Lucia Hoerr, age 16, of Charlottesville, and Shashir Sriramoju, age 14, of Ashburn, have been named Virginia's top youth volunteers for 2017 by the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. The program is the United States’ largest youth recognition program based exclusively on volunteer community service. Created in 1995 by Prudential and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), the program honors middle level and high school students for outstanding service to others at the local, state and national level. Thus far, it has recognized more than 115,000 young people who’ve made a difference – and inspired countless others to consider how they might contribute to their communities.
Lucia started a program making it easier for children in need to start the school year off right by giving them new backpacks filled with school supplies. Even as a very young girl, Lucia helped people in need by donating a portion of her allowance to local charities. She wanted to do more, but most volunteer organizations said she wasn’t old enough. Then one day seven years ago, when she was shopping for school supplies with her mother, “she told me to be grateful because many kids in our community started each school year without a backpack or school supplies because their family couldn’t afford them,” said Lucia. “The idea of a peer going into the first day of school unprepared baffled me, and I knew I needed to help.” She called a local Boys and Girls Club to see if the kids there needed backpacks and school supplies. The director said he could use 58 backpacks, so Lucia enlisted the help of family and friends and began working to meet that request. Since that first year, Lucia has invested hundreds of hours in what is now a nonprofit organization called “Backpack Buddies.” She has held fundraisers to buy supplies, organized school collection drives, and promoted her efforts through fliers, a website, social media and interviews with the press. Each summer, about 30 volunteers attend a “celebration” to help Lucia pack her backpacks and deliver them. So far, Lucia’s project has provided almost 1,500 supply-filled backpacks for kids whose families cannot afford the financial burden of buying school supplies.
Shashir started a summer chess club for elementary school students which also raised $1,500 for various charities. A passionate and talented chess player, Shishir was asked by an elementary student “what is so great about chess?” “To this I responded, chess is a game that sharpens the most important organ in our body, the brain,” said Shishir. When the boy said he wished he could learn to play, Shishir got the idea to start a club for young kids in his neighborhood to expose them to the pleasures and benefits of chess. Shishir developed lesson plans, gathered game boards and pieces, and set aside three hours a week over the past two summers to teach students to play chess. One problem he encountered was that every student had a different way of learning and interpreting what was being taught. Shishir said he learned which children simply needed information repeated and which ones needed him to teach at a slower pace. During the second summer of the club, he also found it facilitated learning if he separated the advanced students from the beginners. Through his club, Shishir raised $1,500 for charities such as the World Health Organization, the Red Cross and Children’s National Hospital, and for the purchase of additional chessboards for his middle school’s chess club.
Youth volunteers were also recognized from Richmond, Virginia Beach, Fredericksburg, Ruckersville, and Leesburg. Other distinguished finalists included: