Arkansas’ top two youth volunteers of 2017, Emily Richey, 18, of Paris and Gable Sloan, 11, of Fayetteville, were honored in the nation’s capital last week for their outstanding volunteer service during the 22nd annual presentation of The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards.

Richey is a senior at Paris High School and the daughter of Dr. Jason and Tracy Richey of Paris.

Richey and Sloan – 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 an award 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 Richey and Sloan Arkansas’ 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, D.C., for four days of recognition events.

Richey created a nonprofit organization that has raised more than $13,000 to provide nearly 150 special dolls and stuffed animals to dementia patients in eight nursing homes. During her freshman year in high school, Richey was inspired by a motivational speaker to do something unique to impact her community.

“Most organizations in my area focused on helping children,” she said. “While this is great, the elderly population was often neglected.”

As she searched for project ideas, Richey discovered “doll therapy” research indicating that “giving dolls or stuffed animals to dementia patients triggers something in their brains and causes them to feel loved, needed, and calm,” she said. Richey immediately recalled visiting her great-grandmother eight years earlier and showing her a new stuffed pink poodle that she had just received as a birthday gift.

“She fell in love with it and wanted to keep it,” Emily said.

Richey contacted the National Alzheimer’s Association to find out what kinds of dolls are most suitable for the elderly. Then she filed for nonprofit status and began applying for grants. She also persuaded her Future Business Leaders of America chapter at school to take on her initiative as its annual project. Working together, they collected $13,500 through grants, sponsorships and other fundraising activities, purchased 147 stuffed animals and lifelike dolls for $50 to $100 each, and delivered them to nursing home residents.

Richey’s hope is that they “recreate the joy that my great-grandmother experienced with my stuffed animal.”

Gable, a sixth-grader at McNair Middle School, operates a nonprofit bakery and catering business that has raised nearly $5,000 for a variety of charities and causes, and is now funding an annual scholarship for graduating high school students who have demonstrated a commitment to volunteerism.

“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, Inc. “Congratulations to each of these extraordinary young volunteers.”

“It’s a privilege to celebrate these students not only for outstanding volunteer service, but for the example they’ve set for their peers,” said Jayne Ellspermann, president of NASSP. “These honorees prove that one person truly can make a difference.”

Youth volunteers in grades five to 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.

For more information about The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards and this year’s honorees, visit http://spirit.prudential.com or www.nassp.org/spirit.