ROLLING PRAIRIE — A La Porte County teen who has dedicated much of her young life to making service members and veterans smile has been honored for her volunteerism.

Emily Graves, 17, a senior at New Prairie High School, was named one of Indiana’s top two youth volunteers of 2020 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism.

As state honorees, Graves and 13-year-old Margaret Dimmett of Zionsville will each receive $1,000, an engraved silver medallion, and an all-expense-paid trip in early May to Washington, D.C., where they will join honorees from every states for four days of recognition events.

During the trip, 10 students will be named America’s top youth volunteers.

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, in its 25th year, is conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

As an elementary student, Graves founded Cookies for Soldiers, a nonprofit that has delivered more than 35,000 boxes of Girl Scout cookies to active and former military personnel at home and abroad over the past decade.

When Emily was 6, her mother, Rhonda Graves, challenged her to think about how she could use the Girl Scout cookies she was selling to help others.

Meeting that challenge, Emily bought several boxes with her own money, solicited donations to buy 600 more boxes, and contacted veterans’ organizations to help her ship them to service members.

“Active military members are separated from their homes and families,” she said. “I wanted to give them a piece of home, something comforting in the midst of uncertainty.”

Now, every year during Girl Scout cookie season, she writes letters to companies and organizations to solicit donations, and contacts local Girl Scout troops to enlist their assistance.

With help from more than 150 volunteers, she purchases more than 5,000 boxes of cookies a year and packs them up at an annual packing event.

She then ships cookies to active soldiers and veterans, and personally hands them out at veterans hospitals, Honor Flights, and other military and veterans events.

In addition to making service members feel appreciated, Emily said Cookies for Soldiers’ goal is “teaching younger students about the heroism and sacrifice” of those who serve their country.

“Military members and veterans who receive a box or shipment are told that there are people who care for them, see them and appreciate them,” she said.

In her latest letter seeking donations, Emily wrote: “When I was 6 years old I started purchasing Girl Scout cookies to share with troops serving in harm’s way. ... In addition to sending cookies overseas, we have had the honor of welcoming home over 30 Honor Flights with cookies and a hug.

“We have also attended many other events recognizing veterans who have served in time periods ranging from WW II to the present.”

She was nominated for the award by her school.

Margaret, nominated by Zionsville Middle School, established a charity with her sister that has raised more than $13,000 over the past three years to buy instruments, sheet music and other music equipment for schools and music programs across Indiana, and to promote the importance of music education.

She and her sister, Kate, both began playing the violin at age 3, and music has played a big role in their lives. When their parents began shopping for a new violin for Kate, the girls realized how expensive instruments are, and how many young people would not be able to afford to play music.

“There are so many benefits to learning music at a young age,” Meg said. “We wanted to provide as many students as possible with the chance to be exposed to music in their schools or through other programs.”

Meg and her sister asked local businesses for support and for opportunities to perform for donations. The organization has made grants of $300 to $1,000 to eight schools and music/arts organizations, and provided scholarships for students to play in youth orchestras.

“In our 25th year of honoring young volunteers, we are as inspired as ever by the work students are doing to address the needs of a changing world,” said Charles Lowrey, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial.

“We hope that their resolve, their initiative and their perspectives on society’s challenges move others to consider how they can make a difference, too.”

“Middle level and high school students are doing remarkable things to shape the future of their communities through volunteer service. They inspire all students and schools to drive learning with real-world challenges,” said JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of NASSP.

All public and private middle level and high schools in the country, as well as Girl Scout councils, 4-H organizations, American Red Cross chapters, YMCAs and Points of Light Global Network members, are eligible to select a student or member for a local award.

Honorees were reviewed by an independent judging panel, which selected state honorees and finalists based on personal initiative, effort, impact and personal growth.

While in Washington, state honorees will tour capital landmarks, meet youth volunteers from around the world, attend a gala awards ceremony at the Smithsonian, and visit their congressional representatives.

For more information on Cookies for Soldiers, email cookiesforsoldiers@ comcast.net or visit the Cookies for Soldiers Facebook page.

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