Now Accepting Your Nominations 
for the 5th Annual Welcome Awards!
The Champaign-Urbana Immigration Forum is hosting the 5th Annual Welcome Awards! 

The CU Immigration Forum is now accepting your nominations in consideration of the individuals and organizations who have made significant contributions, taken risks, and have provided leadership for the well-being and success of immigrants in Champaign County. To view the award categories and to nominate, please fill this short form using the following link:

The CU Immigration Forum will accept your nominations through August 24, 2018.

The award recipients will be officially recognized at the 5th Annual Welcome Awards Ceremony and Celebration from 3:30pm-5pm on Saturday, September 22, 2018 at the Urbana Free Library. Event goers can expect fun for the whole family as we recognize and celebrate the individuals and organizations that have created a welcoming atmosphere for immigrants in Champaign County, Illinois. 

This event is part of Welcoming Week 2018 (September 14-23), a national week of events that works to bring communities bring together, immigrants and U.S.-born residents in a spirit of unity and to raise awareness of the benefits of welcoming everyone. For more information about Welcoming Week, visit Welcoming America's website at:

Past Awardees:

The 2017 Recipients of the 4th Annual Immigrant Welcome Awards:

Student Leadership Award
Nancy M. Ramirez Blancas

Nancy Ramirez Blancas has been in the forefront of student testimony and activism around issues such as the Access act and support for DACA students like herself. She effectively recruited people into La Casa Cultural Latina’s trainings on how to be an ally for undocumented students at the University of Illinois and continues to be a firm and fearless voice for this cause, for herself and others. She has been consistently active not ONLY in behalf of undocumented students but also in her own disciplinary organizations. Nancy has a deep commitment to using her knowledge to help others who find themselves in situations like her own.  Her activism and testimony is fearless, even while she remains uncertain of the educational she has striven so hard to secure.

Humanitarian Relief Award
Samuel Smith

Sam Smith is recoginzed for leading the projects efforts to build a clean water well in the Koyagbema community of Kenama, Sierra Leone near a school operated by the Sierra Leone YMCA. A simple investment in these wells can unlock the potential of every student by helping them stay healthy and freeing them to remain in classes other than leaving classes to fetch water. 
Sam helped coordinate the securing of funding by building a partnership between the University Y,MCA, Urbana Rotary, Sierra Leone YMCA, Akelos, and the Freetown Rotary in Sierra Leone.  Sam’s hard work in coordinating all of this the past two years resulted in the construction of the clean water well this past summer.  He was fortunate to travel to Sierra Leone this summer for the ribbon cutting ceremony.

Distinguished Leadership Service Award
Charles Larenas

For the last 11 years Charles Larenas has been directing the Summer Migrant Education Program in Champaign County. Parkland College has been hosting the program for the last 9 years. This summer of 2017 Charles just finished his 22nd year with the Illinois State Migrant Education Program which provides high-quality and comprehensive educational programs for migrant children.

Charles began his first Migrant Education Program with six employees who served about 60 students in 5 different cities. This year, the program had 86 employees and served over 250 students/families, while recruiting close to 350. Through this program he has been providing unique experiences to local youth. Every year he hires local Latino college students to work at the program and  provides the encouragement, and the empowerment these students need to participate. He is truly developing leaders.

Community Impact Award
The Education Justice Project (EJP) 

EJP is a college-in-prison program. In recent years, EJP has reached out to family members of incarcerated people, providing a monthly forum for them to support one another while writing letters to loved ones in prison. Recognizing the similarities between incarceration and deportation, they extended letter writing sessions, known as the Ripple Effect, to include those facing immigration threats including undocumented U of I students, undocumented local families, and newly resettled refugees.  An additonal service that EJP provides is to assist students who get deported to Mexico through developing a deportee reentry guide. The guide is to assist people who are sent back to Mexico in orienting themselves and learning about services available to them in that country. EJP is recognized for addressing the increasing threats facing immigrants today under the new administration of the United States.

