North Tonawanda sisters, Bailey and Shelby Walter, were recently recognized by the New York State Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. The awards are a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism. The awards are in their 23rd year and conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Honorees were judged on criteria including personal initiative, effort, impact and personal growth.
Bailey is a junior at North Tonawanda High School and has been volunteering since the fourth grade to raise awareness of spinal muscular atrophy and money for the cure. She said she was inspired by a friend, who has the disease. "In second grade I knew a boy who had it. It renders kids where they can't walk or can't move some times. You get diagnosed about 18 months. It is very deadly, but not a lot of people know about it."
She decided she wanted to help him and others who have SMA. "I asked my mother if I could start a charity and she said no, I was too young. I came back to her two years later and asked again and she told me to do my research and give her a presentation and she would decide. After my presentation, she told me if I could sell 100 bracelets to start my charity, she would let me do it."
Bailey, with the help of her teachers at Drake Elementary, sold her bracelets in a couple of days for $2 each. She started her charity called "Let Them Dance" and its mission was to raise money and awareness for SMA. "We are trying to light the world purple to get people to know about it. We are trying to take monuments all across the country and the world and light them purple on Aug. 16, which is SMA Day. We need to help kids with this," Bailey said.
With the help of Sen. Robert Ortt, who was mayor of North Tonawanda at the time, they were able to light the Peace Bridge purple on that day. "Sen. Ortt was the first person to take me seriously. He is such an amazing man and I can't thank him enough for his support," Bailey said. She also thanked her parents, family and Sen. Chris Collins, who is also a big supporter of her cause. Bailey said, "I was really happy to receive the Prudential Award. I had also received the Nickelodeon HALO Award a few years ago, which goes to teens who are helping or leading others. That really helped to bring attention to my charity because they gave me a commercial on their website and flew me to New York for the show. It will be great if this bring attention to SMA as well."
Shelby is a sixth-grader at Drake Elementary School and has collected enough school supplies to fill hundreds of backpacks for kids in need over the past two years. "It started a few years ago when I saw a girl who didn't have a backpack. Apparently, her family didn't have enough money to get her one and I felt very bad about that," Shelby said.
With her sister Bailey and a teacher as her inspiration, she created a website telling people her mission was to make sure that every child had a backpack and school supplies. Encouraged by the response, she started asking local businesses for donations. The support was overwhelming. Shelby said she starts looking at her inventory in the middle of summer and then starts looking for donations for whatever she is lacking. "I start packing the backpacks at the end of the summer and asking family and friends if they know of anyone who needs one."
Not only has she helped students in the North Tonawanda City School District, but children in other countries. "We had a mission trip at our church, so the youth group helped me pack up over 250 backpacks and we sent them all overseas," Shelby said.
Shelby is very modest about winning the award. "I am sure there are other people more deserving than me. But I feel lucky to have gotten it." Drake Elementary Principal Katie Smith said Shelby has helped a lot of students at the school and that she is very proud of her. "Shelby is certainly the type of person that we would see as a leader in the future because she has already taken on so much of that in what she does now. She serves others and that is the best thing we could have happen for any of our kids, is provide service to the community and for the greater good. She is certainly an exemplary example of that. We are fortunate to have her here at Drake and for the service she has done for Drake and NT and the community and beyond," Smith said.
"Prudential is proud to recognize these remarkable young people for using their energy, creativity and compassion to bring meaningful change to their communities," said Prudential Chairman and CEO John Strangfeld. NASSP Executive Director JoAnn Bartoletti added, "These students have not only improved the lives of the people and the communities they've served, they also set an important example for their peers. They prove that you're never too young to make a difference."