WASHINGTON, D.C. – Two Maine students, Benjamin Mendelson, 18 of Lewiston, and Sarah Cayia, 14 of Hampden, were honored for their outstanding volunteer work during presentation of the 2004 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards.

The two – along with more than 100 other top youth volunteers from across the country – received $1,000 awards as well as personal congratulations from Academy Award winning actress and comedienne Whoopi Goldberg at the ninth annual award ceremony and dinner reception, held at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

The two were named the top high school and middle level youth volunteers in Maine last February. In addition to cash awards, they received engraved silver medallions and an all-expense paid trip to Washington for the recognition events.

“Benjamin and Sarah have demonstrated a level of compassion, dedication and achievement that is truly exceptional,” said Arthur F. Ryan, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial Inc. “We are proud to give them the recognition they so richly deserve, and hope that their example will inspire other young people to become actively involved in their own communities.”

Mendelson, a senior at Lewiston High School, created a school program to fight racism and promote tolerance and understanding. When a national racist organization targeted immigrants in his community from Somalia, Mendelson was outraged. “I could not allow a group openly supporting racism to come to my town and denounce my Somali friends and neighbors,” he said.

After brainstorming with his principal, he decided his best course of action would be to educate his fellow students. He researched the hate group extensively, met with a civil rights coalition, and prepared speeches, discussion outlines and handouts. Benjamin then recruited 20 student volunteers to lead discussions on racism and tolerance in every English class in his school over a two-day period. He also delivered speeches at a community rally and the Maine Civil Rights Conference. “Racism is a disease,” said Benjamin. “People need to stand up for what they believe in.”

More than 20,000 youth volunteers submitted applications to the 2004 awards program last fall.

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