Veronika Scott started a project in Detroit that hires shelter residents to sew coats for the homeless that convert into sleeping bags.
Stacey Abrams is the first woman to lead either party in Georgia's General Assembly, a Democrat who's known for working across party lines to pass legislation.
On Monday evening, both won public service awards bearing John F. Kennedy's name in a Boston ceremony that included the late president's daughter, Caroline Kennedy.
"As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy presidency, it's inspiring that my father's call to service is still being answered by people like the two young Americans we honor today," Kennedy said.
The annual New Frontier Awards honor those younger than 40 who have become role models for a new generation of public servants by showing qualities of civic-mindedness, pragmatism, vision and tenacity in finding and addressing public challenges.
The prizes are a collaboration of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Scott, now 23, was a student at College for Creative Studies in Detroit when she launched her project by working on a class assignment with this direction: "Design to fill a need."
Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, poses with Stacey Abrams, left, and Veronika Scott, right,after presenting the annual Frontier Award at the John F.Kennedy Library in Boston, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012. Abrams, minority leader of Georgia's House of Representatives, is the first woman to lead either party in Georgia's General Assembly. Scott, was honored for her project in Detroit that provides jobs for female shelter residents, who make coats for the homeless that transform into sleeping bags. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Close
"It's amazing to be here and see where this started," she said after the audience saw a short video about her work.
Scott spent months at a Michigan shelter getting to know the homeless. She said she was known as the "crazy coat lady" before she designed a coat prototype that weighed 20 pounds and took 80 hours to make.
But Scott streamlined her design. She now employs homeless women to work in a formerly abandoned warehouse where they use donated materials and equipment from General Motors and Carhartt to make warm convertible coats for the homeless. Scott expects that her nonprofit, The Empowerment Plan, will produce 800 coats by year's end.
"She's changing the world, one coat at a time," Kennedy said at the ceremony inside the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Abrams, 38, is also the first African-American to lead in Georgia's House of Representatives. Before her election in 2006, Georgia's House Minority leader served as Atlanta's deputy city attorney.
The award committee cited Abrams' work to negotiate saving a full-day pre-kindergarten program that was a target for cuts, with Kennedy saying Monday that Abrams has looked for common ground wherever she can find it.
"I was lucky to grow up in a family that believed that we were never too old or too young to serve others," Kennedy said. "And that we each have a responsibility and a power to make the world a better place."
The awards, she said, were created to celebrate that idea.
Kennedy presented both winners with a ship's navigational compass in a wooden box. Each bears an inscription from her father's speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1960.
"We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier," the boxes say. "I believe the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision. I am asking each of you to be pioneers on that New Frontier."
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