They are raising money for AIDS, cleaning up their neighborhoods, tutoring their peers, and taking on political and social missions.

They are high school seniors from across the region who are championing projects to help the less fortunate in their communities and abroad.

Nazareth Academy High senior Sara Hilghman said that helping others had become second nature. She recently sewed more than 150 tiny colorful fabric bags for young patients at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children to use to cover their chemotherapy and IV bags.

"I love helping other people," said Hilghman, 17, of Philadelphia. "It's just so empowering to know that you get to help someone and you made someone's day so much better."

Hilghman was among 72 students from New Jersey and Pennsylvania honored yesterday by The Inquirer with its first student citizenship awards during a ceremony at the National Constitution Center.

Schools selected one senior who demonstrated qualities of civic or community service, scholarship and school participation.

The seniors were recognized for community service, such as raising more than $15,000 for autism research, planning a conference on violence, organizing a Valentine's Day party for the elderly, and working in a local soup kitchen.

Several students are tackling global missions: tutoring students from the Dominican Republic and raising funds for a Darfur Awareness Club.

Community service has become a routine for high schoolers, and in some cases is mandatory - as many as 120 hours may be required.

Of the 197 public high schools in the region, 63 have a community service requirement for graduation, according to an Inquirer survey for its annual Report Card on the Schools. The community service requirement was reported by 64 of 185 charter and private schools.

New Jersey is in the second year of a pilot project that requires juniors to complete at least 15 hours of community service. Pennsylvania does not have a state mandate, but districts have imposed their own requirement.

"They're stressing that more and more," Mike Tomasetti, a guidance counselor at Audubon Junior-Senior High in Camden County, said of community service.

Tomasetti selected Eric Venable, an Eagle Scout, mentor and camp volunteer, from among this year's 166-member senior class.

Venable spent several months cleaning up a memorial grove near the school that had been a frequent target of vandals. The memorial honors deceased Audubon residents under age 21.

"I thought it was a good project to do," said Venable, 18. "It really helped the community."

Venable, who used the project to earn an Eagle Scout badge last November, said that service gave him "a sense of well-being" and that no accolades were needed.

"It's just the right thing to do. Why wouldn't I do it," said Venable, who plans to study chemical engineering at Rowan University.

The students received a medallion, a trophy plaque that will be displayed at their school, and a $100 gift card from Inquirer editor Bill Marimow and publisher Brian P. Tierney.

Tierney said the award was created to honor students and encourage others to get involved in their community.

"They're showing that they care and they have a responsibility in the community beyond the next test," Tierney said. "There's a lot of great kids out there."

Hilghman, an aspiring physical therapist who plans to attend Temple University, said it was refreshing to see her peers praised "instead of seeing teens who did something bad." Hilghman and her classmates are completing a safari mural for St. Christopher's.

"It's finally good to see some students who are doing something good," she said.

Contact staff writer Melanie Burney at 856-779-3876 or mburney@phillynews.com.