A student from south-central Iowa has been named one of the nation’s outstanding high school volunteers through the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. Eighteen-year-old Maria Belding, a senior at Pella High School, got actively involved with helping to feed the hungry after she had to toss out some 200 boxes of macaroni and cheese at her local food shelter because they’d expired.
“We tried talking to the food shelters around us and ended up playing phone tag and leaving messages for months,” Belding says. “The expiration dates came and we had no choice but to throw them out. I got stuck with that job and it was awful to stand there and throw it all into the dumpster knowing somebody could have done something to get those into the hands of somebody who could’ve used it.”
She learned that wasting food was a common problem at shelters, so Belding helped create an online database to let food pantries post information about unneeded supplies on a website that can be searched by other organizations serving the hungry. The database is approved to begin a pilot phase in Iowa and North Dakota. It’s called MEANS, for Matching Excess And Need for Stability.
Belding also helped create a 19-page booklet to advise students how to conduct food drives in their schools. Working with the Des Moines-based World Food Prize Foundation, the downloadable resource guide has since been distributed to students in 26 states and six other countries. “We reached out to a whole bunch of different people that we know, adults that work in the hunger community, teachers, administrators, other student leaders and we tried to get as many perspectives as possible on how to run a food drive,” Belding says. “Ultimately, that was compiled into the PDF. A couple of different organizations picked it up and now it’s been downloaded several hundred times, which is so cool to see.”
Each student who wins the Prudential Spirit of Community Award gets $1,000, a silver medal and an all-expenses-paid trip in May to Washington, D.C., for four days of recognition and a special dinner at the Smithsonian. Belding says she was stunned by the news. “I was really, really surprised and unbelievably flattered and honored,” Belding says. “I had filled out the application because my principal told me to and then I completely forgot about it. It’s such an honor and reading the bios of these other kids, they’re absolutely incredible and I’m so excited to meet them.”
Winners are named for each state at the high school and middle school level. Iowa’s middle school winner is 13-year-old Tayvin Schmoll of Sioux City. He’s an eighth-grader at West Middle School who raised more than $3,000 to fight breast cancer after learning his fifth-grade teacher had been diagnosed with the disease. Schmoll organized several fundraisers, including a “Hats on for Cancer” event at his school that let students make $1 donations in exchange for permission to wear hats on Fridays during May.
The money he raised helped the June E. Nylen Cancer Center in Sioux City provide mammograms to women who can’t afford them and to purchase new radiation equipment.