PARKERSBURG - Olivia Smith, 14, of Belleville has been named one of West Virginia's top two youth volunteers of 2014 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards.
Another local youth, Peter Welcker, 17, of Parkersburg, was among two West Virginia students recognized as Distinguished Finalists for impressive community service activities.
The nationwide program honors young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism.
Smith, the daughter of Tim and Christina Smith, is in the eighth grade at Blennerhassett Middle School.
She is a dedicated advocate for youth and adults with disabilities in her community, helping them participate in social and recreational activities, serving as a mentor and teacher, and encouraging others to use respectful language when referring to people with disabilities.
Her sister has Down syndrome, her aunt uses a wheelchair and her mother is the director of The Arc of the Mid Ohio Valley, which provides programs and services for individuals with disabilities.
"Having them in my life and watching what they have to overcome has inspired me to help others," Olivia said.
Olivia started a campaign urging people to reject the "R" word, replacing it with more sensitive words. She met with elected officials and legislators to raise awareness of disability-related issues and mentored 36 teens with disabilities to speak up and be their own advocates.
Olivia has assisted at many social and recreational events coordinating logistics, serving snacks, playing games, conducting arts and craft projects and helping with sports.
She has shopped for and wrapped gifts for a Christmas project, helped process donations for The Arc's thrift shops and taught children with disabilities how to groom and show their animals for competition in the local 4-H program.
"I've been around people with disabilities all my life and seen that they are treated differently," Olivia said. "People shouldn't be judged by their disability but should be recognized as a person just like everyone else."
Jodi Smith, 4-H Program coordinator with West Virginia Extension Service, nominated Olivia for the honor.
"Olivia has been in 4-H for six years; she's a member of the Fairview 4-H Club; she's held a variety of offices with that club and she is also a Teen Leader. She is an outstanding advocate for those with disabilities and very deserving of this honor," Jodi Smith said.
"She has been a tremendous advocate, speaking out on issues and she's so caring at 4-H camp, serving as a mentor and helping with campers with disabilities," Jodi said.
As state honorees, Olivia and Katie Cowie, 17, of Milton, the other youth selected from West Virginia, will each receive $1,000, an engraved silver medallion and an all-expense-paid trip in early May to Washington, D.C. where they will join the top two honorees from each of the other states and District of Columbia for four days of national recognition events.
The program judges also recognized two other West Virginia students as Distinguished Finalists for their impressive community service activities.
Those finalists were Peter Welcker, 17, of Parkersburg, a senior at Parkersburg South High School who has conducted scientific research to find a way to remove the chemical bisphenol from food and water. Welcker, who has a patent pending for the process, was inspired to action after hearing his nephew was born with health complications the doctors think were linked to BPA exposure during pregnancy.
The other Distinguished Finalist was Kristen Falconi, 14, of Morgantown, a freshman at University High School who raised funds for the West Virginia University Randolph Cancer Center's mobile mammography unit. "We applaud each of these young people for their exemplary volunteer service," said Prudential Chairman and CEO John Strangfeld. "They use their time and talents to make a meaningful difference in their communities and we hope their example inspires others to do the same."
"By going above and beyond in their volunteer service, these students have brought positive change to communities across the country," said JoAnn Bartoletti, executive of NASSP.
All public and private middle and high schools in the country as well as Girl Scout councils, 4-H organizations, American Red Cross chapters, YMCAs and HandsOn Network affiliates were eligible to select a student or member for one of the awards. The honorees are then reviewed by an independent panel of judges which selected the state honorees and distinquished finalists based on criteria, including personal initiative, effort, impact and personal growth.
Those selected as national honorees will receive additional $5,000 awards, gold medallions, crystal trophies and $5,000 grants from The Prudential Foundation for nonprofit charitable organizations of their choice.