It may still be winter, but community service is blooming all over the metro. As part of the Prudential Spirit of the Community awards, four students in the Kansas City area are receiving accolades for their charity work.
Blake Harris of Kansas City, North, is one of Missouri’s two state honorees for the award and the only one to take the top honor from the Kansas City area.
As well as a $1,000 prize, the 14-year-old student from Congress Middle School gets a free trip to Washington, D.C., in May, where he’ll meet the other 101 state honorees. Ten of them will win $5,000 prizes as national honorees.
Three other area teens made the list as distinguished finalists: Paul Freeman of Mission Hills, Nghia Jones of Overland Park and Jordan Richardson of Platte County High School.
Paul Freeman, 18, who attends Rockhurst High School, chose a cause close to his heart. His younger brother, Henry, has cystic fibrosis, and Paul wants to do all he can to support research that could someday cure him.
He decided to mix his brother’s two favorite things — tennis and music — and, along with a few friends, organized a tennis tournament on the Country Club Plaza with live music. About 100 people turned up to play tennis, with double the number of spectators.
“It was tough (to organize) because we’re high school kids … when we go to companies and say we’re putting an event together, they immediately imagine a small-scale event,” Freeman said. “We wanted this to be something that people didn’t even think high schoolers put together.”
He’s already working with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Plaza Tennis Center to make it happen again this summer. He’s been working for the cause for years and since sixth grade has lobbied Congress as part of the foundation’s sibling advocacy program.
Nghia Jones, 18, who attends the online International Connections Academy, organized a blood drive that collected more than 300 units of blood. She also spearheaded an effort to gather warm clothes and toys for families in need.
After Blake Harris’s family experienced spontaneous generosity when someone ahead of them in line at a Wendy’s drive-thru paid for their meal, he decided he wanted to generate more acts of kindness.
He liked the idea of passing on the giving spirit from one person to the next and decided to inspire more giving in the community by doing all kinds of service projects.
“Too many people want to get something (for themselves) out of doing community service,” he said. “You should just feel good that you’re helping someone.”
One of his favorite things to do was reading to children at the Gerner Family Early Education Center in the Park Hill School District.
“I decided to dress up like the Dr. Seuss book I was reading, ‘The Cat in the Hat.’ I wore this striped red and white hat and drew whiskers on my face,” he said.
In addition to that, he also volunteered at Harvesters, shoveled snow for a dialysis patient and collected Thanksgiving food for a family in need.
Jordan, 18, of Platte City, spends her free time at The Farmer’s House helping young adults with disabilities learn social and vocational skills.
“I’ll go out there and help lead baking programs, and from there, I made a lot of relationships with a lot of developmentally disabled individuals … and I noticed that there was kind of this weird invisible wall between the students without disabilities and students with disabilities (at my school),” she said. “There’s not a lot of communication between the two.”
She designed a campaign called “Differently Abled,” where she asked students at her school to pledge to interact more with students in the special education classes. She also asked local businesses to donate money for a scholarship for disabled students to go to The Farmer’s House, based on the number of interaction pledges she collected.
“The most important thing (about volunteering) is to find something you’re passionate about,” she said. “Whether it’s helping in soup kitchens or animal shelters, there’s always something you can find that’s going to speak specifically to you.”