Community Impact Award
Immigration Project 

The Immigration Project (IP) is a nonprofit organization providing immigration legal assistance to the 100,000 immigrants residing in Central and Southern Illinois. It provides access to quality legal services in Central and Southern Illinois. Due to the complexity of immigration law, quality legal services is essential to keeping families united, building strong communities, and protecting victims of crime. Immigration attorneys and immigration specialists travel to meet with clients in seven regional locations. Without these programs, low-income immigrants in the region would struggle to obtain access to professional immigration assistance. Staff is committed to helping immigrants, knowing that immigrants are members of our community, and that helping all members of a community strengthens the entire community.

Human Rights Award
Karyl Wackerlin

Karyl a professional photographer now uses her camera to find and spread joy across the globe during mission trips. As part of That’s What She Said Project, Karyl created and organized She Said: Soul Journey mission trips to God’s Littlest Angels (GLA) orphanage in Haiti. Through this program, she has inspired women in the Champaign-Urbana community to experience this life-changing trip. Karyl has also worked on documenting the caregivers’ stories both through written word and film and has hired translators while in Haiti to work with her on this project. Karyl’s dedicated efforts have resulted in millions of dollars being donated to GLA over the past four years. The project has also introduced women from our community to Haiti and to foster in them the same love for the people and country that Karyl has, creating a connection and bond between CU and Kenscoff, Haiti.

The 2016 Immigrant Welcome Awards:

Student Leadership Award: A student who has shown promise as an important leader in immigration issues, locally or beyond.

Cristina Lucio: For the past two summers Cristina Lucio has interned full time in Tucson, Arizona at the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, a family advocacy organization working to end migrant death and related suffering on the US-Mexico border. She documented missing persons reports through phone interviews and helped organize Colibrí's DNA program initiative. Along with immigrant rights activists, she actively participated in community organization meetings, political demonstrations, dropping off gallons of water in the Tucson desert in hopes that migrants would find them, and other volunteer opportunities all related to immigrant rights and racial justice. Locally, as the undergraduate intern of the Anthropology Department for the past two years, Cristina made it a priority to organize events meant to center and discuss sociopolitical issues that are often undermined on the UIUC campus, including Central American and Mexican migration and US immigration policies. Her senior research work also contributes to critical anthropological analysis of US-Mexico border issues. During spring 2016 she was part of a group of undergrads conducting ethnographical research on immigrant detention in the Midwest, in which we presented at the Ethnography of the University Initiative Student Conference.

Distinguished Service Award: An individual who has demonstrated long-term commitment to the local immigrant community.

Namsoo Hyong - Master Namsoo Hyong has been an active member in the community since 1980. He migrated to Champaign from Korea with very little knowledge of the culture and language to continue his brother's Taekwondo academy. Together, they created a system of non-competitive martial arts that is inclusive of all regardless of race, gender or age. He was also an active member of the Savoy Rotary Club and helped with community projects in the surrounding area. He plays a key role in the Korean Student Association by introducing them to the American culture through socialization with the diverse group of students in his academy. He is also the president of American Intangible Cultural Heritage, which seeks to document culturally significant activities and educate others.

Leadership Award: An individual who has been a strong leader in the immigrant community.

Anh Ha Ho - Ha Ho is the co-director of East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center. Ha Ho has been a vital support to refugees and immigrants in Central Illinois for decades. Though she has served in many roles in our community, her most important contribution hasbeen as the co-director of the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center. Her co-director Deb Hlavna has said, “It’s incredible how much she plugs herself into the community, both in her work and in her volunteer work. She has such incredible passion for people." * Ha Ho’s work at ECIRMAC is very demanding. Because it is a financially-challenged multi-service organization, Ha Ho has often had to serve above and beyond in many different roles – as social worker, translator, transportation provider, medical advocate, parenting advisor and even as consultant on how to obtain housing, education or basic necessities.

In addition to leadership at ECIRMAC, Ha Ho has also been a French teacher at Martin Luther King Elementary School, a translator at Carle Foundation Hospital, and a volunteer translator at Presence Covenant Medical Center and Christie Clinic. She also served as a Board member for the Urbana Free Library. It would be impossible to count the many lives that she has touched, and the many families she has helped through her work. Ha Ho’s own life prepared her for the challenge of serving others. She herself is a former refugee, born in Vietnam, and forced to face war and to flee her own country.

