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Pranav Rajan, 16, of Lincoln, and Jorja Boller, 10, of Beatrice, were named Nebraska's top two youth volunteers of 2019 on Feb. 5 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism.

As state honorees, Pranav and Jorja each will 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 the District of Columbia for four days of national recognition events. During the trip, 10 students will be named America’s top youth volunteers of 2019.

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, now in its 24th year, is conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).

Nebraska's top youth volunteers of 2019:

High School State Honoree Pranav Rajan - A junior at Lincoln East High School, Pranav co-founded a statewide organization that gives high school students the chance to combine volunteer service with experiential learning by working on computer-based technology projects for community organizations.

When he was in ninth grade, Pranav began to question the usefulness of what he was learning in school. He concluded that learning by doing, rather than just studying, would be much more effective.

“When students realize the real-life applications of the concepts learned in school, they begin to show interest and take initiative,” he said.

Pranav also reasoned that if his peers could work on educational projects for local nonprofits and other organizations, both the students and society would benefit.

After many conversations with fellow students and his geography teacher, Pranav found four nearby organizations that needed help solving technological issues, and then assembled teams of high school students to work on them.

Over time, Pranav forged partnerships with other organizations, enlisted the support of two university professors and two school district administrators, and recruited more than 50 students to participate in projects. These have included developing an application to reduce doctors’ stress levels for a health nonprofit, creating a database for a student-loan concern, building a website for an entrepreneurship organization, and designing an automated data process for an analytics company.

With projects now across Nebraska, Pranav’s “CodeForChange” organization is starting to take root in California and New Jersey as well. “Our overarching goal is to get students into volunteering while simultaneously learning computer science and entrepreneurship,” said Pranav.

Middle Level State Honoree Jorja Boller - Jorja, a fifth-grader at Stoddard Elementary School in Beatrice, created a charity that distributes gift bags to residents of several retirement homes every year at Christmastime. Jorja has been volunteering at Beatrice Good Samaritan Center since age 5 and still spends 12-20 hours a month there.

Several years ago, Jorja wanted to make sure one of the residents received a Christmas gift, so she set up a lemonade stand to raise money. But as Christmas drew closer, Jorja decided she couldn’t just do this for one resident; she had to give presents to everyone at the nursing home.

“There are many people who don’t get visited often,” she explained. “It can be very lonely.” Her desire, she said, is to “make sure that at Christmastime no one is left out.”

The first year, Jorja’s family and the staff at the Good Samaritan Center helped her collect enough money and other donations to give out 108 gift bags.

“It was so fun delivering them the week of Christmas and giving lots of hugs,” she said.

The next year, she named her project “Gifts for Grands,” sold lemonade to raise funds and collected gift cards at her birthday party. Then her 4-H club joined the effort, helping Jorja conduct bake sales, trash pickups and other fundraisers; make greeting cards; and assemble gift bags. When Christmas comes, they load up a big cart and pass out bags while walking through the halls of the nursing homes wearing Santa Claus hats.

Jorja delivered 400 gift bags in seven different retirement facilities this past Christmas, and is now helping a girl in Oklahoma start her own “Gifts for Grands” chapter there.

Distinguished finalists

The program judges also recognized two other Nebraska students -- Ina Bhoopalam, 17, a senior at Lincoln East High School; and Carly Renken, 17, of Gretna, a senior at Millard South High School -- as distinguished finalists for their community service activities. Each will receive an engraved bronze medallion.

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