Breakfast Club Designed to Connect Youth and Community

Paul Sweich

The Pantagraph

The divide between some youth and adults in McLean County is being bridged by conversation, activity and hope.

It's happening one Saturday a month in an innovative program presented by the Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal, United Way of McLean County, City Life Bloomington, Not In Our Town (NIOT) and ABC Counseling & Family Services.

"The Breakfast Club was an opportunity to create action to bridge that divide," said United Way President David Taylor.

The idea is to connect youth — who may feel disconnected from the community — with the community through discussions, introductions to different places and careers in McLean County, and community service projects. The goal is to decrease youth violence.

While the program has started small, organizers and participants already are seeing some connections.

"Some of the teens are trying to change," Martilisha Harris, 18, of Bloomington, a member of the Boys & Girls Club and the Breakfast Club, said last week at the Boys & Girls Club, 1615 W. Illinois St.

"They need to join a program to help ’em move forward correctly instead of on the wrong path," she said.

"We're trying to build this community connection," said Tony Morstatter, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club. "To see the kids build a community among themselves — that is, in and of itself, successful."

The Breakfast Club would not exist if not for the increase in Bloomington-Normal shootings that began last year. Many of the victims and shooters were teens and 20-somethings.

Last summer, The Pantagraph interviewed teens, young adults and their mentors at YouthBuild McLean County, an alternative school for at-risk youths, and Boys & Girls Club, which has programs for at-risk, low-income children and teens, about what can be done to stop the violence.

Reports of shots fired continued in Bloomington-Normal this year.

In August, United Way and NIOT hosted a community conversation at Miller Park Pavilion about the violence. That was followed by two listening sessions with young people — one at Boys & Girls Club and one with City Life Bloomington that works with teens on relationship-building and social skills.  

While community leaders described McLean County as caring, friendly and diverse, youth described it as boring, unsafe and dangerous.

"We are trying to bridge that disconnect," said United Way consultant Kathleen Lorenz.

MLK Luncheon Speaker Urges Citians to 'Turn Righteous Anger Into Action'

 Julia Evelsizer

The Pantagraph

Four passionate trailblazers were recognized Saturday at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. awards luncheon.

The event at the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in Normal honored two teens and two adults from the Twin Cities while focusing on the need to stand up to injustice and spur change through action.

Appellate Justice James A. Knecht, 1996 winner of the Martin Luther King Jr. Award, spoke to a crowd of hundreds before the winners were introduced.

“Dr. King said the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict. We’re not here today to be neutral. We are here to turn righteous anger into action,” said Knecht.

He encouraged attendees to “cast aside fear and vote for hope.”

“Speak out, march, practice compassion and decency, revere justice and vote,” said Knecht. “Vote with your collective voices. Vote with your feet as you march with the drumbeat of social change. Fill the ballot box with your hopes and dreams of what America can be.

Mayors Chris Koos of Normal and Tari Renner of Bloomington recognized the award recipients.

Jordyn Blythe (Photo by Lewis Marien/The Pantagraph)

Jordyn Blythe (Photo by Lewis Marien/The Pantagraph)

Winners of the youth “I Have a Dream Award” were University High School senior Jordyn Blythe of Bloomington and Normal Community West High School senior Xavier Higgins of Normal.

Blythe cofounded Serve Plus One, an organization providing service activities and reflection for teens. She also volunteers at several local organizations and cofounded U High’s Black Student Union.

“To all of the youth in the room,” she said, “it is our time now. Don’t be passive. You are never too young to serve. Work to make our world better now because this is what we inherit. Be compassionate and be loving.”

At Normal West, Higgins leads the Best Buddies program to foster friendships with students with physical and intellectual disabilities. He’s also involved in the freshman mentoring program.

“I plan to major in college in computer science and bring technology to people who can’t easily access it so they can work to excel themselves in their own homes,” said Higgins.

Adult recipients were Andre Hursey of Normal and the late Lorenzo Marshall of Bloomington.

Hursey volunteers with several children’s groups in the community and recently founded the Jule Foundation, an organization that offers financial literacy, tutoring and motivational speaking opportunities for youth.

“I want to thank my mother, Gloria, for planting that seed early on and truly showing me the way of serving others in our community,” said Hursey.

Elaine Marshall of Bloomington accepted the award on behalf of her husband who passed away in August.

Lorenzo Marshall volunteered in the Twin Cities and chaired the Juneteenth celebration in Bloomington. Elaine Marshall said her husband would have been humbled to be recognized.

