UCLA Spotlight

Here-and-now heroes: Humanitarian Award winners

  • By Elizabeth Kivowitz
  • Published Apr 28, 2008 9:00 AM

Between time devoted to classes, part-time jobs and commutes, it’s hard to imagine how students fit public service into their demanding schedules. But a few extraordinary students manage a career-like commitment – for instance, this year’s recipients of the Charles E. Young Humanitarian Award.

The 2008 Young Award recipients are Yecenia Olmos, Neilesh Patel and Cynthia Reasner. These three students have worked beyond the borders of UCLA to increase opportunities for and empower disadvantaged groups—not just in Los Angeles, but worldwide. Here are their stories:

Yecenia Olmos

Olmos, who will earn her bachelor’s degree in June with a double major in political science and history and a minor in Chicana/o studies, is being honored for her leadership over the past five years in Project Literacy, a UCLA student-run organization providing one-on-one reading and writing tutoring to youth ages 7-16 in Los Angeles communities.


Yecenia Olmos

Olmos recalls having her own troubles with reading and writing when she was in elementary and middle school in South Central Los Angeles, unable to get help from her parents who didn’t speak English. At some point in middle school, she got 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. I wanted to go to college, and I wasn’t going to get there that way,” says Olmos.

She literally fought her way out of the gang, dedicated herself to her studies, improved her reading and writing skills, and ended up becoming the valedictorian of Jefferson High School and receiving a Gates Millennium scholarship to attend UCLA.

In addition to her course load, in a typical week Olmos volunteers twice for Project Literacy, serves as a liaison between service groups and the Community Service Commission, and works at a law firm in Westwood. At times, she has been the primary breadwinner for her family of six who, until a year ago, lived together in a converted garage in South Central Los Angeles. She will be the first in her mother and father's family to graduate from college and plans to apply to law school next year.

Neilesh Patel

Patel, who will graduate from the School of Dentistry in May, is being honored for his social entrepreneurship in the creation of HealthCare Volunteer, a website that connects volunteers with opportunities at global public health organizations around the world. In his first year of dentistry school in 2005, Patel wanted to go abroad to Brazil to help provide dental services to underserved communities. He contacted about 15 groups in Brazil, but he received no response. He found that other dental students and medical students had the same challenges volunteering abroad.


Neilesh Patel

Patel took matters into his own hands, creating the Dental Volunteer later HealthCare Volunteer web sites to help connect volunteers to opportunities. The sites were a success, and more and more people signed up. To date, the sites—which have been consolidated into one—have made 20,652 successful connections resulting in a global volunteer experience. Under Patel’s leadership, the site has expanded its scope. 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 website is also filling a void locally. In response to a new California law requiring dental screenings for entering kindergartners, HealthCare Volunteer connects children who cannot afford the screening with dentists willing to donate their services, and provides them with the tools they need.

Patel 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 says. "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

Reasner, who will earn a joint law and master’s degree in social work next year, will receive the Young Award for creating the SEED Mentoring Project, a program that pairs UCLA students with foster youth ages 13-15.


Cynthia Reasner

While an intern with Los Angeles County’s EASE-IN program, which offers mentoring and other supportive services to referred foster teens, Reasner found that mentors were inconsistent and hard to communicate with since they were from all over the city. There also was no funding and no support structure for the mentoring program.

So Reasner began the SEED (Supportive Encounters with Emancipation Demands) Mentoring Project, recruiting UCLA students to be mentors for these foster teens.

“Since all the mentors come from one place, it’s easier for them to support one another. They can meet on campus, carpool together … The mentors develop a sense of camaraderie; they can reinforce what they are doing,” says Reasner.

After she receives her degree, Reasner hopes to get hired as an attorney representing foster youth in abuse and neglect cases.

“Early intervention is key. 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,” says Reasner.

This year’s recipients will be honored at a private ceremony for their family and friends on May 7 and will receive $700 each to be donated to their public service project of choice.