Its not everyday an Nikiski student gets to travel to Washington, D.C. to and meet an Academy Award winner, and for Shaylee Rizzo it was an unbelievable experience.
“It was pretty fantastic,” she said.
Last month Rizzo, a Nikiski Middle High School senior, traveled to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to receive one of two Prudential Spirit of Community Awards given to Alaska’s top two youth volunteers. She was honored at a ceremony, where she met actor Kevin Spacey, received a $1,000 award and spent six days with the other recipients of the award from across the country. During her time with the group, they visited Arlington National Cemetery and participated in a service project where they read to elementary school children. The group has since formed a Facebook page and plan to reunite in the future to do more service projects together.
A major highlight of Rizzo’s trip was meeting Spacey and listening to him speak at a banquet.
“I hugged Kevin Spacey,” she said with a smile.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program is the United States’ largest youth recognition program based exclusively on volunteer community service. The programs goals are to applaud young people who already are making a positive difference in their towns and neighborhoods and to inspire others to think about how they might contribute to their communities.
Rizzo has certainly made an impact on her community. Her Missy the Moose project, created for the Caring for the Kenai program, has helped inspire moose crash awareness in area schools. A local orphaned moose named Ivira inspired the Missy the Moose project.
The project started out in 2010 as a requirement for a biology class, but she did not place in the Caring for the Kenai finals that year with her children’s book about Missy. She tried again the next year with a revamped version of the book, and again her work did not make the finals.
In 2012 she decided to expand the project, although it was no longer a requirement for a science grade.
“I can’t leave something unfinished,” she said. “When I entered it the first time and I did not get in I felt like that was not finished, I can do better, I can get into that finals round. So I had to keep going just to prove that I can get in there.”
So what started as a simple book, soon expanded into something bigger.
“I realized it would be cool if Missy could come into the classroom with me,” Rizzo said.
With the help of her grandmother and a friend, she was able to bring Missy to life via a costume and delivered her message to area kindergarten through second-grade classes. Rizzo and Missy the Moose visited with approximately 400 children in early 2012.
“They were really excited,” she said. “They all wanted to get up and give her a hug.”
Rizzo brought black and white copies of the Missy the Moose book to give to the kids, along with stickers made by fellow high school students. The expanded message, along with a radio ad, sponsored by local businesses, helped Rizzo become a second finalist for the 2012 Caring for the Kenai.
Aside from winning the awards for the public service project, Rizzo said she believes she has inspired many in the community with her message.
Several people have recognized Rizzo in public and shared with her that their children have told them about her visit to their classroom and the children remind their parents to watch out for moose on the roads.
“That’s wonderful, its working,” she said.
In a few days Rizzo will graduate and start a new chapter in her life, but she is quick to share with underclassmen the importance of a well-rounded educational experience.
“I always tell my friends, you know if you really want to do good in high school, you just need to keep volunteering, you need to be involved in your school. It is not only good for you, to get these scholarships, but it is also good for yourself, as a person, because you can build off that,” she said.
She will attend Brigham Young University in the fall, majoring in animal and veterinary science.
Sara J. Hardan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.