“I can personally attest to the energy and time Lorenzo spent helping mentor others to be their best,” said Elaine Marshall. “Reflecting back on the memories we had in the 42 years we were together really helps the healing process. This award today is something I can add to the reflection of those memories.”

Banquet to Honor 44 Young Community Models


Why I See You, YICU Service Awards Celebration to recognize and celebrate young adults’ community service and leadership in McLean County
For A Better Tomorrow (FBT) announced on August 2 that 44 young leaders and two teams have been nominated for the second annual Why I See You, YICU Service Award. YICU celebrates young leaders who are role models that make a positive impact on others lives and their community through everyday actions in their neighborhoods, schools, social service agencies or through voluntary service to others. 

Tickets for the YICU Service Awards Banquet are $25 and may be ordered on the FBT Website. Deadline to purchase the tickets in September 5. 

“Most of these nominees operate largely ‘under the radar’ doing good deeds, sharing their time and talent quietly and selflessly. We are honored to recognize and celebrate them.” said Cranston Sparks, YICU Steering Committee Member.
A panel of leaders will review the nominations and select three winners in three different age groups. All nominees will be recognized at this event. Nine individuals and one team will be chosen from the outstanding group to receive a prestigious award based on their accomplishments and community impact! FBT is excited to make a $250 donation towards a non-profit in honor of the award winners.

The Awards Banquet will be held on September 10 at the Double Tree in Bloomington, IL. The social hour begins at noon with the program at 1 pm. This year's nominees are:

  1. Emily Fienhold, 21, Chenoa, IL
  2. Jeffrey Risberg, 12, Bloomington, IL
  3. Amber Hill, 16, Bloomington, IL
  4. Jaylyn Haynes, 14, Bloomington, IL
  5. Sankalp Amaravadi, 16, Bloomington, IL
  6. Anusha Bhojanam, 14, Normal, IL
  7. Kaitlyn Stephens, 17, Farmer City, IL
  8. Caroline Pickering, 17, Bloomington, IL
  9. Arjun Kale, 13, Normal, IL
  10. Sankhya Amaravadi, 22, Bloomington, IL
  11. Breanne Penn, 18, Normal, IL
  12. Kavya Sudhir, 16, Bloomington, IL
  13. Wah Chook, 17, Bloomington, IL
  14. Shreeya Malpani, 16, Bloomington, IL
  15. Carys Lovell, 15, Bloomington, IL
  16. Elena Hollingsworth, 18, Bloomington, IL
  17. Sky Holland, 18, Normal, IL
  18. Rebekah Herrmann, 17, Normal, IL
  19. Austin Spaulding, 18, Bloomington, IL
  20. Veli Aydoner, 17, Bloomington, IL
  21. Danylle Myers, 18, Normal, IL
  22. Amit Sawhney, 15, Bloomington, IL
  23. Savannah Sleevar, 14, Bloomington, IL
  24. Sierra Fields, 18, Bloomington, IL
  25. Jasie Kelch, 20, Normal, IL
  26. Leah Sebade, 18, Normal, IL
  27. Zitlally Arias, 17, Bloomington, IL
  28. Ajitesh Muppuru, 15, Bloomington, IL
  29. Makayla Castle, 17, Farmer City, IL
  30. Nathaniel Parson, 17, Bloomington, IL
  31. Sky Watson, 17, Bloomington, IL
  32. Rajeshwari More, 12, Bloomington, IL
  33. Bronwen Boyd, 17, Bloomington, IL
  34. Manasa Chenna, 14, Normal, IL
  35. Bhavana Ravala, 16, Bloomington, IL
  36. Nachiketh Rotte, 16, Normal, IL
  37. Sharanya Rotte, 12, Normal, IL
  38. William Short, 17, Normal, IL
  39. Micah Johnson, 18, Bloomington, IL
  40. Georgi Roll, 18, Bloomington, IL
  41. Camron Hinman, 16, Normal, IL
  42. Tristan Bishop, 18, Bloomington, IL
  43. Logan Smith, 18, Normal, IL
  44. Cierra Ester, 15, Normal, IL
  45. Not In Our School Student Coalition Team - Aishwarya Shekara, Kavya Sudhir, Mihir Bafna, Anniah Watson, Ajitesh Muppuru, Zitlally(Lolly) Arias, Fiona Ward Shaw and Shreeya Malpani
  46. Bloomington High School Promise Council Team - Mihir Bafna, Alisha Nadkarni, Bronwen Boyd, Fiona Ward Shaw, Veli Aydoner, Amber Hill, Carys Lovell, Wah Chook, Sierra Fields, Nathaniel Parson

