Teens rewarded for serving othersMay 15, 2018 12:49PM ● By Julie Slama
Abigail Slama-Catron and Tabitha Bell represented Utah as the top youth volunteers at the Prudential Spirit of Community awards in Washington, D.C. (Julie Slama/City Journals)
By Julie Slama | [email protected]
Midvale Middle School seventh-grader Abigail Slama-Catron was honored April 29 in the nation’s capitol as Utah’s top middle school volunteer during the 24th annual presentation of the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards.
Abigail, along with other top youth volunteers from across the United States and several other countries, received a $1,000 award and personal congratulations from Olympic champion Lindsay Vonn at an award ceremony and gala dinner reception held at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. She also had the opportunity to meet Miss America Cara Mund, who also was a Prudential honoree when she was a student.
Along with the monetary award, which Abigail plans to put toward her college education, she received a silver medallion and the all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C. for four days of recognition events.
Abigail, who was honored for her work in environmental education, helped invent a “bionic scarecrow” that keeps birds away from airplanes as they take off and land at airports. There currently are three devices being tested at the Salt Lake International Airport.
She has demonstrated the environmentally-friendly device to scientists, wildlife officials and government and education leaders as well as to students wanting to learn to be inventors themselves.
Abigail also created a film, “Strike Out,” about her device, which won Canyons School District’s 2017 middle school best documentary and was shown at the Colorado Environmental Film Festival in February. She also created the film, “Stand Up, Speak Out,” to inspire other youth to become advocates about their passions.
She was nominated by 4H, who honored her with the outstanding youth award in environmental education and earth sciences.
Prudential Financial Chairman and CEO John Strangfeld said that through the 24 years of the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program, which is sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary Schools Principals, he has seen many projects, but this one was unique.
Abigail, who was joined by Utah’s top high school volunteer and senior at Waterford School, Tabitha Bell, also a Sandy resident, was selected for giving of themselves and their time.
“They have demonstrated leadership, compassion and perseverance,” Strangfeld said.
Both Bell and Abigail also received the President’s Volunteer Service Award. With the honor, they each received a personalized certificate from Donald Trump for giving more than 100 hours of service to their community.
Bell also was selected as one of 10 national Prudential Spirit of Community winners.
“I couldn’t believe it was me,” Bell said. “I was so overwhelmed. Oh my goodness, I remember thinking, ‘It can’t be happening; it’s like a dream.’”
Bell, who has Dejerine Sottas, a form of muscular dystrophy, relies on her German shepherd to give her mobility and balance. But her story doesn’t begin there, her mother said.
“She was born severely premature in Siberia,” Jennifer Bell said. “It was in extremely poor conditions we discovered when we went to pick her up in September 2011. We were told under no circumstances were we to ever give up our passports because we wouldn’t know what would happen. But then we were asked to and told about what was happening in the U.S. that day, 9-11, and we handed them over.”
That was the start of a long journey that has taken Bell to this place of recognition. The journey, which includes nine surgeries, seven for her feet, as well as operations to fuse all her vertebrae and long-term therapy after suffering severe concussions from falls, hasn’t left Bell emotionally scarred.
“I was meeting with my surgeon, when I realized he had other patients who needed a service dog and couldn’t afford one. I realized even with my own struggles, I wasn’t as bad off as they were. I’m by nature a go-getter, so after I learned about it, I started Paws at my school, where there are a lot of other go-getters, to help getting service dogs to those who need them,” she said.
Paws, short for Pawsitive Pawsibilities, is a non-profit organization that, to date, has provided nine service dogs.
But Bell didn’t start with Paws. When her family first moved to Utah, she lived in Park City and had heard about the National Ability Center. After visiting, but not actually riding there, she realized they needed new tack for the horses. As an equestrian, she took it upon herself to gather $5,000 as well as some unused tack to donate to the Center.
“I learned right there, I could make a difference in people’s lives,” said the winner of this year’s 14- to 18-year-old Canadian National Championship for equestrians of all abilities. “I knew a huge community of people growing up in the horse world and if I could tell them about the need, they were generous in helping people. It was a lesson I learned and have continued to build upon.”
That lesson transformed into Bell’s efforts, along with those of her friend, Morgan Kane. They raised more than $100,000 through selling bracelets, holding a school dress-down day fundraiser and organizing a 5K race and benefit concert.
Bell also overcame her shyness and battles with needing her first service dog (Sunny, who now is retired).
“At first, they would just stare at me and say, ‘I love this dog,’ and that was really hard. I was mad and thought, ‘Why can’t they mind their own business?’ I came to realize they were just curious. So, I became an ambassador for service dogs and would say, ‘Yeah, this is my dog, let me tell you about him,” she said.
That lead Bell to creating a coloring book to help youngsters learn about service dogs as well as speaking to others at schools, camps and civic group gatherings about her mission.
“It was definitely scary and nerve wracking the first time I spoke to a Rotary group. I remember waving my hands all around, but since then, I’ve become a much more composed speaker,” she said, then added, “Up until Prudential — I was genuinely surprised and taken back.”
At Prudential, she said people accepted her as well as her dog — including Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn, who was the keynote speaker.
“She stopped to pet Nox. It was super cool that she noticed him and asked me about what he does and his breed. My dog always outshines me,” she joked, but also added that she has been invited to tryout to train for the U.S. Paralympic team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics herself.
Even after being accepted as a state winner and flying to D.C., Bell admits she didn’t understand the significance of being a Prudential honoree.
“Even when I walked onto the red carpet after getting off the bus from the airport, I didn’t understand how big of a deal it is. They flew in all 102 winners to honor them and when I heard their stories, I was blown away at what all they had done. I was the first winner from Waterford and I thought that was a big deal, but understanding what they all did, was incredible,” she said. “It was great to meet all these people and already started connecting with the other kids and we want to create a nationwide fundraiser to benefit our organizations.”
As a national winner, Bell received a gold medallion and $5,000 for her non-profit organization, along with a second $5,000, which she plans to use at University of California-Berkeley in the fall as she plans to become a CEO or CFO of a company.
Abigail, who also performs service work with Girl Scouts and with her school, Midvale Middle, was grateful for the experience.
“Being part of this amazing program helped me realize that there are so many others who care about our future as much as I do,” she said. “Service doesn’t have to be something you go out of your way to do. As one person, you can volunteer to show you care and make an impact.”
(Editor's Note: Abigail Slama-Catron is the daughter of writer Julie Slama)