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Prudential’s 2021 Spirit of Community’s honorees are the epitome of ingenuity and compassion.

By Kara Corridan

May 06, 2021

In 2020, when it would have been easy for a teenager to spend the day attending virtual classes from bed and sinking into a streaming spiral, high school junior Katie Chai broke out a 3D printer and made face shields for local health care workers.

The daughter of two doctors in Charlotte, North Carolina, she got the idea early in the pandemic. Family dinner conversations focused on the fact that her parents faced a shortage of personal protective equipment. “It scared me to think of them not having the supplies they needed to be safe,” Chai explains. When her dad told her about engineers in Italy who were using 3D printers to make parts for respirators, the lightbulb went off.

She’d used a 3D printer at school, so her first step was to ask her engineering teacher whether she could use the school’s equipment to make face shields. Three days later, Chai and her teacher had printed and laser-cut their first shield. Within a week, they’d delivered 40 shields to a local hospital.

To date, her efforts—which were helped by many inspired by her project—have led to the creation of more than 106,000 face shields, distributed to health care workers in 13 states. “They’ve given so much to protect us during this time,” says Chai. “It was nice that we could give back.”

It’s easy to see why Chai is one of 10 students chosen as national honorees of Prudential’s 26th annual Spirit of Community Awards, a program sponsored in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals. They were selected from a field of more than 21,000 applicants nationwide.

Event host Shaun Derik announces Katie Chai as one of the 10 national honorees, while her fellow honorees congratulate her in the chat.

Event host Shaun Derik announces Katie Chai as one of the 10 national honorees, while her fellow honorees congratulate her in the chat.

The program also operates in countries where Prudential has a significant business presence. Eight top volunteers were named in Brazil, China, India and Japan and received awards and an invitation to a recognition event. One of the honorees, Yijia Tian of China, has albinism, a genetic condition that results in little to no pigment in skin, eyes or hair. She created an initiative to support others with albinism through scholarships, networking opportunities, protective items and more.

Three days of inspiration
Last weekend, the 102 U.S. honorees (one middle level and one high school student from each state, plus the District of Columbia) were celebrated during a three-day weekend that included networking panels with current and former honorees and a congratulatory address from Chairman and CEO Charles Lowrey.

“Your efforts give us hope,” he told the honorees. “At a time when the world truly needs to come together, we can take comfort in knowing that you are setting an example with your creativity, initiative, fortitude and perseverance. I’ve personally been inspired to do more, to challenge myself to think bigger, as you have with your inspirational actions.”

Another highlight: a Q&A with Priyanka Chopra Jonas, the actress and humanitarian (and wife of singer Nick Jonas) who has worked with UNICEF for 15 years, whose passions include children’s rights and girls’ education.

The 10 national honorees found inventive ways to make a difference in a tumultuous year. One student provided a safe place for shy, lonely or bullied kids in the form of “buddy benches” at more than 150 schools nationwide. Another recruited thousands of student volunteers to help nonprofit organizations and teachers, parents and students struggling with remote learning.

Each of the 102 state honorees were awarded a $2,500 scholarship and a silver medallion. The 10 national honorees also received a $5,000 scholarship and a $5,000 Prudential grant for charities of their choice, in addition to engraved gold medallions and crystal trophies for their nominating organizations.

Reflecting on the weekend-long celebration, Chai says the two words that come to mind are “inspiring” and “hope.” “After meeting all these students, I’ve been really inspired to take my service project farther. And seeing how young some of these honorees are and how much they’ve accomplished, it’s given me a lot of hope for the future.”

Watch a recap of the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards event or read the transcript.

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