WASHINGTON — Morgan Barron marshaled 100 youth volunteers to grow nearly 1,500 pounds of produce to feed Utah's poor.
Eric Babb has educated roughly 2,500 people about harmful invasive weeds, and hundreds of volunteers have helped him remove them from a Utah County wilderness park.
Earlier this month, Barron, 13, of Riverton, and Babb, 16, of Highland, received Prudential Spirit of Community Awards as Utah's top volunteers for 2012.
The Utah teens joined 100 other winners — two from each state and Washington, D.C. — at an awards ceremony and gala dinner reception at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
"Through their extraordinary acts of volunteerism, these students are powerful examples of the way one young person can make a big impact," said John R. Strangfeld, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial Inc. "We are proud to honor them for their achievements and hope their stories inspire others to consider how they, too, can make a difference."
In addition to medals and $1,000 in prize money, Barron and Babb received personal congratulations from New York Giants quarterback and two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning.
"We got to talk to him for a little bit," Babb said. "It was very awesome."
"He was very interesting," Barron added. "He was definitely not like your stereotypical football player. He was kind of quiet.
Barron, a member of the Girl Scouts of Utah and an eighth-grader at South Hills Middle School, organized several projects to grow vegetables and donate them to the Utah Food Bank.
Barron said she was troubled after learning that one in six Utah children under age 5 go hungry and wanted to do something about it.
"That really bugged me," she said. "I decided I would start a community garden that would help feed Utah's hungry."
With help from about 20 volunteers, Barron planted and tended a garden that produced 250 pounds of produce last year.
She also reached out to other residential gardeners and encouraged them to share their harvests with the needy. Roughly 50 volunteers from local church groups helped collect 1,000 pounds of produce for the food bank.
Another 30 volunteers helped Barron create two urban gardens.
"It's really interesting when people stop me in the halls (at school) and ask, 'When are you doing your garden? When are you weeding,'" Barron said. "And it's really cool when they say, 'Can we come over and volunteer?'"
Babb, a member of the 4-H youth development organization and a sophomore at the Utah County Academy of Science, has been working for the past five years to rid a Highland Glen Park of the invasive weed Dalmatian toadflax.
He first spotted the plant while walking through the park near his home and inquired about it. After learning it was an invasive weed, Babb decided it needed to go.
"I started out removing the invasive plants all by myself," he said, "and I realized it was going to take a really long time if I didn't get help. So I started recruiting others."
The Highland City Council gave Babb the go-ahead to remove the weeds and encouraged him to involve the Girl Scouts. Scout troops, church and school groups and other volunteer organizations also have been involved in Babb's "Plant Patrol" project.
In all, hundreds of volunteers have spent more than 3,500 hours helping to remove invasive weeds. Last year, he began vegetating the area with native plants.
Babb says the Dalmatian toadflax infestation has been lessening at Highland Glen Park, but it's an ongoing battle.
"There's still quite a bit of invasive plants, even though we've been removing them for so long," he said. "We're going to keep on trying to get rid of it there."
After that, Babb said he plans to battle invasive weeds in other areas of Utah County.
"Meeting with people who care about the environment and service has been an awesome thing," he said.
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