Highland Park students honored as top Ill. volunteers

May 8, 2012 6:15:06 AM PDT
Illinois' top two youth volunteers of the year, Jonny Cohen, 16, and Daniella Cohen, 14, both of Highland Park, were honored in the nation's capital Monday night for their outstanding volunteer service during the presentation of The 2012 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards.

The two young people, along with 100 other youth volunteers from across the country, received $1,000 awards as well as personal congratulations from New York Giants quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning at the 17th annual award ceremony and reception, held at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

Jonny and Daniella were named the top high school and middle level youth volunteers in Illinois in February. In addition to their cash awards, they received engraved silver medallions and an all-expense-paid trip with their parents to Washington, D.C., for this week's recognition events.

Jonny, a junior at Highland Park High School, invented an aerodynamic shield that fits on the front of school buses to reduce wind drag, substantially improving gas mileage and reducing pollution. Jonny came up with the idea for his "GreenShield" while walking home from school in the seventh grade after taking Saturday science classes at Northwestern University.

"I noticed school buses were spewing exhaust," he said. "Then it hit me. Why not place an aerodynamic shield on the front of a school bus?" Science teachers at his sister's high school told him the idea might work.

He ended up winning nearly $30,000 to support his project. He traveled to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brown University and Harvard Business School for advice. Then he spent two summers at Northwestern designing and building a prototype, which was tested on a bus donated by a local company.

"The average school bus gets 6 to 8 miles per gallon, and there are 500,000 buses on the road; this will have significant impact," said Jonny. "I hope I made an impact on kids to inspire them to explore different ideas, using science as a tool for change."

Daniella, an eighth-grader at Elm Place School, co-manages a pen-pal program that connects students in the United States with orphans at a school in Bangalore, India through letter-writing and video-chatting on the Internet. When Daniella was in third grade, she started a pen-pal project to foster relationships between her classmates and those in war-torn countries. Years later, her older sister introduced her to a Virginia college student whose grandparents had founded a school for orphans in Bangalore. Since Daniella and this student had similar goals, they decided to work together on a project called G.I.V.E. (for "Go Innovate Volunteer and Educate").

Nearly 500 students at Daniella's school and 30 kids at a Boys and Girls Club in Virginia are now communicating with and tutoring the 53 students at the Bangalore school.

Daniella recently visited India to deliver flip flops signed with messages of hope.

"When I look into the eyes of the (Indian) students, I know I must never give up," said Daniella. "It makes a world of a difference to them. Now is the time to do something good for the world."

More information about The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards and this year's honorees can be found at http://spirit.prudential.com or www.nassp.org/spirit.

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