NEWARK, N.J., Feb. 9, 2021 /PRNewswire/ -- Katie Chai, 18, of Charlotte and Michael Chen, 12, of Raleigh today were named North Carolina's top youth volunteers of 2021 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, America's largest youth recognition program based exclusively on volunteer service.

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As State Honorees, Katie and Michael 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 (NASSP), honors students in grades 5-12 for making meaningful contributions to their communities through volunteer service.

"We created the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards 26 years ago to highlight and support the work of young people taking on the challenges of a changing world – a mission that rings truer than ever given the events of last year," said Charles Lowrey, Prudential's chairman and CEO. "We are proud to celebrate the vision and determination of Spirit of Community's Class of 2021, and all the ways they're making their communities safer, healthier and more equitable places to live."

These are North Carolina's top youth volunteers of 2021:

High School State Honoree: Katie Chai
Nominated by Charlotte Latin School

Katie, a senior at Charlotte Latin School, helped start a grassroots effort to address the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in her city by using 3D printers to make more than 100,000 face shields, which were ultimately distributed to health care workers across North Carolina and in 12 other states. As the daughter of two doctors, Katie was really worried about her parents' safety when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March of 2020. "Our quarantine dinner conversations mainly revolved around our communal and nationwide shortage of PPE," she said. But one night her father showed her an article about engineers in Italy who were 3D printing parts for their respirators. Having taken some engineering classes in school, Katie wondered whether face shields could be made with her school's 3D printer.

She immediately called her engineering teacher, who agreed to help. Within three days, they had printed and laser-cut their first face shield in the school's engineering lab. Five days later, they delivered 40 shields to a local hospital. To ramp up production, Katie sought donations through GoFundMe and media interviews, drove around town to buy supplies, and began assembling shields with her family every night. As word of her project spread, more than 400 volunteers offered to help with the assemblies, and other high schools, universities, businesses and local engineers began producing shields with their own 3D printers. In a little over a month, Katie's initiative raised more than $114,000 and delivered more than 106,000 face shields to protect healthcare workers.

Middle Level State Honoree: Michael Chen
Nominated by Triangle Math and Science Academy

Michael, a seventh-grader at Triangle Math and Science Academy, has made more than 580 mask "buckles" with his 3D printer to lessen the discomfort that wearing face masks for extended periods can cause behind the ears. In March of 2020, Michael and his family had many conversations about COVID-19. "My mother showed us images of healthcare workers with sores on their faces left by the masks they needed to wear for long hours," Michael said. "But what wasn't visible were the sore marks behind the ears. This can be very painful for the mask-wearer." He wondered if there was a way he could use the 3D printer he had purchased earlier to solve that problem. Could he make something that could keep the mask's elastic ties from touching the area behind the ears and still keep the mask on tight? 

After some research, Michael discovered mask buckles, a piece of plastic worn on the back of the head that allows a mask wearer to anchor the ear elastic strings there instead of behind the ears. With a design that would fit different head sizes and hairstyles, Michael began making his buckles for healthcare workers in his community and for a cardiologist friend who was working on the frontlines in New York. As news of his project spread, he began getting requests for mask buckles from other area hospitals and physicians. The most difficult part, Michael said, was filling a request for 250 buckles just as his printer broke down. Luckily, he had two neighbors who offered to use their own 3D printers to help fill the order, often printing all through the night, he said.

State Honorees in The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards Class of 2021 – the top middle level and high school volunteer from all 50 states and the District of Columbia – were selected for service initiatives completed, at least in part, between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020. Selection was based on criteria including impact, effort, initiative and the personal growth demonstrated over the course of the project. Several Distinguished Finalists and runners-up were also selected in each state, and all qualifying applicants received President's Volunteer Service Awards. 

"It speaks volumes about the character of today's secondary school students that the Spirit of Community program heard from more than 21,000 applicants this fall – most of them stories of young volunteers overcoming the hardships of a global pandemic to support those in need," said Ronn Nozoe, Chief Executive Officer, NASSP. "While we're especially proud to celebrate this year's 102 State Honorees, NASSP applauds every student who's found a way to volunteer this past year. You inspire your peers and adults alike to remember that, even in times of crisis, we all have something to give."

To read the names and stories of all of this year's State Honorees, visit

About Prudential Financial

Prudential Financial, Inc. (NYSE: PRU), a financial wellness leader and premier active global investment manager, has operations in the United States, Asia, Europe and Latin America. Prudential's diverse and talented employees help to make lives better by creating financial opportunity for more people. Prudential's iconic Rock symbol has stood for strength, stability, expertise and innovation for more than a century. For more information, please visit 


The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) is the leading organization of and voice for principals and other school leaders across the United States. NASSP seeks to transform education through school leadership, recognizing that the fulfillment of each student's potential relies on great leaders in every school committed to the success of each student. Reflecting its long-standing commitment to student leadership development, NASSP administers the National Honor Society, National Junior Honor Society, National Elementary Honor Society, and National Student Council. Learn more at


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