Maria Keller named 1 of 10 top U.S. youth volunteers

Academy Award-winning actress Hilary Swank pays tribute to Keller (center) and  another honoree at the national award ceremony in Washington, D.C.  (Submitted photo)
Academy Award-winning actress Hilary Swank pays tribute to Keller (center) and
another honoree at the national award ceremony in Washington, D.C. (Submitted photo)
Orono High School student Maria Keller was named one of America’s top-10 youth volunteers of 2016 on May 2. She received the honor during the 21st Prudential Spirit of Community Awards’ national award ceremony at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C.

Selected from a field of more than 29,000 youth volunteers from across the country, Maria has earned the title of National Honoree. Coming along with it is a personal award of $5,000, an engraved gold medallion, a crystal trophy for her school and a $5,000 grant from The Prudential Foundation for a non-profit charitable organization of her choice.

Maria, a sophomore at Orono High School, founded a nonprofit called “Read Indeed” when she was eight years old, and has since collected more than 1.7 million books for children in need in 50 states and 17 other countries. An avid reader who couldn’t imagine going to sleep at night without a bedtime story, Maria one day asked her mother why some of her classmates didn’t read much and was told that perhaps it was because their parents couldn’t afford to buy them books.

“I became aware that there are children throughout the country and beyond who have never owned a book,” she said.

Maria set out to change that. With her parents’ help, she formed her nonprofit and began organizing book drives in her community, which she publicized through the news media and a website.

Her goal was to collect one million books by the time she turned 18, a number she exceeded five years early. Initially, people would leave piles of books on her front steps and Maria would store them in her garage, but it wasn’t long before the books outgrew her house.

Today, Maria has warehouse space to store her books and leads more than 250 volunteers – mostly young people – who twice a month help her sort, box, and distribute them to hospitals, orphanages and schools in the U.S. and abroad. She also has recruited corporate sponsors, applied for grants, and raised more than $80,000 in individual contributions to purchase new books and cover shipping costs. She estimates that her organization has touched the lives of 800,000 children.

“I am determined to continue getting books to kids who need them the most,” Maria said.

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards is a national youth recognition program sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).

“These students have demonstrated a truly remarkable level of leadership and commitment in the course of their volunteer service, and it’s an honor to celebrate their accomplishments,” said Michael Allison, president of NASSP. “We commend each and every one of them for a job well done.”

“By using their time and talents to better their communities, these young people have achieved great things—and become examples for us all,” said John Strangfeld, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc. “Congratulations to an exemplary group of honorees.”

In addition to Maria, these are the other 2016 National Honorees:

• Kayla Abramowitz, 14, of North Palm Beach, Fla., an eighth-grader at Watson B. Duncan Middle School, has collected nearly 10,000 DVDs, books and other items for 81 hospitals and Ronald McDonald Houses in all 50 states through her nonprofit organization, “Kayla Cares 4 Kids.”

• Connor Archer, 18, of Stillwater, Maine, a senior at Old Town High School, works to educate the public about autism and the challenges faced by people with autism like himself, and has raised more than $12,000 for organizations that help people with special needs.

• Grace Davis, 11, of Louisville, Ky., a fifth-grader at Greathouse Shryock Traditional Elementary School, has helped raise more than $140,000 over the past four years to care for babies born prematurely by distributing piggy banks to students in her community and encouraging them to fill them up.

• James Lea, 17, of Las Vegas, Nev., a junior at Faith Lutheran Middle School and High School, helps brighten the holiday season for children who have recently lost a parent by surprising their families with an anonymous gift each day for 12 days, tied to the theme of the song “12 Days of Christmas.”

• Jungin Angie Lee, 17, of Naperville, Ill., a junior at Metea Valley High School, co-founded a nonprofit organization that has generated nearly $200,000 over the past nine years through annual fundraising events to help find a cure for her rare neuromuscular disease.

• Zachary Rice, 13, of Long Valley, N.J., an eighth-grader at Long Valley Middle School, initiated an annual 5K run/walk that has raised more than $50,000 over the past three years to provide gaming systems and other fun distractions for young patients at Goryeb Children’s Hospital in Morristown.

• Jackson Silverman, 10, of Charleston, S.C., a fifth-grader at Advanced Studies Magnet-Haut Gap Middle School, persuaded a local food bank to let him start a youth volunteer program there in 2013 that has by now packed more than 14,000 weekend lunch bags for kids in need.

• Clare Szalkowski, 10, of Dubuque, Iowa, a fifth-grader at Hoover Elementary School, started “Clare Cares” over two years ago to “build friendships and make our community a better place” by organizing projects that benefit bullied children, homeless and hungry people, and others in need of assistance.

• Alisha Zhao, 17, of Portland, Ore., a junior at Lincoln High School, created a club at her school to provide services to local homeless people, and then founded a nonprofit organization called “Kids First Project” to expand her efforts and focus on the needs of homeless youth.

The distinguished selection committee that chose the National Honorees was chaired by Strangfeld and included Allison of NASSP; Andrea Bastiani Archibald, chief girl expert for Girl Scouts of the USA; Robert Bisi, senior public affairs manager for the Corporation for National and Community Service; Tracy Hoover, president of Points of Light; Reneé Jackson, senior manager of education programs at the National PTA; Maxine Margaritis, vice president of volunteer services for the American Red Cross; Peggy McLeod, Ed.D., deputy vice president, education and workforce development at the National Council of La Raza; Dru Tomlin, director of middle level services for the Association for Middle Level Education; Frederick J. Riley, national director, urban & youth development at YMCA of the USA; and two 2015 National Honorees: AJ Mattia of Washington Township, N.J., a sophomore at Holy Cross Academy, and Morlan Osgood of Loveland, Ohio, a senior at Loveland High School.

Youth volunteers in grades 5-12 were invited to apply for 2016 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards last fall through schools, Girl Scout councils, county 4-H organizations, American Red Cross chapters, YMCAs and affiliates of the HandsOn Network.