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'World Is One Big Family' For Young B-N Volunteer

Jennifer Cheryl and Avani on the Quad
Cindy Le
From left, YICU award nominee Jennifer Ehresman, YICU planning committee chair Cheryl Hussain, and dual nominee Avani Rai.

Kids these days catch a lot of flak—screen-obsessed, selfie-taking, everyone-gets-a-trophy young punks, as the stereotype goes.

In reality, kids these days are kind of awesome.

Take Avani Rai, an eighth-grader at Evans Junior High School. She’s also a teen teacher at Unity Community Center in Normal, where she helps kids from families with limited resources. She’s also part of the team behind Little Free Pantry, a take-what-you-need pantry on Morris Avenue in west Bloomington. And those are just the first two lines of Avani’s lengthy resume of volunteer service in the community.

“As a volunteer, I truly believe in a Sanskrit saying, which is Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, which means that ‘The world is one big family.’ I truly feel a connection with any of the volunteer activities I do because of this thing I believe in,” Avani said on GLT’s Sound Ideas.

"I truly feel a connection with any of the volunteer activities I do because of this thing I believe in."

Avani is one of 34 young nominees who will be recognized Sunday at the Why I See You (YICU) Service Awards, hosted by the nonprofit For A Better Tomorrow. The nominees are all between ages 12 and 22. Ten winners will be announced at Sunday’s event.

Avani is actually a dual nominee—for her work at Unity Community Center, and as a Little Food Pantry team member. Her parents were the first to inspire her volunteerism, starting with collecting for the Sewa Diwali food drive, which coincides with the Hindu festival of lights.

Avani says one of the best parts of being a YICU nominee is connecting with all of the other service-minded young people in her own community. The YICU kids are already kicking around other project ideas, like a food-sharing basket for Avani’s school, or connecting with youths overseas on Skype.

“We are very fortunate here in the U.S., and a lot of people don’t understand that because they live here,” Avani said. “So (it would be about) really experiencing how other people across the world are living, and teaching them English, talking to them over Skype.”

Another nominee is Jennifer Ehresman, 20, a public relations and Spanish major at Illinois State University. She’s heavily involved in campus ministries, including the nondenominational Christian ministry Cru, and a faith-based group for student-athletes called Athletes in Action.

Ehresman herself can’t be a student-athlete because of a heart condition she was diagnosed with in high school. But her involvement with groups like Athletes in Action keeps her close to sports.

Ehresman said receiving the YICU nomination was an honor.

“Especially meeting people like Avani, who inspire me to do so much,” she said. “It’s really encouraging to see the youth—they can be empowered. They can be the change in the world.”

Organizers of the YICU awards hope to encourage nominees to “keep it up” while also encouraging their peers to do service too, said Cheryl Hussain, chair of the YICU planning committee and a board member of For a Better Tomorrow. She’s also owner of Majestic Interior Design.

“We do it because we want to recognize these students who usually go under the radar,” Hussain said. “They do so many awesome things. It feels so good to recognize them.”

Learn more about Sunday’s event at

Full segment from GLT.

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Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.