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BLOOMINGTON — For Bloomington High School sophomore Mihir Bafna, asking for donations for charity from a stranger was not something he was comfortable with a year ago.

“I was never that outgoing,” he said.

But he’s changed, he said, thanks in part to a program that empowers young adults and fosters the development of servant leadership skills, provides an orientation to social justice and stresses the importance of service and philanthropy.

“I learned how to talk with businesses and put myself out there because that has always been one of my biggest weaknesses,” he said.

Bafna was one of 18 area high school students in the inaugural Youth Global Citizen graduation class, sponsored by For a Better Tomorrow, a local non-profit group that strives to lend long-term support to needy organizations until they can stand on their own. A special graduation ceremony was held Sunday at the Parke Regency Hotel & Conference Center in Bloomington.

Over the past seven months, students raised funds and material goods to support non-profit partners such as the Labyrinth Outreach Service to Women and the Promise Council, both local non-profit groups. Two global non-profit organizations — Aple Ghar and Sri Vidhya — were also supported.

“We help to develop some of the soft skills of people in terms of them recognizing what their greatness is, and how to have important conversations with other adults and community members,” said Jessica Jackson, an employee of Project Oz and a For a Better Tomorrow board member.

The students made presentations to the board of directors during a special program on Saturday. Students from Bloomington High School, Normal Community High School and University High School were represented.

“We were just blown away,” said board member Mary Aplington, a retired educator from District 87. “What really surprised me was the way they processed their classroom experiences. They were thinking about their values in more mature ways than most adults do and we were all very impressed.”

Aplington said a final total on how much money was raised has not yet been determined, because there were still more fundraisers planned in the coming weeks. It was likely that each of the organizations will receive more than $1,000.

Sita Vakkalanka, a sophomore at Bloomington High School, said she knew nothing about the Labyrinth Outreach Services to Women program before it was assigned to her and four other students as part of the project. The organization supports formerly incarcerated women to reduce the cycle of repeating offenses.

“I learned that I have a lot of strengths in working with people,” she said. “I learned how to become a better leader and work with different people.”

“This was real-world collaboration and it helped the youth gain a greater understanding of the value and work of community-enhancing organizations as well as ways in which to provide support,” Aplington said. “We knew this would be a tremendous opportunity for both the non-profits and the students, but I think we were just amazed at the growth of these students over the past seven months.”

Applications and nominations for the Class of 2017 are currently open to youth who are eager to learn and have an interest in developing their character, and enhancing service and leadership skills, she said. More information can be found at www.forbettertomorrow.org.

​Follow Kevin Barlow on Twitter: @pg_barlow.

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Agriculture Reporter

Agriculture reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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