As summer break sets in, most 14-year-olds have their heads filled with visions of swimming pools, leisurely days sofa surfing, maybe sleep-away camp. But not Kyler Stockstill.
For Kyler, a rising high school freshman in Wichita, Kansas, the freedom of summer means replacing studying with service. This summer, much like last, he’ll spend his days helping out a local food bank and traveling to Mexico to build a house for a family in need.
Kyler’s keen drive to help others has already earned him notice despite his youthful age — he was one of 102 teens across the country to be named a State Honoree for the 2017 Prudential Spirit of Community Award.
When the notice of his award arrived in the mail, he thought he’d done something wrong. It came in a red envelope that to him screamed trouble. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what did I do?’” he says.
He had applied for the award after returning home from a three-day excursion to Juarez, Mexico, last summer where, along with about 15 other members of his church, Kyler helped construct a house for a family of six.
He says he didn’t think for a minute that he’d win — others had done so much more than he had. But in his application, he shared what he’d learned from his experience, and that’s what he thinks set him apart.
“The lesson I learned was how much we take for granted,” Kyler said, adding that he was “kind of heartbroken” to witness the circumstances faced by the family he was there to help. Before their new house was built, the family was living in a two-room shack constructed largely of cardboard and wooden pallets.
Kyler says he’s seen poverty on the annual mission trips he takes with his church to Kansas City — but nothing even close to the level he saw in Juarez. He felt bad for the family but had a sense of relief knowing that they were doing something to help.
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards is the largest program in the U.S. recognizing youth for their volunteer work. Each year, 102 kids and teens are named State Honorees — two from each state and Washington, D.C. From that group of State Honorees, 10 win the title of National Honoree, the award’s highest level.
In the 23 years it’s been running the award program, Prudential has recognized 120,000 youth across America for their community service. Youth from grades 5 through 12 are eligible to apply. State Honorees receive a $1,000 award, a silver medallion and an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C., for the national recognition ceremony. Those who win the national competition receive an additional $5,000, a gold medallion, a trophy for their school as well as a $5,000 grant for a charity of their choosing.
Though he’s excited about the award, the potential for accolades isn’t what draws him to volunteering. Nor is it a chore or a task he has to complete to look good for colleges in the future. For him, it’s fun — a fulfilling way to socialize and meet others who care about the same things he does, all while doing something good for the world.
When asked what he wishes more kids his age knew about volunteering, this is what he brings up. “It’s not boring,” he says. “I feel like too many people think it’s boring and you don’t get anything out of it.” He often invites his friends to come volunteer with him so they can see what he sees in it.
Kyler, who is adopted, says his parents first inspired him to get involved with community service projects. They are both school teachers and constantly working to help others.
It’s also a special way for him to spend time with his family. His summer shifts at the food bank are spent with his grandmother, an active volunteer who brings Kyler and his younger adoptive sister, Kalee, to pitch in.
Though Kyler was adopted as an infant, his history helps him understand struggle and sacrifice in a different way than many of his peers.
His birth mother immigrated to the United States from Honduras as a young teen. She became pregnant with Kyler at 18, and decided to find an adoptive family for him. As she was looking for the best possible parents for her unborn son, Kyler’s adoptive parents presented her with a picture book showing what his life would be like with them.
Fourteen years later, Kyler still has that book — a tangible manifestation of their love. “That’s mostly what the book showed. Love, and how much they loved me,” he says.
Lori and John Stockstill promised Kyler’s birth mother that they’d help him remember her and the sacrifices she made to give him a better life, and they held true to their word.
“She did it for my safety,” he says with a tone of reverence. “It was for my own protection.”
Kyler feels a special connection to other adopted kids — he says he knows quite a few. One day, he’d like to put his community service experience to use helping them. Lori Stockstill is pursuing a master’s degree in school counseling right now, and she and Kyler have talked about the idea of starting a nonprofit organization to provide counseling services to adopted kids.
“The program would help them get used to their new family,” he explains. They would put an emphasis on positive group activities to help new families bond.
Though he spends more time with his parents than most kids — Kyler’s mom works at his middle school, and his dad teaches at the high school he’ll enter in the fall — family bonding activities like Saturday bowling trips are important and cherished traditions, he says.
As for his projects, Kyler shows no sign of slowing down. He’ll return to Mexico this summer to build another house with his church, and he continues to volunteer at the local food bank and serve meals to the homeless.
He hopes to one day take his spirit of service to Washington, D.C., and get involved in politics. He’s recently applied for a spot on the Mayor’s Youth Council in Wichita, where he’d have the chance get his feet wet in public service working on policy issues and engaging with the community at various events.
“I want to work in Washington one day. It’s a crazy dream, but I’d like to work in the White House,” he says. “I’d like to be the president, the first Hispanic president.”