PORTLAND — A fifth-grader at Ocean Avenue Elementary School has won a Girls Rock! award from Hardy Girls Healthy Women for the volunteer work she does with kindergarten students.

Twice a week, Madalena Rocha works with kindergarten students who are new to the country and to school, and also don’t speak English. She was born in Angola, which is on the southwest coast of Africa, and her first language was Portuguese.

Remembering what it was like to feel overwhelmed by a new country, a new language and new expectations, Rocha makes the younger students not only feel welcomed, but valued, according to Hardy Girls Healthy Women.

“Madalena shows incredible empathy, caring and skill as she teaches and inspires confidence in these students,” the program for the Girls Rock! award ceremony stated.

In addition to volunteering with kindergartners, Rocha is also a member of the Civil Rights Team at Ocean Avenue Elementary and “works with the group to make the culture of the school one of acceptance and inclusion,” the organization said.

Rocha, 11, was the youngest of the six award-winners honored by Hardy Girls Healthy Women this year. She received the community organizer award at the 10th annual Girls Rock! event, held at Camp Ketcha in Scarborough April 7.

The other award winners were all high-schoolers from all over the state, including from as far away as Frenchville and Wilton, and as close as Falmouth.

Prior to being nominated for a Hardy Girl Healthy Women award, Rocha was not aware of the group or its mission, which is to support “girls causing a ruckus,” according to the organization’s website.

Overall, the nonprofit, which is based in Waterville, “takes girls seriously and puts the power in their hands to change a society that ignores their brilliance,” the website states.

Now that she’s aware of Hardy Girls Healthy Women, Rocha said she would be interested in taking part in some of their programs, which include a variety of workshops, an Adventure Girls summer camp and more.

“A girl can do anything,” Rocha said Monday, wearing a big grin.

She said she was “very excited” about the Girls Rock! award, even though it meant giving a speech in front of the other winners and a roomful of well-wishers that not only included family, but teachers and staff from Ocean Avenue Elementary.

In her speech, Rocha recalled how difficult it was to be in kindergarten without speaking English. She said volunteering her time to help other students feel welcome and safe is “very important” and that she’s “very glad to help out.”

Rocha said her parents left Africa for the United States because they wanted to ensure their three daughters received a good education. Rocha has an older sister who is in seventh grade at King Middle and a younger sister who is in the second grade at Ocean Avenue.

When she and her family first arrived in the U.S., they lived with an uncle in Connecticut before moving to Maine. Rocha’s first sustained introduction to English was through a preschool program at the East End Community School, she said.

She and her sisters enjoy gymnastics, Rocha said, but her favorite activity is writing poetry.

Beverly Coursey, principal at Ocean Avenue, said Rocha is a big help to students who don’t speak English, as well as to the faculty and staff at the school.

“I sometimes call her down to the office to ask for her help interpreting,” Coursey said Monday. “And Madalena is always happy to help.”

While she’s most comfortable with Portuguese, Rocha is also able to understand Spanish, although she’s not quite as fluent in that language.

She’s looking forward to attending King Middle next year and also plans to continue her volunteer work.

“What I like is that by doing a little thing, you can turn it into a big thing and make a difference,” she said.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

Madalena Rocha is a fifth-grader at Ocean Avenue Elementary in Portland and was recently honored with a Girls Rock! award from Hardy Girls Healthy Women for volunteering to assist non-English speaking kindergarten students at her school.

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