Laurie: No Tolerance for Zero Tolerance

By Laurie Bergner

WJBC Forum

It’s a rare event when laws are passed to soften instead of increase punishments, but I am happy to report a new law that requires schools to limit long-term suspensions and expulsions, as well as eliminating the use of zero-tolerance policies used to severely punish students for certain offenses. Chicago Democrat Senator Kimberly Lightford, who sponsored the legislation, said “So it becomes a school system that says, ‘what can we do to keep this student in an academic setting?’” The law requires schools to look to other options, such as counseling or involving them in after-school programs, before suspensions longer than 3 days. In addition, for longer suspensions, schools will be required to give students support services while they’re away and allow them to make up work they missed.

Zero tolerance policies grew out of the Gun-Free School Act of 1994 that followed the horrendous Columbine shootings. This act required states receiving federal funds to mandate that local school districts expel students who bring a weapon to school for a minimum of one year. States rushed to pass laws to meet the requirements, which soon were followed by schools all over the country. Zero tolerance rules mandate predetermined punishments for weapons, drugs and alcohol without regard for when the behavior or possession was done in ignorance, by accident, or under extenuating circumstances. It does not take into account of the seriousness of the behavior or the student’s history. These policies have been implemented too broadly and too often for minor incidents, such as giving an advil to a friend, or having a small pocket knives.

Contrary to popular belief, research has found that zero tolerance policies are not effective and often have unintended negative consequences. A disproportionate number of the students who are suspended are black or Hispanic, as well as students with disabilities. African American students are 4 times as likely to be suspended than white students for the same violation; students with ADHD are 3 ½ to 7 times more likely to be expelled. And following suspensions, students experience depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and academic failure. And school dropouts increase.

One of the school rules that I find most unfair is the one that suspends both students involved in a fight, regardless of who started it. Ask police how they deal with a bar fight: do they jail everyone? Of course not. They make every attempt to find out who started it and charge that individual, rather than the one who was defending himself or herself. So who should a school fight be any different? How is it justice to consider the defender to be as culpable as the offender? Yet that is exactly what schools have done in their zero tolerance rules.

So I welcome this new law. I am aware it is yet another unfunded mandate for schools, but nonetheless, it is an essential change from a punitive to a prevention and correction model, one that will have crucial positive effects.

Laurie Bergner is a clinical psychologist in private practice, working with individual adults, families and couples. She also works with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, helping organize candidates forums, educational programs, and many issues in the field of law and justice. She has received many recognitions in both fields, including YWCA’s Women of Distinction in the Professions, Leaguer of the Year, LWV Special Project Awards, and the LWV of Illinois’s prestigious Carrie Chapman Catt award. Laurie has a wonderful husband and two grown children – also wonderful. She loves biking in the countryside, reading, and traveling.

Local Youth Create Visual, Musical Accompaniment to NIOTBN Efforts

Maria Nagle

The Pantagraph

When 16-year-old Oskar Urquizo saw his silhouette Friday on a retaining wall across Olive Street from the Bloomington Public Library and City Hall, he was taken aback.

"It's kind of scary because how accurate it looks like me," said Urquizo.

But more importantly for Urquizo is why his silhouette and those of six other McLean County Diversity Project students — known as "scholars" — are being painted on the wall.

The silhouettes anchor a 115-foot-long section of a mural the youths are creating to spotlight efforts by Not In Our Town of Bloomington-Normal to end hatred and bigotry in the communities.

Local artist Vince Bobrosky is guiding the students to allow their personal narrative to become visual art. Each scholar's silhouette is the centerpiece of a section the scholar will complete his or her own way.

"Me and my dad were racially profiled here in Bloomington, so that is one of the main reasons why I wanted to be part of the project," said Urquizo, who grew up not far from the wall.

"There are so many things you wouldn't know about a person unless you talked to them," added Urquizo. "This project is kind of showing the differences between all of the different people in our community."

Other silhouettes are of Oskar's sister Olivia, 12, Abhiru Raut, 13, and Ved Lombar, whose age was unavailable, all of Bloomington; brothers Richie Beck, 16, and Max Beck, 13, both of Colfax; and Molly Klessig, 13, of Downs.

Klessig said she wants to use the image of a Protea, a South African flower, in her portion of the mural.

"It's really kind of perfect,” said Klessig, who was among four scholars at work on the mural Friday. “It represents diversity."

