Two South Dakota youth honored for volunteerism at national award ceremony in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (PRNewswire via AP) — South Dakota’s top two youth volunteers of 2019, Abby Neff, 17, of Sioux Falls and Owen Ponto, 13, of Rapid City, were honored in the nation’s capital on Sunday night for their outstanding volunteer service during the 24th annual presentation of The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. Abby and Owen – along with 100 other top youth volunteers from across the country – received a $1,000 award and personal congratulations from award-winning actress Viola Davis at an award ceremony and gala dinner reception held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Award-winning actress Viola Davis congratulates Abby Neff, 17, of Sioux Falls (center) and Owen Ponto, 13, of Rapid City (right) on being named South Dakota’s top two youth volunteers for 2019 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. Abby and Owen were honored at a ceremony on Sunday, May 5 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, where they each received a $1,000 award.

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program, sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), named Abby and Owen 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.

Abby, a junior at Lutheran High School of Sioux Falls, has provided more than 25,000 recycled crayons and other art and educational materials to an estimated 10,000 children in need in 46 states and overseas. While volunteering as a teen teacher at an after-school program for low-income youth, Abby saw how excited the children were to do art projects. When they ran out of time, “I would tell them to just finish it at home,” Abby said. Then she learned that many of her students couldn’t finish their projects because they didn’t have crayons at home. “My heart hurt, so I decided to make sure that all of these kids in the program had adequate art supplies,” she said. That was the genesis of her “Recycled Rainbows” nonprofit organization.

Abby recalled that many restaurants provide small boxes of crayons to keep youngsters busy while their families eat, and then throw them away. So she called local restaurants and within a few weeks, she had a number of eateries saving their used crayons for her. Abby also created a website and addressed community groups to ask for donations of old crayons. With the help of her younger sister, she sanitized, dried, melted and then remolded the crayons into shapes such as animals, flowers and even robots. She then offered her recycled crayons to hospitals, Boys and Girls Clubs, park programs, and other nonprofit organizations that serve children in need. In addition to her crayons, Abby assembled more than 300 bags filled with science, math, art, reading and technology/engineering activities for children. She also sold her crayons to the public in order to donate the proceeds to charities that focus on art and the environment, and she speaks at schools about recycling and the importance of dreaming big to change the world.

Owen, a seventh-grader at Saint Thomas More High School, initiated an annual hill-climbing event that has raised $17,000 so far to help find a cure for Parkinson’s disease. Owen has seen firsthand what it’s like to have this disease; two grandparents — one from each side of his family — are living with Parkinson’s. “It pains me to see that they both are not able to do the things they used to do,” said Owen. One day in early 2017, he was playing golf with his family when the idea of a fundraiser occurred to him. He and his parents started thinking about ways to raise money and Owen, who loves to hike, decided it would be fun to invite community members to hike up a well-known hill in Rapid City.

After he had settled on the location and date for his first “Climb for a Cure” event, Owen began writing letters seeking sponsorships and personally delivering them to local businesses. He also called and asked people to donate money, gift baskets and other items that could be auctioned off on the day of the climb. He arranged for family and friends to cook food and bake desserts for the fundraiser, worked with a local T-shirt company to design a shirt for participants to wear, and organized yard games such as corn hole, Frisbee, horseshoes and football for after the hike. On the day of the climb, Owen and his family set up tables, decorations, games and food. Owen led the climb, the auction and raffles. He has conducted his fundraiser for two years now, and plans to continue. “I want people with Parkinson’s to know that there are people in the world who are trying hard to help find a cure for their terrible disease,” said Owen.

“We’re impressed and inspired by the way these honorees have identified problems facing their communities and stepped up to the challenge to make a difference,” said Charles Lowrey, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc. “It’s a privilege to celebrate their leadership and compassion, and we look forward to seeing the great things they accomplish in the future.”

“These students have not only done important work in support of people in need – they’ve also shown their peers that young people can, and do, create meaningful change,” said Christine Handy, president of NASSP. “We commend each of these young volunteers for all they’ve contributed to their communities.”

Youth volunteers in grades 5-12 were invited to apply for 2019 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 24 years, the program has honored more than 125,000 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


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