She understands first-hand the experience of living as an outsider and struggling to adjust to an unfamiliar culture. In addition to this profound affinity for others, Ha Ho brings an amazing facility with languages – fluency in English, Vietnamese, French and conversational ability in Spanish and German. “I know what it’s like to feel out of place and to just want to feel acceptance,” she has said. “I want to give people the help that I wish I had when I first moved here.” She brings her experience in a very personal way to all she serves tirelessly with enthusiasm and a smile.

Business Leadership Award: An immigrant owned business that contributes to the local economic development of CU or to the immigrant community through advocacy, donations or in-kind services.

World Harvest International Food (Mohammad Al-Heeti) - Mohammad Al-Heeti is a businessman who incorporates community as part of his business mission as stated on the website of one of his stores: "Our commitment to excellence extends beyond our store’s shelves. We understand the importance of a strong community, and we are dedicated to helping. We have worked to raise money for local schools, and given to causes promoting cultural understanding; disaster relief; as well as other causes important to our customers and staff." I know from personal experience, he generously donates both money and in-kind support to a wide variety of non-profits in our community. His personal engagement as a citizen is a model for all businesses. World Harvest was recognized for its role in the community in 2008, when it received the Champaign-Urbana International Humanitarian Award in Trade and Business!

Community Organization Award: A non-profit or community based organization, which demonstrates exceptional commitment to serving and advocating for local immigrants.

Avicenna Community Health Center - As an interfaith and multicultural not for profit organization, Avicenna Community Health Center helps the uninsured and under-insured, which include those of immigrant status, with medical and social service needs. It's mission is to provide health care for the uninsured and under insured, engage in preventative health care through community health screenings, and promote health awareness through education and information dissemination. Since it's opening in 2009, Avicenna not only helps the community as a whole but also educates through their volunteer program. They have helped many from other countries of origin to receive medical services and connect them with other service providers and cultural communities in the CU area. These volunteers dedicate their Sunday, every week, to assist in keeping those in the community happy and healthy. Those served at the clinic include people from the Congolese, Hispanic, Iranian, Arabian, Indian, and other cultural communities. Avicenna takes great care in making sure no one is left behind that need health services.

Institutional Award: Local government or other large community institution, which has made significant changes to better serve the growing immigrant population.

Urbana School District 116, Bilingual & Multicultural Programs - This award recognizes Urbana School District # 116 (USD 116) for its work with immigrant students and their parents.

We particularly lift up the work of the Bilingual and Bicultural Programs under the leadership of Joseph Wiemelt, Director, and Guadalupe Ricconi, assistant director of Equity and Student Learning; Bilingual and Multicultural Programs, and Lucia Maldonado, Latino Parent Liaison. Our commendation extends to all the teachers and staff working with immigrant families. We commend the leadership of Superintendent Donald Owen and the commitment of USD 116 Board of Education.

Support for new English learners extends from early childhood education, ages 3-5 through high school. On average there are about 750 students who speak a language other than English and 10% of all students in USD 116 are English Language Learners (ELLs). There are 46 different languages represented in the student population. Recognizing that the world truly comes to Urbana School District 116, the School Board voted unanimously to adopt a dual language immersion program. The program includes two groups in each classroom of approximately equal numbers of native speakers and Spanish speakers. Students spend part of the day learning in their native language and the other part of the day learning in their new language. Dual language students outperform their peers and because dual language students interact across cultures, both students and their families develop friendships overcoming barriers not only of language, but also barriers of race and class.

The 2015 Immigrant Welcome Awards:

2015 Award Recipients:

 -Student Leadership Award 
Alberto Lara Valdivieso

- Business Leadership Award 
Sister, Sister African Hair Braiding 

- Leadership Award 
Lucia Maldonaldo 

- Distinguished Service Award
Bob Kirby

- Community Organization Award 
New Americans ESL at First Presbyterian Church in Champaign

- Institutional Award: 
International Prep Academy for Newcomers, Champaign School District, Unit 4 


The 2014 Immigrant Welcome Awards:

2014 Award Recipients:

- Student Leadership Award 
Allison Perez Briseno 

- Business Leadership Award 
Rick's Bakery 

- Leadership Award 
Guy Lombela

- Distinguished Service Award 
Father Tom Royer (Retired from St. Mary's Church)

- Community Organization Award 
East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center