"The cat ate my homework!" may not be a common excuse among young students, but for BASIS Scottsdale eighth-grader Clare Flaherty, 13, it's actually true.
"Classmates might joke their dog ate their homework, but I can actually say my kitten ate my homework," she said. "I haven't used this excuse at school; and unfortunately, I have to do the homework again."
The kitten isn't Clare's family pet, though; it's one of more than 30 she's fostered over the past three years for the Arizona Humane Society.
Clare was recently recognized as one of two top youth volunteers in Arizona in 2020 by the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism.
"I can't believe there is this level of recognition for doing something I love," Clare said.
"The most rewarding part is to see how I made a difference," she added. "You don't need to be an adult or possess some special talent or have a big bank account to have a significant impact in your community."
Phoenix Country Day School junior Michael Bendok, 16, was also named a top youth volunteer for raising more than $141,000 to find treatments for overlooked and underfunded rare diseases.
His efforts have helped more than 20 families find treatments for their children.
“Considering the fact that 25 million people currently suffer from one of 7,000 documented rare diseases in the United States, I found the lack of treatment available for patients abysmal,” Michael said.
As State Honorees, Michael and Clare each will each receive $1,000, an engraved silver medallion and an all-expense-paid trip in early May to Washington, D.C., where they will join the top two honorees from each of the other states and the District of Columbia for four days of national recognition events.
During the trip, 10 students will be named America’s top youth volunteers of 2020.
"In our 25th year of honoring young volunteers, we are as inspired as ever by the work students are doing to address the needs of a changing world," said Charles Lowrey, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, Inc., in a prepared statement.
He added: "We hope that their resolve, their initiative, and their perspectives on society's challenges move others to consider how they can make a difference, too."
After learning that a local animal shelter was at capacity for cats and kittens, could no longer accept any more strays, and was in dire need of volunteers,
Clare persuaded her parents to allow her to become a foster parent.
Clare's mother, Tara Flaherty, said it was a "no-brainer" to allow Clare to work with the humane society.
"When Clare did a PowerPoint presentation presenting her case to foster cats,
I knew she was ready for the enormous task," Tara said. "She didn't fully understand at that time the work and tears involved but I could see her spark and determination. That's all you need."
Clare fosters kittens for a few months at a time, helping to heal them both mentally and physically.
"Physically, they need to rest and gain weight; mentally, that is the bigger challenge and requires persistence and patience," Clare said.
Some kittens need feeding by bottle or syringe every three hours; and some need medication up to five times a day.
"Some have required surgery and then come back to me for recuperation," Clare added.
Most of the kittens Clare has fostered have unknown histories and arrive to her "so broken,” she said.
"Some of the cats I get have the worst histories, like being locked in a cage in the middle of a highway in August summer heat," Clare added.
But it's these “broken” fosters, she said, that are her favorite.
"I am known to staff at the Arizona Humane Society to turn around some of their hardest cases," Clare said. "When you achieve that breakthrough, when that kitten starts to trust you and respond to interaction, it is the most unforgettable feeling of achievement I have ever experienced."
Tara said Clare's volunteerism has helped her daughter understand how fragile life is and "how unfair it is for some that are born into lessor circumstances."
"Clare can now easily relate this to humans both domestically and across the world. Then she witnessed how her efforts both singularly and with the team from the Arizona Human Society behind her made a difference. She feels powerful," Tara said. "This is incredible at such a young age."
Clare calls being a foster parent "amazing" and one that requires "a lot of work and responsibility."
"If you give your time and talent to something you are passionate about, the rewards will come to you and your community," Clare said.
"Whoever adopts my fosters are lucky," she added. "They will enrich your life as they did mine. Adopted pets know they have been rescued and reward with the deepest love and allegiance to those that have helped them."
Six other Arizona students were recognized as Distinguished Finalists for their community service activities, including Chaparral High School senior Brianna Iannone, 18.
"Middle level and high school students are doing remarkable things to shape the future of their communities through volunteer service. They inspire all students and schools to drive learning with real-world challenges," said JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of NASSP, in a prepared statement.
"Congratulations to each of the 2020 honorees,” Bartoletti added. “It’s an honor to celebrate your commitment to creating positive change."