Community Awards virtual celebration
Texas’ top two youth volunteers of 2020, Matthew Yekell, 18, of Houston and Charlize Lopez, 14, of Sugar Land, 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
In recognition of the spirit of service that they have demonstrated in their communities, Matthew and Charlize – 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 Texas’ top youth volunteers of 2020
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program, sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), named Matthew and Charlize Texas’ 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?”
As State Honorees, Matthew and Charlize 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.
“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
Matthew, a senior at St. John’s School, organized collection drives involving 19 schools last year to gather donations for a drop-in center serving LGBTQ+ youth, spruces up donated apparel that is worn or damaged, and cooks a meal once a week for homeless young people at the center. “I grew up afraid of what could happen if my parents knew I was gay,” Matthew said. But after years of being afraid to be himself, Matthew came out to his parents, who supported him. Unfortunately, not all LGBTQ youth are so lucky, he said. “Many are kicked out of their homes by their families.” Tony’s Place provides these young people with food, hot showers, laundry facilities, clothing, hygiene kits, computer access and other services. But its work was in jeopardy after Hurricane Harvey destroyed the warehouse where the facility’s donations were kept.
In October 2018, Matthew reached out to gay rights activists in schools around Houston to host donation drives for Tony’s Place. He was responsible for picking up all of the donations, cleaning and organizing them, and delivering them to Tony’s. Since some of the donated clothing was worn, stained or torn, Matthew began “revitalizing” those pieces, using donated fabrics and supplies and working with interested students to redesign them into stylish pieces. He also took it upon himself to cook a weekly dinner for Tony’s Place every Saturday. Using a $3,000 prize he won to purchase food, he and his mother feed 40-50 hungry young people every weekend; last year, they served more than 1,000 meals. In addition, he researched and posted an online resource guide for homeless youth who are not able to come to Tony’s Place.
Charlize, an eighth-grader at Quail Valley Middle School, has collected nearly 1,000 coats and other cold weather items over the past four years to donate to people in need in her community. “My project began as a wish,” Charlize said, explaining that every year her church invites congregants to fulfill the wishes of children in need in its area. Charlize chose to grant the wish of an 11-year-old girl, but her requested gift really got Charlize thinking. “All she wanted was a fleece jacket for Christmas,” she said. “I was touched because her choice of a gift was an everyday need and not a toy. It made me think of all the children struggling through each day, battling it out in the cold.”
That was when she decided to launch her annual “Warm Coats Warm Hearts” drive. To begin, she wrote letters to her school principal, her mother’s workplace and her karate center, asking for permission to set up collection boxes at their locations. She made fliers and explained her project to her classmates. To spread the word further, she persuaded members of a broadcast club at a local middle school to film her talking about her mission. Every week during her drive, she emptied the donation boxes, and at the end of the project she handed out coats, blankets, scarves and food at a homeless shelter, with the help of her father and 16 other families. Charlize donated the remaining items to a shelter for domestic violence victims and to a youth immigration detention center. “There are people out there who need help,” she said, “and it is the job of those who are more fortunate to help them.”
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