Two R.I. Catholic school students to receive national community service honors

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PAWTUCKET — Two Catholic school students have been named the 2016 Rhode Island recipients of the Prudential Spirit of Community Award. Zachary Librizzi, a senior at St. Raphael Academy, and Sarah Coutu, a sixth grade student at St. Cecilia School, were chosen for their efforts as volunteers and activists in the community and will be honored at a national reception in May.

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards represent the country’s largest youth recognition program based solely on volunteer service. Founded in 1995, the program recognizes young people from both public and private schools whose initiative and leadership have made a difference in their communities in areas such as education, aiding the disadvantaged, promoting health and campaigning against substance abuse and violence.

Each year, one middle and one high school student from each state and the District of Columbia are named state honorees and are invited to participate in a national reception in Washington, D.C. Librizzi and Coutu will each receive $1,000 and an engraved silver medallion and have the opportunity to be one of ten individuals recognized as national honorees. Both candidates will also receive the President’s Volunteer Service Award in recognition of community service hours completed.

“We were thrilled. Zach has been a great young man at St. Ray’s,” said St. Ray’s Academy Principal Daniel Richard.

Librizzi was chosen as a recipient of the Prudential Spirit of Community Award for his work to raise awareness and fund research of juvenile diabetes. His family began holding a golf tournament to support the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) 14 years ago after Librizzi was diagnosed with type one diabetes as a ten-month-old child. At the age of 5, he began speaking at the tournament to raise awareness and offer support to others who were diagnosed.

“Growing up as a kid with diabetes, I never felt that I had anybody I could relate to,” he said during an interview at St. Ray’s Academy.

As he got older, Librizzi took on an increasing amount of responsibility with the golf tournament and organized a team for the JDRF One Walk with a friend. He also participates in the JDRF Bag of Hope program, mentoring younger children who have recently been diagnosed. Overall, his efforts in the community have helped raise more than $1 million for diabetes research through the golf tournament and $75,000 through the walk.

“I was thrilled because he has really done a tremendous amount,” said Zachary’s father, Chris Librizzi. “I can’t tell you how uplifting and how spiritual his words are when he talks to the attendees [at the golf tournament].”

Last March, the fight against juvenile diabetes became more personal when Librizzi’s sister, Ava, was also diagnosed with the disease. While the diagnosis was heartbreaking for the family, Librizzi said having previous knowledge of diabetes through her brother has helped her handle the adjustment phenomenally well.

In addition to his work fighting juvenile diabetes, Librizzi is active in his faith life, serving as a Eucharistic minister and volunteering at confirmation retreats at his home parish of St. Kevin’s, Warwick. In the fall, he will attend Roger Williams University, where he hopes to play hockey and study criminal justice. In the future, he plans to organize a charity hockey tournament to support JDRF and take over the golf tournament when his father retires as chairman.

“I don’t even do it for my benefit, I do it for my sister and for other people,” Librizzi said of his community outreach.

Coutu, a sixth grade student at St. Cecilia School, was chosen as a recipient of the Prudential Spirit of Community Award for her efforts to end euthanization of unwanted animals by raising money for no-kill animal shelters through her organization, Paws for Life. She founded the organization two years ago, as a fourth-grader, after learning about animal euthanization and homelessness. A crafter who enjoys making homemade jewelry, pet toys, keychains and blankets, Coutu realized she could raise funds for no-kill shelters by selling her creations to classmates and friends.

“When I started my project, I wanted to help as many shelters as I could,” she said during an interview at St. Cecilia School. “I’ve just always loved animals and had a special connection with them.”

As her skill with crafts grew, Coutu began to expand her business by selling the items at fundraisers and opening up an online store at Etsy.com. She also organized yard sales to supplement the proceeds from her craft sales and donated items directly to shelters. So far, she estimates, the project has raised about $1500 to support the efforts of no-kill shelters.

She noted that 2.7 million animals are euthanized every year.

“What I’m trying to do with Paws for Life is get that number down to zero,” she said.

Eventually, Coutu said, she hopes to open her own animal shelter. She attributes much of her success to her mother and grandmother, who support Paws for Life by making craft items and teaching her their skills. A parishioner at Holy Family Parish, Pawtucket, she also credits her faith with offering guidance through tough times.

“I do think that my faith has helped me with Paws for Life a lot,” she said. “There were times when I didn’t think I’d be able to continue, so I feel my faith has guided me a lot during this project.”

“At St. Cecilia’s we’re always promoting the Catholic faith and helping people,” said St. Cecilia Principal Mary Tetzner. “It’s wonderful for her to get the recognition she deserves.”

Both Coutu and Librizzi said they look forward to meeting other award recipients and gaining new ideas during their trip to Washington, D.C. They are the first Rhode Island Catholic school students to receive the award since 2005, when Elisabeth Sacco, then an eighth-grader at St. Philomena School, Portsmouth, was honored for her work to raise money for children with heart defects and went on to receive a national award.