Preston Horton

NEWARK, N.J. — Preston Horton, 11, of Zachary, and Pooja Veerareddy, 18, of Shreveport, on Feb. 9 were named Louisiana's top youth volunteers of 2021 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, America’s largest youth recognition program based exclusively on volunteer service.

The Middle Level State Honoree Preston was nominated by Copper Mill Elementary School, where he is a sixth grader.

He formed a music group called Joyful Melodies to perform and brighten the days of senior citizens in his community. Preston’s inspiration was his 89-year-old grandfather, who was often lonely after the death of his wife.

“When I realized that there were so many other elderly persons just like him, my heart was saddened,” Preston said. He discovered through research that many elderly people reported experiencing loneliness, so he began brainstorming ways to help. Because he was musically talented, Preston decided to sing joyful songs and play music for seniors throughout the community to ease their loneliness.

He began performing with his siblings but soon recruited more volunteer musicians from his church. They scheduled performances twice a month, being careful to social distance after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The group also raised money to provide audiences with gift baskets filled with treats. Over the past two years, Preston and his fellow musicians have sung for hundreds of senior citizens, and raised more than $1,000 to provide them with gift baskets.

Preston also has bagged food at a food bank, participated in a canned-food drive for the food bank and volunteered as a musician at his church. “I truly believe we are making a difference in the lives of those who are hurting,” he said.

The High School State honoree, Pooja was nominated by Caddo Magnet High School, where she is a senior. She co-founded a nonprofit organization that has provided under-funded hospitals in the Indian state of Telangana with critical health-related supplies since 2017. For many years, Pooja’s grandmother had to travel between Telangana and the United States to get treatment for renal cancer.

“Following her passing, we became aware of a need for medical supplies in many government and other low-budget hospitals in the region,” Pooja said. “I personally felt it was important to give back to the community that my parents and family are from.” So Pooja, with help from her father and sister, created a charitable organization called the Vijaya Project, named after her grandmother.

Pooja persuaded the CEO of a Louisiana hospital to partner with her family and donate medical supplies, such as catheters, coronary stents, coronary balloons, arterial sheaths and angioplasty wires, for government and private hospitals in Telangana.

She then wrote letters to hospital administrators in the southern Indian state to get documentation to bring the items through Indian customs. Once her family had the donated supplies in hand, they spent weeks packing them into large suitcases that they could deliver, in person, to various hospitals.

So far, they have made three trips to India, transporting more than $86,000 worth of crucial supplies. “I was humbled to have been a small piece of the large picture that improved the services in their hospitals,” said Pooja.

As state honorees, Pooja and Preston will each receive a $2,500 scholarship, a silver medallion and an invitation to the program’s virtual national recognition celebration in April, where 10 of the 102 State Honorees will be named America’s top youth volunteers of the year. Those 10 National Honorees will earn an additional $5,000 scholarship, a gold medallion, a crystal trophy for their nominating organization and a $5,000 grant for a nonprofit charitable organization of their choice.

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, conducted annually by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals, honors students in grades 5-12 for making meaningful contributions to their communities through volunteer service.

To read the names and stories of all of this year’s State Honorees, visit spirit.prudential.com.