Three UCLA students who have distinguished themselves through their outstanding commitment to public service will be honored May 7 with the 2008 UCLA Charles E. Young Humanitarian Award at a private ceremony for friends and family. The event will take place at 3:30 p.m. in the Charles Young Grand Salon at UCLA's Kerckhoff Hall.
The Young Humanitarian Award, formerly known as the Chancellor's Humanitarian Award, was established by UCLA in 1986 as an annual tribute to recognize and encourage projects that address the social needs of the community.
This year's student honorees — Yecenia Olmos, Neilesh Patel and Cynthia Reasner — will each receive $700, to be donated to a public service project of their choice.
Yecenia Olmos, a fourth-year undergraduate, is being honored for her five years of leadership with Project Literacy, a UCLA student-run organization that provides one-on-one reading and writing tutoring for youth between the ages of 7 and 16 and some adults in a number of underserved communities, including Watts, South Los Angeles, Baldwin Hills and Mar Vista.
For the past three years, Olmos has been a director with the program, in charge of coordinating UCLA volunteers in South Los Angeles, while also serving as a project-liaison director for the Community Service Commission at UCLA, where she is responsible for ensuring that 20 other service projects have the resources they need.
Olmos, who grew up in South Los Angeles, recalls having trouble with reading and writing in school and being unable to ask for help from her parents, immigrants from Mexico who didn't speak English. In middle school, she fell in with the wrong crowd and joined a gang.
"But I looked down the path I was headed and realized it was the wrong one," she said. "I wanted to go to college, and I wasn't going to get there that way."
Olmos literally fought her way out of the gang, dedicated herself to her studies, improved her reading and writing skills, and ended up as valedictorian of Jefferson High School, receiving a Gates Millennium Scholarship to attend UCLA.
In addition to her full course load — she will graduate in June with a double major in political science and history and a minor in Chicano studies — Olmos typically volunteers twice weekly with Project Literacy, serves in her role with the Community Service Commission and works at least 20 hours a week at a law firm in Westwood.
At times throughout her educational career, she has been the primary breadwinner for her parents and three siblings, who, until a year ago, were living together in a converted garage.
Olmos will be the first in her family to graduate from college and plans to apply to law school next year.
Neilesh Patel, who will graduate from the UCLA School of Dentistry in May, is being honored for his social entrepreneurship in creating HealthCare Volunteer (www.healthcarevolunteer.com), a Web site that connects volunteers with public health organizations around the world.
In 2005, during his first year of dentistry school, Patel had hoped to travel to Brazil to provide dental services to underserved communities. But he encountered difficulties finding volunteer opportunities, having contacted more than 15 Brazilian organizations and receiving no response. He found that other dental and medical students had experienced similar problems.
Patel took matters into his own hands, creating the Dental Volunteer Web site, and later a medical volunteer site, to help connect students with volunteer opportunities. The sites were a success, and increasing numbers of volunteers signed up. To date, the sites, which have been consolidated into HeathCare Volunteer, have made 20,652 successful global volunteering connections.
Under Patel's leadership, the site has expanded its scope, offering the public the opportunity to donate money, goods and services in support of HealthCare Volunteer's mission. This summer, Patel will travel to 10 countries on four continents, bringing donations of medical and dental equipment and setting up clinics in underserved communities.
The Web site also fills a void locally. In response to a new California law requiring dental screenings for entering kindergartners, HealthCare Volunteer connects children who cannot afford screenings with dentists willing to donate their services.
Patel said he loves what he does and hopes to continue after he receives his degree.
"This is the job people dream of doing when they are wealthy and retired — of being a philanthropist, doing something for a good cause," he said. "But you don't need to be a billionaire. I have all the tools to do something like this. I say, 'Why not? Why shouldn't I?'"
Cynthia Reasner, who will earn a joint law degree and master's in social work in 2009, is being honored for creating the SEED Mentoring Project, a program that pairs UCLA students with foster youth between the ages of 13 and 15.
While an intern with Los Angeles County's EASE-IN program, which offers mentoring and other supportive services for foster teens, Reasner found that mentoring relationships tended to be inconsistent, and mentors were hard to network with, since they came from all over the city. In addition, because there was no funding and no support structure for mentors, many often dropped out.
The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services has seen the need for supportive, mentoring relationships and has set a goal of providing all foster youth with a mentor by 2010. The need is greatest for teens, who are forming independent identities but still need adult support.
"Many youth leave foster care or emancipate without an adoptive family or any permanent relationship with a caring adult," Reasner said. "Many youth move from placement to placement and school to school without consistent and continuous emotional support and guidance."
In response, Reasner founded the SEED (Supportive Encounters With Emancipation Demands) Mentoring Project, recruiting UCLA students to serve as mentors for foster teens.
"Since all the mentors come from one place, it's easier for them to support one another," Reasner said. "They can meet on campus, carpool together. The mentors develop a sense of camaraderie, and they can reinforce what they are doing."
After she receives her degree, Reasner plans to work as an attorney representing foster youth in abuse and neglect cases.
"Early intervention is key," she said. "Things that happen to kids, both positive and negative, most affect their outcomes later. Adults who are in prisons or homeless, something happened to them when they were children, a point of intervention that we missed. There's the most hope for changing things in kids."
UCLA is California's largest university, with an enrollment of nearly 37,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The UCLA College of Letters and Science and the university's 11 professional schools feature renowned faculty and offer more than 300 degree programs and majors. UCLA is a national and international leader in the breadth and quality of its academic, research, health care, cultural, continuing education and athletic programs. Four alumni and five faculty have been awarded the Nobel Prize.