FDA student earns D.C. trip

Published 5:48 pm Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Samuel Sherling, a 12-year-old sixth grader at Fort Dale Academy, began a great undertaking more than a year ago to bridge the generational gap between his fellow classmates and the Camellia City’s elderly.

His tool of choice was Project Penpal, an effort that asked his classmates to write to senior citizens in local nursing homes once a month for the remainder of the 2013-2014 school year.

He likely expected his idea to create a number of special memories for the senior citizens and his classmates alike, all while allowing his peers to work on their writing skills.

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He probably didn’t expect to win $1,000 and a trip to Washington.

Sherling was named one of Alabama’s two top youth volunteers of 2015 by the Prudential Spirit of community Awards, which is a nationwide program that honors youth for outstanding acts of volunteerism.

Sherling said that his mother encouraged him to look for a community service project, which sparked an idea from several years ago.

“I remembered that we’d done a project like this in second grade with Mrs. Crocker; we wrote letters to elderly people in the community,” Sherling said.

After finding interested senior citizens to participate in the program and getting his classmates onboard, Project Pen Pal officially took off.

He knew that his supporting cast of classmates would be game, but he was surprised at just how much they got into it.

“Surprisingly, all of them liked it,” Sherling said.

“Most of the time, they don’t really like to work or write, but they did this time,” he added jokingly.

Despite all of the effort that everyone poured into Project Pen Pal, receiving recognition of any kind was the last thing Sherling expected.

So when Sherling discovered that he’d been named a state honoree, and given $1,000, an engraved silver medallion and an all-expense paid ticket to Washington in May, he was, in his own words, “speechless.”

“My mom just wanted to be on the list to say that I tried,” Sherling said.

“We weren’t thinking we were going to win at all.”

His classmates seem just as excited.

“They’re all asking ‘what are you going to do with that money,’” Sherling added.  “One of them said I could buy some more fishing stuff.”

Perhaps begrudgingly, Sherling has decided to tuck the funds away for a car or college in the future.

But the trip in May is maybe the most exciting development of all.

The 102 different state honorees—two from each state and the District of Columbia—will tour the capital’s landmarks, meet top youth volunteers from other parts of the world, attend a gala awards ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and visit congressional representatives on Capitol Hill.

On May 4, 10 of the honorees will be named America’s top youth volunteers of 2015, earning them an additional $5,000, a gold medallion, a crystal trophy and $5,000 in grants from the prudential Foundation for nonprofit charitable organizations of their choice.

Even though he had zero expectations for the state competition, Sherling is approaching the national competition with a much more confidence despite the broader scope of competition.

Sherling’s classmates and teachers seem to share that belief, especially Fort Dale Academy headmaster David Brantley.

“We’re extremely proud of Samuel,” Brantley said.

“The Pen Pal project was a most worthwhile project.  He involved all of his classmates and allowed them to establish relationships with senior citizens.  There were benefits to the students and also benefits to the senior citizens because of Samuel’s efforts.  We’re so proud that he’s been selected for this very prestigious honor.”