Vermont Students Lend a Helping Hand

Vt. Bernie Buzz

Two young Vermonters -- Neel Desai, 19, and Michaela Forgione, 12, both of South Burlington -- are two of just 100 students nationally to receive the Prudential Spirit of the Community Award, which is designed to recognize volunteer community service.

After successfully pitching his idea to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Desai secured federal grants to help launch a nonprofit, known as Technology for Tomorrow in 2011. Desai’s nonprofit provides free classes in basic computer skills to community residents. The workshops cover everything from learning what questions to ask when purchasing a computer to learning how to use social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey congratulates Neel Desai, 19, (center) and Michaela Forgione, 12 (right), both of South Burlington, Vt., on being named Vermont's top two youth volunteers by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards.

Forgione, a seventh grader at the Mater Christi School in Burlington, was recognized for her outstanding work in leading several community service projects that included helping feed the homeless, volunteering her time at a local nursing home and organizing a school event to raise money for a paralyzed student.

In addition to the award, the two Vermont students received $1,000, an engraved silver medallion and an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C. for a series of national recognition events, which included a meeting with Sen. Bernie Sanders on Capitol Hill.

“These two students have done wonderful work. We need our young people to be engaged in our communities and in our democracy,” Sen. Bernie Sanders said.  “I’m delighted to help recognize their efforts.”

For his Technology for Tomorrow effort, Desai, a South Burlington High School senior, and his partners, held a series of workshops that taught the difference between a Mac and a PC, and how to use a variety of social media and software applications. So far, nearly 100 Vermonters have attended the workshops.

“Our mission is to help local residents become familiar with technology they use in their day to day lives to improve daily productivity, outside of the work place or school,” Desai said.

Desai plans to expand the program both around the nation and, one day, overseas. “I think it can happen. We have a system in place that allows us to replicate what we have already created,” he said.

Desai, who will be studying economics at Northeastern University next year, said it was great to be back in D.C. for the awards ceremony. Last summer, he said he worked as a page for Sen. Patrick Leahy.

“Getting to meet 100 other kids who have a passion for community service was also a great part of the trip,” he said, adding that it was “wonderful to see both of my senators again and tell them how far I’ve come.”

Michaela Forgione, Age 12

Charity work has always played a big role in Michaela Forgione’s life.

The South Burlington native delivers dinner once a month to the Burlington Emergency Shelter, an experience she said has changed her perspective on what it means to give back. “These people are so grateful for a meal,” she said.

While most seventh graders wouldn’t dream of foregoing birthday gifts, Forgione has made it a habit of asking birthday guests to leave the gifts at home and, instead, bring grocery-store gift cards to help feed the hungry. As a result, she donated $600 to local food charities. This year’s birthday was no different. Forgione and her friends helped raise $900 to benefit some of the hardest hit victims of Hurricane Sandy. Forgione, who is a competitive Irish dancer, also organized a “jigathon” to raise $300 for the son of her teacher’s friend who had been paralyzed in a tragic swimming accident.

Each week, Forgione also visits a nursing home for retired nuns. She is inspired by the women she meets there and says she can’t believe “how much more I’ve gotten out of it than what I’ve put in.”

The Prudential Spirit of the Community Award program is funded by a joint partnership between Prudential Financial and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).