NORMAL — The spotlight was on forward-thinking youth at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. awards luncheon Saturday.

Four Twin City advocates of diversity were honored with awards at the event, held at the Bone Student Center at Illinois State University in Normal.

“If these people care for the community so much at a young age, imagine what they’ll be like when they’re older,” said Monica Pearson, keynote speaker at the event. “They are real, good, kind, fun-loving, young men and women.”

Pearson joined WSB-TV news station in 1975 as the first woman and minority to anchor the 6 p.m. news in Atlanta, Ga. She encouraged the crowd of hundreds to connect more with others by inviting people to church or over for dinner.

“Getting to know someone in a casual atmosphere allows you to loosen up,” said Pearson. “Entertain together, do things together. Once you peel back that veneer, you’ll understand we aren’t at all different.”

Normal Community West High School student Anniah Watson and Normal Community High School student Sujith Molaka were named the youth award winners. Mary Aplington of Normal and Kevin Jones of Bloomington received the adult human relations awards.

Jones, who mentors and encourages students at Bloomington’s Regional Alternative School, grew up in housing projects in East St. Louis. He said he wouldn’t be where he is today without the help of those who supported him as a child.

“In the last year, while the upheaval of our country has been very challenging, it has been the youth who have lead and inspired and given hope for our future,” said Aplington, a counselor in Bloomington schools who serves on the local Back to School Alliance, Promise Council and Not In Our Town/School programs.

Watson, who is involved in the Helping Youth Progress and Excel program and is an advocate for Not In Our School, said she loves the diversity of the Twin City community but would like to see more integration.

“We tend to stick to what is comfortable,” she said. “We should be more willing to experience other cultures and embrace diversity.”

Molaka, a National Honor Society student and member of the McLean County India Association, agreed.

“The Indian population is growing and there are so many other cultures prospering here,” he said. “But we need to work on assimilating those cultures. We should be eager to learn more about people different from us.”

Pearson said that desire to connect and love others was echoed by King in his fight for civil rights.

“You may find that by socializing with people of other cultures, that you have a lot more in common than you think. But that means you have to step out on faith, not fear,” said Pearson.

“Dr. King said, ‘Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.’ Sometimes that first step must be taken by an individual.”

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Follow Julia Evelsizer on Twitter: @pg_evelsizer

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