Arizona’s top two youth volunteers of 2017, Emery Miller, 18, and Lauren Basye, 13, both of Gilbert, were honored in Washington, D.C. recently for their outstanding volunteer service during the 22nd annual presentation of The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards.

Emery and Lauren, along with 100 other top youth volunteers from across the country, each received $1,000 awards and personal congratulations from Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps at a ceremony and gala dinner reception held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program, sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals, named Emery and Lauren Arizona’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 for four days of recognition events.

Emery, a senior at Perry High School, launched an annual holiday drive that collected more than 24,500 teddy bears in seven years for hospitalized children in nine states. Emery understands what it’s like to be a kid stuck in the hospital because he underwent four open-heart surgeries by age 7 to correct a hole in his heart and replace valves.

o, when he and his fellow churchgoers were challenged by their pastor one December morning to give more than they receive at Christmas, Emery decided to give teddy bears to young patients at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

Emery’s mother posted his idea on Facebook, and within minutes people began volunteering to help him collect bears. The first year, he and “Team Emery” provided more than enough stuffed bears for every patient at the hospital. As word spread about Emery’s drive, it attracted an army of supporters over the next several years, collected more and more bears, and expanded to more than 31 hospitals.

Emery says he is “constantly running like a chicken with my head cut off” during the holiday season, raising funds, coordinating volunteers, speaking to schools and community groups and acquiring and sorting bears.

“It’s absolutely priceless walking into the hospital wearing our matching red Team Emery shirts with Santa hats, watching the faces of sick patients and their families light up with excitement,” Emery said.

Lauren, a seventh-grader at ASU Preparatory STEM Academy in Mesa, led a small group of students in turning an old storage room at their school into a much-needed library. A year ago, Lauren joined her school’s golf team and was told to store her golf clubs in a storage room during school hours. She soon realized the room could be used for much more than storage.

Because she loves to read, and because her school at the time had only a few shelves of library books, Lauren convinced several friends that they could work together to turn the storage room into a real walk-in library where students could check out books, do homework, or just hang out.

Lauren’s small team first surveyed their school’s homerooms to gauge interest in the idea, then submitted a proposal to their principal, who loved the plan. Since then, they’ve been working mornings, lunch hours and free periods to clean out the room, gather and sort donated books and develop operating procedures.

Lauren believes the reason a lot of young people don’t read many books these days is that they haven’t been exposed to a quality library. “The new library we are starting is taking great steps in the right direction,” she said, “and will hopefully impact students’ grades, study skills and reading ability.”

“These honorees have done exemplary work to contribute to the health and vitality of their communities, and we look forward to seeing the great things they achieve in the future,” said John Strangfeld, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial.

Jayne Ellspermann, president of National Association of Secondary School Principals, said: “These honorees prove that one person truly can make a difference.”

Youth volunteers in grades 5-12 were invited to apply for 2017 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. More than 31,000 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 22 years, the program has honored more than 120,000 young volunteers at the local, state and national level.