Honoring Maine's Outstanding Teen Volunteers

Above Susan Collins with Brianna Jack. (Submitted photo).

One of the greatest privileges of serving Maine in the United State Senate is the opportunity I have to meet outstanding young people from our state who are devoting their time and energy to serving their local communities.  Whether we meet in Washington or at home, I always come away from these meetings inspired by their commitment and encouraged for the future of our state and nation.

 I recently had the opportunity to meet two such remarkable young people-Sarah Caldwell of Falmouth and Brianna Jack of Baileyville.  Both of these students were recently in Washington to receive the 2014 Prudential Spirit of Community Award, which recognizes and honors students from across the country for exemplary community service.  Out of more than 30,000 nominees nationwide, only two students from each state are selected for this recognition, so it was a particular honor to meet these two impressive young Mainers.

 Sarah, a junior at Falmouth High School, has mobilized an impressive and inspiring fundraising campaign to support ALS research. After her father was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, Sarah decided she would not sit idly by and has instead devoted her resources to helping find a cure.  Her efforts were inspired by a piece of advice that her father had given her throughout her life: "Just keep trekking."

 With the help of her mother and sister, Sarah began organizing a team to participate in the New England Walk to Defeat ALS last fall.  Sarah reached out to friends, family members, and others through social media, spoke to television and newspaper reporters, hung posters all across town, and set out to do everything else she could to spread the word and raise awareness. More than 200 people turned out to join Sarah's team, the "Red Trekkers," making them the largest and most successful team at the walk-raising more than $24,000 to support ALS research and help find a cure.

 Sarah's father passed away just one month after the walk, but she continues to work with the ALS Association.  She designed bracelets for her team members at the walk that, having proved so popular, she now distributes nationally.  She brings these bracelets with her wherever she goes, determined to spread awareness and teach people about ALS and inspire them with the advice her dad always gave her-to "just keep trekking" in life. 

Brianna, a fifth-grader at Woodland Elementary School, is committed to sharing her love of reading with other children.  When she was seven, she inaugurated a weekly "story time" at the local library.  During these hour long sessions, Brianna reads stories, leads craft projects, and distributes snacks to children.  She recently received a $2,000 grant to support this endeavor, which she used to purchase books and craft supplies for the library and to fix up the reading room used for the sessions.

 In October 2012, Brianna founded a nonprofit called "Maine Books for Maine Kids" with the goal of donating books to children throughout the state, with an emphasis on books by Maine authors.  So far, with help from her mother and little sister, she has donated more than 1,000 books to kids at schools, public events, a social service agency and a hospital.  She also conducts special book readings at various schools during Bullying Prevention Awareness Month and runs a bullying awareness poster contest for kids in her town. 

 Although Sarah and Brianna have embraced two different causes, these two exceptional students are united by the same desire to make a difference in the lives of others.  The energy and determination they have demonstrated benefit their communities today and will for years to come. And both of these young people benefit as well from learning the self-reliance and sense of accomplishment that come from taking on responsibilities and meeting them. 

 Sarah and Brianna's stories are inspiring.  But they are not alone.  These two young people manifest the tremendous capabilities of our youth.  Communities across Maine and all of America are brimming with young people making a positive difference.  I see it everywhere, and it reaffirms my faith in our next generation of leaders and in our country's future.