After the students complete the mural over the summer a dedication ceremony will be announced.

To go along with the mural project, two other scholars — Kristin Koe, 18, and Ethan Clay, 13, both of Bloomington — formed a piano-cello combo to record "Vicissitudes," a piece featuring music they composed. David Rossi, owner of Bombsight Recording Studio, donated his time and and facility for the project.

"'Vicissitudes' actually means 'change,'" said Koe. "I think it is representative of the song itself, but also the mural and what Not In Our Town stands for."

Camille Taylor, a retired educator and a NIOT member, and Jeff Schwartz, founder of the the Diversity Project, also worked with the youths on the project.

It was the scholars' idea to do a mural, which they are calling "Let Our Light Shone," said Taylor.

The students met over four Fridays after school at the city's Creativity Center to put the project together. They also had help from the Downtown Bloomington Association, which also has a public art program.

Rays extending from the silhouettes contain each student's personal message about NIOT. The rays also shine on depictions of the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, the Normal Theater and other iconic Bloomington-Normal buildings.

"When you think about the youth and the messages that they are going to have inside each of the silhouettes, their message is the light," said Taylor.

"They are basically filling our community with hope for the future," she added. "They are generating from their hearts and heads their hopes and dreams for this community and the world. There can't be anything better than that."

The musical recording will be uploaded along with pictures of the mural to NIOT's website,

The duo will perform the song at the Not In Our Town Festival from 6-9 p.m. June 28 on the downtown Bloomington square, said Taylor.

“I think it is super cool that when I have kids and they have their kids that they are going to be able to go to this wall and say, 'Hey, grandma painted that; mom painted that.' I want it to be a memory,” said Klessig.

April 28 YWCA Reading Program Aimed at Girl Enpowerment

Take a stand with the YWCA on Thursday, April 28, and help empower young girls of color, ages 4-10.

Stand Against Racism 2016: On a Mission For Girls of Power, a program to empower young women, is scheduled 4-5:30 p.m. at the YWCA of McLean County, 1201 North Hershey Road, Bloomington.

"Together, we’ll learn about Grace and her adventures in Amazing Grace, through a special reading with a volunteer from Reading to End Racism," the YWCA stated. Following the story and discussion, girls will enjoy cookies, a special craft, and taking photos.

Further, parents, teachers, and caregivers are invited to a 4:30 p.m. Amazing Empowerment Session where they can learn tips and tricks to empower "the young girls of color in your life."
Please visit or contact Christy at or 309-662-0461, ext. 253, for more information.

Reading to End Racism’s goal is to raise awareness of the harm racism causes and to help develop skills and strategies to actively counter racism in order to create a supportive and welcoming environment for all children. Amazing Grace, by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch, tells the story of an optimistic girl named Grace who tries out for the role of Peter Pan even though her classmates think that she cannot be Peter Pan.

NIOT:B/N Seeks Youth Input at Culture Fest

Not In Our Town: Bloomington-Normal plans to target youth and its input at the Twin Cities' annual Cultural Festival Saturday at Illinois State University Ballroom in the Bone Student Center. 

NIOT:B/N plans to provide an indoor mini-basketball game to lure young people to its booth at the festival, which features multicultural education, information, and performances.  In addition to asking visitors to sign an anti-bigotry/anti-bullying pledge card, NIOT:B/N will ask young people to write answers to these questions:

1) What do you like about Bloomington-Normal?

2) What should we change in Bloomington-Normal?

3) What do you feel so strongly about that you would stand up to change in Bloomington-Normal?

For information and a schedule of events, visit

Portals to the Communities 2: McLean County India Association

MCIA celebrated 35 years in the community in November.

The McLean County India Association was established in 1979 to help bring social and cultural events to a then-small Indian community of less than 50 families. It has come a long way since then.

Over the last 33 years, MCIA has contributed significantly to social and cultural development in the Bloomington/Normal community. MCIA’s mission is to promote Asian Indian culture among its members and help Asian Indians become an integral part of the local community.

MCIA’s primary goals are:

* To promote Asian Indian culture and values among its members.

* To promote participation in community volunteer and charitable activities.

* To increase awareness about India and Indian culture in the local community.

* To promote leadership, volunteerism, sports, and educational activities for youth members.

For information, visit

Meanwhile, the Hindu Temple of Bloomington-Normal, 1815 Tullamore Ave, Bloomington, is preparing to welcome the New Year, from 11:30 p.m. to midnight Dec. 31. For details, visit