Smile Politely

Social justice work honored by McKinley Foundation

If you read/listen to/watch the news lately, it’s easy to get bogged down in all that’s going wrong in the world, in our nation, in our state, and even here in Champaign-Urbana. However, there is good to be found out there, and you don’t have to look too hard to find it in this community. I attended the McKinley Foundation’s 8th Annual Social Justice Awards Gala on Saturday night, and heard the stories of individuals and organizations that are making a difference in big and small ways both in our community and on a national and international scale.

The McKinley Foundation and McKinley Presbyterian Church have long been on the forefront of social justice movements in our community. They have advocated for civil rights and racial equality, supported draft resistance and peace efforts during the Vietnam War, aided in the resettlement of refugees and those seeking political asylum, welcomed full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in church and foundation life, and much more. It’s quite fitting that they would be the ones to seek out and award those in the community who are working towards social justice goals.

Kathie Spegal, current president of the McKinley Foundation board of directors, came up with the idea after she came on as fund development director in 2006. 

“I wanted to find a way to let the community know what McKinley Foundation stood for. I knew there were a lot of unsung heroes in the area who were doing good things that no one knew about. We decided to sponsor an event that would showcase these folks and get the word out about McKinley. It’s been fun to learn about all the projects and individuals who ate dedicated to improving the lives of others.

Each year, four awards are given: student individual, community individual, student organization, and community organization. An award and a $500 gift are presented to each winner at the gala. After an open call for nominations, the Development Committee / Social Justice Awards planning committee selects the winners based on several criteria including dedication, success of the program, bringing awareness to the issue, and community impact. According to Paula Hancock, Executive Director of McKinley Foundation, “We had a great response. The quality of the nominees made the committee’s task difficult when it came time to select the winners.” 

The gala included a silent auction, dinner, and keynote speech by University of Illinois chancellor Robert Jones, but hearing the accomplishments of these four winners was definitely the highlight of the evening. These individuals and organizations are an amazing representation of our community and campus. 

Student Individual Award: Aadeel Akhtar, PhD

Aadeel is enrolled in the MD/PhD program in Neuroscience at the University of Illinois. He’s working to develop prosthetic hands that not only offer amputees better fine motor movement, but also sensory feedback. He is the co-founder of PSYONIC, a company dedicated to creating commercial prosthetics with sensory feedback that are also more affordable for patients. His hand can be built for $550 as opposed to others that are made for several thousand dollars, and sold for over $30,000. 

Student Organization Award: MakerGirl

MakerGirl started as a group project in a Social Entrepreneuership class at the university. A group of four diverse women responded to the question posed by their instructors: “What bothers you?” Their answer was a lack of women in top executive positions. That answer developed into MakerGirl, a non-profit, student-run organization that introduces young girls to STEAM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Art, and Math) concepts through interactive, tech-focused, 3-D printing sessions.

Community Individual Award: Lorianne Bauer

Lorianne founded the Eastern Illinois Foodbank Prom Benefit, an event that’s grown from raising $2500 to $95,000, an amount that will provide 500,000 meals. As the Workforce Investment Director for the Central Illinois Human Resources Group she is also responsible for starting the News-Gazette/CiHRG spring job fair that is specifically focused on helping unemployed and underemployed job seekers find work. 

Community Organization Award: East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center (ECIRMAC)

ECIRMAC provides essential services for refugees and immigrants in the Champaign-Urbana area. Perhaps this statement says it all, “As an organization, they believe in the inherent worth of all human beings regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, race, or cultural heritage. The Refugee Center believes it is possible and desirable for all human beings to live peaceably together, and to work together to create a more loving and compassionate world in which everyone’s basic human needs and rights can be secured.”

In addition to the winners, several individuals and organizations were given honorable mentions and the opportunity to attend the gala and share the work they are doing in the community: Carol Ammons, Adani Sanchez, Orphans Treasure Box, Urbana Rotary Club-Wilcox Shoe Fund, Racial Justice Task Force, Champaign Central High School Social Justice Action Committee, and UIUC Habitat for Humanity.

Visit the McKinley Foundation website to find out more about the ways they promote social justice in our community. 

Photo credit: Constance Sarantos

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