Four UCLA students honored with humanitarian award for volunteer efforts
By Letisia Marquez May 04, 2010 Category: Student Affairs
Abdallah Jadallah started a food pantry for low-income students. Benjamin Moore sneaked into Burma to aid the country's refugees. Evelyn Wang and Mark Dakkak taught children and adults how to read.
The four students were honored with the 2010 Charles E. Young Humanitarian Award for their outstanding commitment to public service. The awards ceremony, a private event for family and friends, took place Wednesday, May 5, in the Charles E. Young Grand Salon at UCLA's Kerckhoff Hall.
The Young Humanitarian Award, established by UCLA in 1986 as an annual tribute to recognize and encourage projects that address communities' social needs, is one of the most prestigious honors given to UCLA undergraduates.
Each student received $700 to be donated to a public service project of their choice.
Abdallah Jadallah, 22, of Perris, Calif., was recognized for starting the UCLA Community Program Office's Food Closet, a pantry stocked with donated items like canned soups and vegetables, instant noodles, bread, and oatmeal for students who need food but can't afford it.
The Food Closet is located near the Community Programs Office (CPO), a campus unit that houses the offices of 24 community service organizations.
As president of the Muslim Student Association at UCLA during the 2008 school year, Jadallah met a lot of students on campus. He started to notice that many cash-strapped students didn't buy food as they shuttled from one class to another, or they bought cheap, unhealthy meals every day because they couldn't afford anything else.
"A lot of food was being thrown away at campus events," Jadallah said. "I thought, 'Why not collect it and put it in a closet and have all students access it?'"
Antonio Sandoval, director of the CPO, found a closet for Jadallah to start collecting food, and the project took off.
Food has been donated by individuals, as well as by businesses trying to unload items close to expiring, Jadallah said. Campus units or student groups who have food left over from an event also have dropped off food.
About 40 students a day access the Food Closet, which has a refrigerator and microwave nearby. Jadallah placed a notebook in the Food Closet for students to leave their comments about the pantry.
"The hardest thing to accept is the notion that there are times in life when you become dependent on (the) charity of others," wrote one student, who explained that he was unemployed for four months in the summer of 2009 and became homeless. "Thank you for restoring my faith in humanity and for making it possible to continue working towards my dream of becoming my family's first college graduate."
Several universities throughout the nation, including the University of Oklahoma, have called Jadallah for advice on how they can start a food pantry for their students. And people moved by Jadallah's project also have given him funds to help him complete his education.
Jadallah said he doesn't think he's done anything spectacular.
"In the Muslim religion, we're supposed to help others," he said. "If (Allah) gives you a good, strong body, a strong mind, you should utilize it to spread good and to fight injustices."
Jadallah, a civil engineering major, plans to donate his award money to the CPO Food Closet.
Benjamin Moore, 22, a native of Tacoma, Wash., received the award for his involvement with Bruins for Burma, a student group whose goal is to educate the community about the devastating impact of Burma's military junta. For a year, he also has been working with Burma Community Builders to build a high school at a Burmese refugee camp.
Just this March, Moore spent his spring break preparing the school for its opening at a refugee camp for Burma's ethnic Karen minority. It was his second trip volunteering in Southeast Asia.
To get to the camp, Moore said, he had to bypass Thai and Burmese authorities, who do not want foreigners visiting the refugees. He rode over a dirt road through the Thai jungle for four hours, and volunteers then ushered him to a river boat and covered him with a blanket for an hourlong trip down a river to the camp.
"Building the high school is really important for the camp's youth," said Moore, who developed the school's curriculum. "There's no school to speak of in the area. Most of the young men grow up to become rebel soldiers. Our hope is to offer them some type of alternative to that."
Moore's fondest memories of Burma were playing soccer barefoot with the refugees.
"The people there have a lot of faith," he said. "Just to see them battling and struggling is very impressive."
Moore, a political science major, also conceived the idea of erecting a "peace pole" at UCLA after he noticed them in several countries throughout the world. The poles are erected to show a community's commitment to world peace. UCLA's pole was erected in January 2009.
"I've seen a lot of the world and see how many benefits we have in the United States," said Moore, who plans to donate his award money to Burma Community Builders. "As a Christian, I feel it's a necessity to give back for what I have."
Evelyn Wang and Mark Dakkak received the award for their work with Project Literacy, which sends approximately 120 UCLA volunteers into East and South Los Angeles public libraries and a Mar Vista community center to help children and adults learn to read.
Both plan to donate their awards to Project Literacy.
Wang, 22, of Hacienda Heights, Calif., is co-administrative director for this year's project. In addition to helping run the program, she also has tutored adults in the program.
Approximately 3.8 million people age 16 or older in the United States have "low literacy" levels, Wang said, citing 2000 census data.
Los Angeles County, with its troubled public school system and high number of non–English-speaking immigrants, has one of the highest functional illiteracy rates in the nation, she said. Functional illiteracy refers to a person's ability to read and write only simple words and sentences into adulthood.
Three years ago, Wang started tutoring a Jamaican immigrant who at the time had the reading level of a fifth grader. The man, who had been taking English classes, now reads at an eighth-grade level, said Wang, who tutors him on a weekly basis.
"The people we tutor are so committed to the program," said Wang, an English major. "Many of them have full-time jobs and children, but they've made a commitment to learning."
Motivated by their efforts, Wang became co-director of the adult literacy program two years ago. She pairs tutors and students together and ensures that tutoring sites are functioning smoothly.
Mark Dakkak, 21, of Roseville, Calif., has tutored children through Project Literacy and helped run the program.
Many of the children in the program are several grade levels behind, Dakkak said. In addition to working with them on reading skills, tutors also spend time improving the children's math skills or helping them in other subject areas.
"When a tutor understands that a child's parents don't speak English or are illiterate yet sees the parents' enthusiasm for education, the tutor feels like their service is more valuable," he said.
As administrative director of Project Literacy during the 2008–09 school year, Dakkak organized committees and set up an intern program to involve more volunteers in the project's workload.
With such a structure and increased recruiting, Project Literacy was able to double its number of volunteers from 60 to 150, Dakkak said.
Dakkak, a math major, spent his summer last year working in Haiti with Partners in Health, a leading nonprofit organization that provides health care to Haitians. He visited the homes of severely malnourished children and helped their families set up small farms to grow vegetables and rice.
Like other Young Humanitarian Award recipients, Dakkak, who will graduate this year, hopes to pursue a career in which he can continue to help others. He plans to apply to medical school and work in underserved communities. Wang wants to pursue a graduate degree in educational psychology. Moore has been accepted to Columbia University's master's program in international affairs and conflict resolution. And Jadallah plans to take classes for a few more quarters and then apply to graduate school in civil engineering.
"Once you have made a difference in someone's life, you witness real change," Dakkak said. "And you make a commitment to making a difference throughout your life."