Community service is a privilege, not a chore for 17-year-old Candonino “CJ” Agusen.
Speaking from the East Coast Tuesday, the Kealakehe High School junior said it’s an opportunity to tackle issues, create positive impacts and make a difference. All of this requires vision, courage, innovation, generosity and action.
The latter is what Agusen of Kailua-Kona hopes to inspire in his peers as one of America’s Top 10 Youth Volunteers for 2012. This prestigious honor came from the Prudential Spirit of Community Award program, which annually recognizes students nationwide for their hard work and outstanding volunteer service.
His service beyond self last year made him stand out among the more than 26,000 youth volunteers who vied for the top spots. With the Rotary Club of Kona Sunrise, Agusen helped raise more than $64,000 to purchase temporary housing kits for people displaced by the March 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan.
Agusen recruited others to help him buy ShelterBoxes that include a tent, equipment and 30-day supplies for up to 10 people. They set up a table with collection jars in front of a local store and displayed boards showing a ShelterBox and its contents.
In addition, Agusen campaigned vigorously for donations on Facebook. Within a few weeks, his team raised enough money to take care of 640 earthquake victims for a month. He contributed another $2,000 by making 1,000 paper origami cranes, which were sent to Japan as a symbol of support.
Upon seeing the “overwhelming” destruction and aftermath, Agusen said he was shocked, but knew immediately he wanted to do something and contribute as much as possible.
“People were dying and desperately in need of life-saving shelter and equipment. They were suffering through cold, rain and snow,” he said. “I knew every little bit of help would make a difference.”
His only connection to Japan was an exchange student who attended Kealakehe High School one year and did not live in the disaster area. This service project taught him “that overnight, everything can change instantly, but disaster can bring people together for the good of all.”
Agusen is no stranger to civic engagement. As president of his school’s Interact Club, he has also been involved in many volunteer activities including sending care packages to U.S. military personnel stationed overseas. Agusen thanked his family, school and community for the constant support and mentoring, as well as telling the story about the values of service and communicating the ways to serve or providing opportunities.
Agusen received an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to attend four days of recognition events, including a ceremony where he was personally congratulated by New York Giants quarterback and 2012 Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning.
As the Prudential Spiritof Community National Honoree, Agusen said he received a $5,000 personal award, money he plans to use toward attending a four-year college. Afterward, Agusen wants to go to medical school, complete his residency program, become a general practitioner and then volunteer for Doctors Without Borders, which provides urgent medical care to victims of war and disaster. Agusen also got an engraved gold medallion, a crystal trophy for Kealakehe High, of which three students have been honored by the foundation in recent years, and a $5,000 grant from The Prudential Foundation for the nonprofit organization of his choice — a decision he plans to make this week.
Agusen said the best part of the experience was hearing about the other honorees’ efforts, talking story with them and getting tips on how to fundraise better.
“This trip has been crazy, amazing and inspiring,” he said. “It gives me hope there are others who care deeply about their country, their communities and other people and they are volunteering wherever they can. I really feel like my generation can and will make a difference in the world.”