COVENTRY — Above all else, Jaya Joyce hopes to inspire others to treat everyone with kindness.
“Especially in high schools, where there are so many students who feel alone or like they don’t belong,” said the Coventry High School senior, who this week was announced as a recipient of the 2020 Prudential Spirit of Community Award.
Encouraged to apply for the prestigious award by her Spanish teacher, Christine Hoskins, Joyce said she was shocked to learn Monday that she’d been selected as the winner among Rhode Island high schoolers.
“It feels pretty good,” she said Tuesday. “I was not expecting it at all.”
Now in its 25th year, the award is given annually by Prudential Financial and the National Association of Secondary School Principals to one high school student and one middle school student in each state in recognition of outstanding community service efforts. In Joyce’s case, a lot of those efforts have revolved around her leadership within Coventry High School’s Unified Oakers Program.
Joyce and some of her friends founded the Unified club at the start of the last school year.
“We felt like there was definitely something missing at our school,” she said. “We wanted to do something to get everyone together to improve the culture of our school community.”
Joyce and the other co-founders tossed around a couple of ideas before landing on the decision to establish a Unified program.
With the goal of creating a culture of inclusion, the program encourages students to reach out to their classmates who are “lonely, isolated, challenged or bullied.”
Citing her own experiences being bullied, Joyce wrote in her application for the award that “from a young age, [she] knew what it was like to feel lonely.” And it’s through those painful memories, she added, that her passion for helping others developed.
The Unified Oakers club kicked off with a series of school-wide assemblies to teach students the value of inclusion and to have them take a pledge to be kind to everyone.
“We told all the students what’s expected,” Joyce said of the assemblies, adding that it’s crucial for those experiencing loneliness to feel safe talking to their peers.
The club has since initiated a bi-monthly social hour for students to make new friends, established a Unified volleyball team of students both with and without disabilities, and organized several school-wide Unified basketball games.
The Unified Oakers also raised more than $13,000 for Special Olympics through a polar plunge last year.
“And this year we’re planning on going even bigger,” Joyce said of the plunge, scheduled to take place March 21 at Roger Wheeler State Beach.
What began last school year as a club, Coventry High School Principal Brooke Macomber added, has become ingrained into the culture of the high school.
“As a principal, it’s inspiring to see students stepping up all over the place to help their classmates out,” Macomber said. “It has really, really transformed our school culture like we could never have imagined.”
Motivated by the success of the program at the high school level, Joyce and her friends are now working on bringing the Unified program to the town’s middle and elementary schools. They’re also planning to host a district-wide Special Olympics field day event at the high school this spring.
Macomber added that she’s not surprised to see Joyce presented with the Prudential Spirit of Community Award.
“She’s just such an outstanding person,” she said. “What she has done is so remarkable.”
Macomber noted that Joyce served as Coventry’s representative on the Rhode Island Student Advisory Council, as well, and also serves on Special Olympics Rhode Island’s Youth Activation Committee.
Joyce, who as part of the award will receive $1,000 and an engraved silver medallion, plans next year to attend Fordham University in New York City, where she hopes to continue participating in service opportunities.
“One thing I’ve learned from being part of the Unified movement is to always follow my heart and follow my passion,” she added.
And in the meantime, Joyce will travel in May to Washington, D.C., where she’ll represent Rhode Island during a series of national recognition events. There, five out of the 51 high school honorees will be selected as the country’s top youth volunteers of 2020.
“My money is on Jaya,” Macomber said.