Savannah Rock, a senior at Grandview High School, has been named Colorado's top high school youth volunteer of 2018 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism. As a state honoree, Rock received $1,000, an engraved silver medallion and an all-expenses-paid trip in late April to Washington, D.C., where she will join the top high school and middle school honorees from across the country for four days of national recognition events. During the trip, 10 students will be named America's top youth volunteers of 2018.
Matine Khalighi, a sophomore at Smoky Hill High School, was named a Distinguished Finalist for the award and received a bronze medallion. He is vice president of "Helping the Homeless Colorado," a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing the homeless with basic necessities and raising awareness about the challenges they face. Khalighi dedicates at least eight hours a week, and sometimes as many as 50, to helping to run the nonprofit; he estimates that the organization has reached more than 8,000 homeless people with the help of more than 100 volunteers.
Rock has spent much of her life promoting the inclusion and acceptance of people with differences. Her passion was inspired at an early age by her older brother, Kalin, who was born with a genetic disorder that caused developmental delays.
"I watched as he struggled with school, being bullied and excluded from activities in and out of school," Rock said. "I saw the way schools and communities viewed people with disabilities and only identified them as their disability, not as the kind and loving people they truly are."
So Rock got involved in a big way in organizations that accept and celebrate people with physical and intellectual disabilities, including Special Olympics and Project Unify, a national, school-based club that promotes acceptance and inclusion. She’s also active in Grandview’s unified sports program, where students with special needs team up with typically developing peers to play sports including basketball and track and participate in activities including a unified spirit squad.
For the past five years, Rock has served on the Youth Activation Committee for Special Olympics Colorado. The group of middle, high school and college students from across the state works to develop strategies to promote schools and communities where all young people are agents of change, advocating for individuals with intellectual disabilities and creating awareness about the need for equal opportunities and respect for persons of all ability levels. Rock was also chosen to represent Colorado as a youth leadership ambassador to the Special Olympics USA Games.
At Grandview, Rock has played unified sports and been a student coach for the unified basketball team for three years. She has also served three terms as president of Grandview’s Project Unify club, which promotes awareness and acceptance through special events including school "spirit weeks," music concerts, parties, sports activities, youth leadership meetings and camping outings.
Rock was in charge of a school-wide event to celebrate Grandview’s designation by Special Olympics as a top Unified Champion School. Rock organized a parade and reception that featured 2011 Grandview graduate Eddie Yarbrough, who is now a defensive end for the Buffalo Bills. Like Rock, Yarbrough was involved in unified sports and Special Olympics during his time at Grandview and he continues to support those causes as a professional football player.
During the celebration, Rock was surprised to receive her silver medallion from Prudential’s Sarah Caruso. The presentation, like the honor itself, caught this humble student a little off-guard.
“I was really surprised,” Rock said. “It’s an incredible honor and I’m really excited.”
While in Washington, D.C., the 102 state honorees will tour the capital's landmarks, meet top youth volunteers from other parts of the world, attend a gala awards ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and visit their congressional representatives on Capitol Hill. On April 30, 10 of the state honorees – five middle school and five high school students – will be named America's top youth volunteers of 2018. These national honorees will receive additional $5,000 awards, gold medallions, crystal trophies and $5,000 grants from The Prudential Foundation for nonprofit charitable organizations of their choice.
If Rock is selected as a national honoree, she plans to donate the $5,000 grant to Grandview’s unified sports program.
After graduation, Rock will attend the University of Northern Colorado where she will study special education and education policy. Her goal is to earn a Master’s degree, while she continues to promote acceptance for all.
"My mission is to make all schools and communities inclusive and unified for all, to create a new way to embrace each other's uniqueness and leverage our abilities to make the world a better place," she said.