Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps honors Vermillion, Sioux Falls students

WASHINGTON, D.C. – South Dakota's top two youth volunteers of 2017 were honored by an Olympic gold medalist in the nation’s capital Sunday night for their volunteer service.

Sixteen-year-old Anneliese Taggart of Vermillion and 13-year-old Donnie Stoltz of Sioux Falls received the recognition during the 22nd annual presentation of The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards in Washington, D.C.

Taggart and Stoltz, along with 100 other top youth volunteers from across the country, each received $1,000 awards and personal congratulations from Michael Phelps at an award ceremony and gala dinner reception held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program, sponsored by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), named Taggart and Stoltz South Dakota's top high school and middle level youth volunteers in February.

In addition to their cash awards, they each received an engraved silver medallion and an all-expense-paid trip with a parent to Washington, D.C., for four days of recognition events.

Taggart, a junior at Vermillion High School, started a free gymnastics class for children with special needs in her community. She had been a gymnast for 10 years and a gymnastics instructor for the Vermillion Parks & Recreation Department since 2014 when her cousin, who has Down syndrome, came to visit her at work one day.

He immediately wanted to try what he saw her students doing, and soon mastered a forward roll.

“I will never forget that day,” Taggart said. “He opened my eyes to the joy that children with special needs experience in the gymnastics room.”

She immediately felt a calling to spread that joy. She met with special education teachers at local elementary schools to discuss the idea of a special gymnastics class, developed a plan and schedule for the class, and sent letters to the parents of every special ed student in her school district.

Stoltz, a seventh-grader at Patrick Henry Middle School, has collected sports equipment for more than 100 children in need, and undertaken a variety of other volunteer projects to help those who are struggling in his community.

When he was eight years old, Stoltz saw a TV news story about a man who gave small amounts of money to strangers who needed help.

“I thought that was really cool,” he said. “So I turned to my mom and said ‘We should do that, too.’”

Since then, Stoltz has recruited friends to help him pack meals for hungry kids, collect clothes for a domestic abuse shelter, provide toys and books to homeless children, gather Halloween costumes for Native American youngsters, and raise money to rebuild a burned playground.

But his biggest endeavor is an ongoing drive to collect gently used athletic shoes and sports equipment for kids whose families cannot afford to buy them.

Stoltz holds two collection events a year, and solicits donations through a Facebook page. He then distributes his sporting goods directly to kids and through local charities.

“I think it’s important so that kids can be active and healthy, and so that they can make more friends through sports,” he said.

Youth volunteers in grades 5-12 were invited to apply for 2017 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards last fall through schools, Girl Scout councils, county 4-H organizations, American Red Cross chapters, YMCAs and affiliates of the HandsOn Network. More than 31,000 middle level and high school students nationwide participated in this year’s program.