Every day, from coast to coast, our UNICEF UNITERs advocate, educate and host fundraisers and events to help their communities prioritize child rights and youth participation. The impact of their work is invaluable in helping us relentlessly pursue a better world for every child. Therefore, in honor of National Volunteer Week, we are excited to introduce you to ten UNITERs from across the country who share the reason behind their unwavering commitment to protecting every child’s rights and future.
Karla Bloem: Houston, MN
Think creatively about what unique talents you might have that can be used to help directly or indirectly.
The Executive Director of the International Owl Center, Karla Bloem, above, originally started the children's international owl art contest as a local coloring contest to engage children back in 2003. As the contest grew to global proportions and the internet became more prevalent, kids worldwide started entering, including many children from Ukraine.
So when the war broke out in Ukraine, Karla knew she had to help. She posted the owl art images from Ukraine on social media, which received a tremendous response, with many people asking if they could purchase the artwork. Staff and volunteers then sorted through the thousands of pieces of art in storage, and realized they had more than 300 pieces of art from Ukraine. "We knew they would be loved and cherished in people's homes, so they then created a series of online auctions to raise money to help the kids of Ukraine," she says. Karla chose to support UNICEF because UNICEF was already working in Ukraine, specifically with kids.
So far, they have already completed three auctions, raising a total of $222,016 to help Ukraine's children, with plans to host more in the future.
Aryan Gupta: Winchester, CA & Sanjivika Pani: Atlanta, GA
Aryan Gupta has been involved in his UNICEF club for four years and he's currently the Great Oak High School UNICEF Club president. He has also been a State Lead for two years and recently shared his personal history during the 2022 Advocacy Day Closing Ceremony. Aryan said what he appreciated most about his experience being a State Lead was how "Advocacy Day helps us humanize the Congressional Offices. They aren't just machines saying yes and no to bills. They're full of actual humans and human desires with a passion for helping our world."
Sanjivika Pruni, above, lower right, also served as a State Lead and spoke alongside Aryan during the closing ceremony. She shared her experience of growing up in India and seeing UNICEF's work on the ground. Even after moving to the U.S. in 2019, she still hears about UNICEF from her family and friends back home. Most recently, she has been following UNICEF's work organizing the international transport of COVID-19 vaccines for COVAX. Therefore there was no question about whether or not she would start volunteering. As she notes, "This world needs UNICEF, and UNICEF needs volunteers and supporters like you and me."
Kellie Portie: New York, NY
As a kid, a UNICEF poster stating children's rights inspired me to speak for myself. Joining Team UNICEF was a dream come true to be part of the action on protecting and defending children's rights.
Kellie Portie, above, is an avid marathon runner who has combined her love for running with her passion for UNICEF. In 2021, she participated in the KEYS100 Ultramarathon as part of a relay team that ran 50 miles and ran the Paris Marathon to raise money for UNICEF USA. In 2023, she once again plans on running the New York City Marathon and raising funds for the world's children.
Arshia Mathur: Los Gatos, CA & Santha Rani: Newark, DE
Both Arshia Mathur, above upper right, and Santha Rani have proven to be extraordinary leaders within their UNICEF Clubs. Arshia founded the Los Gatos High School UNICEF Club and served as a UNICEF Youth Representative during the 2020-2021 school year. Her creative awareness-raising events have generated a great deal of buzz on campus. For example, just last month, to share information about child trafficking and how to prevent it, she and her Club hosted a safety and self-defense class for students of all ages. It featured an officer from the Los Gatos Police Department and a quintuple national black belt world title winner.
Santha, above lower left, is an equally engaged Club member and, as President of the University of Delaware UNICEF Club, is particularly committed to ending child marriage across the U.S. Through her ambitious advocacy work, she helped Delaware become one of the first states to ban child marriage back in 2018 and is now working with young women and girls to share their stories and detail the harmful impacts of child marriage to local officials to encourage other states to follow suit.
Melody Garcia, Rick Garcia & Mark Anthony King: Orlando, FL
From their Advocacy Day meeting with Congressional Offices to their community-building events, UNITE Orlando Council members Rick Garcia, Mark Anthony King and Melody Garcia, above, have maintained a consistent UNICEF presence in the growing Orlando metropolitan area. All three consistently go above and beyond to advocate for children's rights and help their community, as they do with their annual Thanksgiving volunteer event. Last year, they helped give over 1000 free holiday meals to displaced families.
Bella Kalra: Houston, TX
Bella Kalra, above, a 7th-grade environmental activist from Houston, started her involvement with UNICEF USA in the summer of 2019 with the #CREATE for UNICEF competition. She wrote an original song about climate change and won second place. This experience inspired Bella to be part of the solution concerning climate change. Through UNICEF, she has taken advocacy actions to protect children from the impacts of climate change. She also started her own environmental club (ECO – Environmental Change Organization) at her middle school.
Bella and her fellow ECO club members and other schools in her district are now advocating for biodegradable lunch trays instead of the Styrofoam ones currently in use, with hopes that this will cause a ripple effect nationwide. "If the Houston Independent School District, the seventh largest school district in the U.S,. switches to biodegradable lunch trays, this can spark change in schools all across the country!"
Top photo: UNICEF UNITERs at UNITE events in 2021 and 2022.