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Local students receive Red Wagon awards

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WORTHINGTON -- Ananaya Alwal and Nicole Ektnitphong share two things in common: a passion for volunteerism, and as of Monday, Red Wagon awards.

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Alwal and Ektnitphong were two of 10 youths across the state to receive Red Wagon awards Monday from the Minnesota Alliance with Youth.

The award honors students who have demonstrated "increased academic achievement, civil engagement and service, and/or exemplary leadership."

Ananaya Alwal

A Worthington High School senior, Alwal has been involved in various projects through the Nobles County Integration Collaborative (NCIC) since she started high school.

"I've seen how she's grown as a leader and improved academically," said NCIC Youth Initiatives Coordinator Lakeyta Potter, who recommended Alwal for the award.

As a freshman, Alwal remembered seeing a poster for Dynamic 507, a leadership program through the collaborative.

"I remember one of the first things we planned was for MLK (Martin Luther King) Day. We had a march from the collaborative to the high school," she explained. "People talked to us about service and volunteering."

From her initial experience in Dynamic 507, Alwal's community involvement and service learning projects snowballed.

Throughout her high school years, she's participated in numerous activities, including mentoring elementary students; being a member of the Youth Diversity Council (a group that initiates discussion on social justice topics and works on solutions to make a difference); and also representing Worthington in the Minnesota Youth Council (MYC).

As an active member of the MYC, Alwal and her two of her Worthington peers had the opportunity to meet with District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton earlier this year.

"We got to talk to him about funding for programs like at the collaborative," she said. "The collaborative has made an impact on us, and we still need it.

Alwal has not only participated in service projects, she also gained insight from a national service learning conference on ideas to better the community.

"We learned how to get a service project started and how to get people involved," she said.

Planning a service project is a goal she'd like to accomplish before she graduates.

Alwal was not aware she was nominated for the Red Wagon award until she received the award notification.

"We usually pick students who've really shown great leadership skills," Potter said. "She (Alwal) has put in 250 volunteer hours since ninth grade."

Apart from volunteering, Alwal has been involved in school sports -- basketball and soccer -- until recently, when she tore a ligament in a soccer game.

"I think I'm pretty much done for the year," she said with a laugh.

As for her plans after high school, Alwal knows what she wants next -- to attend a four-year college and pursue a bachelor's degree in physical therapy.

Nicole Ektnitphong

Ektnitphong could be held up as a model for high school students. The 2010 WHS graduate was "heavily involved" in school, both academically and in extra-curricular activities.

Class secretary in her junior year and president for the senior class last year, Ektnitphong was student council president, secretary for the WHS National Honor Society, and soccer team captain for three years.

"I started becoming really active in my junior year," she explained.

As she sat in her room one day "researching random world issues," Ektnitphong came across charity:water, a non-profit organization providing safe drinking water to people in developing countries.

After further research and watching several videos, Ektnitphong decided she wanted to contribute to the effort.

"I grabbed seven of my closest friends and told them my idea," she said about Water for Worthington, a project she started with her friends earlier in the year. "Each of them had something different to bring to the group."

Through three fundraisers, Ektnitphong and her friends, with support from NCIC, managed to raise almost $2,000 for charity: water.

Although her initial goal was $5,000, Ektnitphong said any amount of support was appreciated.

"For me, no matter how many people there are, it's better than before," she said.

Now a freshman at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Eknitphong was nominated for the Red Wagon Award by AmeriCorps Promise Fellow Chelsea Chelsea DeRuyter, who worked closely with her on Water for Worthington.

Potter, who witnessed Ektnitphong as she led her peers in the charity project, called her a "very positive person."

"She exemplified what great youth leadership really is," Potter said.

Balancing school work in addition to various activities taught Ektnitphong lessons in organizing and prioritizing.

"My parents were very supportive, but I know that school comes first," she said.

Still undecided on her major, Ektnitphong is debating between biology and political science.

"It's something so simple, but I know I want to be helping people for the rest of my life and engaging in service with others," she said. "Whether medically or legally -- I'm not sure yet."

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