DEARBORN — Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities (formerly the Lebanese American Heritage Club) has a long and deeply rooted history in the local community, but the focus was once again on the future and on shattering stereotypes during the non-profit’s 29th annual awards gala on Thursday, April 6.
The ceremony, attended by about 1,000 community members and sponsored by about 100 local and corporate organizations— including the CIA, Ford Motor Company and Walmart— took place at the Edward Hotel and Convention Center in Dearborn to celebrate youth leadership and success.
More than 30 local high school, college undergraduate and graduate students, as well as volunteers who were awarded for their commitment to service in the community, were collectively awarded a little north of $80,000.
Scholarship donors include the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, Lawrence Technological University, Henry Ford College and Michigan State University, and awards were presented by Suhaila Amen, international student and scholar adviser at the University of Michigan.
The volunteers who received an award included Yousef Awad, a 17-year-old WSU mechanical engineering and business major, who joined the LAHC’s Leadership and Diversity Program about two years ago.
Awad told The AANews that he worked to promote youth involvement in community service through the program. But when the program ended, he and his friend Diana Beydoun, another awardee, took the existing project to another level so that it became more established within the organization.
He said it was their initiative to feed Detroit’s homeless every month and to hold clothing drives for Syrian refugees.
LAHC Executive Director Wassim Mahfouz shared the organization’s vision and stressed the importance of education as one of the core missions of the organization. He also highlighted the LAHC’s school-linked substance abuse prevention program.
“Mental health is a major issue in our community,” Mahfouz said. “We cannot keep ignoring the elephant in the room. We cannot afford losing our kids to drugs and substance abuse. As a father of two, I want my children to grow up in a safe community, free of drugs and violence.”
He said the organization significantly grew its programming this year and strived to create new opportunities to promote youth leadership, community development and health resources.
He called on individuals and organizations to cooperate to tackle drug abuse. The LAHC has formed a “drug free community coalition” compromised of law enforcement agencies, schools, organizations and media outlets.
Mahfouz said the program has been able to touch the lives and souls of hundreds of youth, educating them about the dangers of drugs, as well as helping them cope with stress, trauma and anxiety.
The coalition expanded this year to include organizations like the Detroit-Wayne Mental Health Authority.
This year, the LAHC inaugurated the Humanitarian of the Year award, which it presented to Morrie “The Hat Man” Boogaart, an elderly Grand Rapids man who became a social media sensation for knits hats for the homeless.
Mahfouz added that the LAHC provides social services for the needy, including the distribution of clothing, shoes and other services, in partnership with Midwest recycling. Together, both organizations have provided more than 1,000 clothes and shoes to families in need, mostly Syrian refugees.
The LAHC’s other humanitarian efforts include providing backpacks filled with school supplies.
Christina Petrosian, manager of the Middle Eastern American Program at the CIA, also spoke at the event. She extended congratulations to the scholarship recipients and said the agency, which had sponsored the event for the past 10 years, was proud to partner with an organization that is committed to academic excellence and community service.
Yisel Cabrera, community relations manager at the Ford Motor Company Fund, commended the LAHC’s mission and likened it to Ford’s in promoting greater social mobility and building more sustainable communities.
District Court Judge Sam Salamey spoke of the Arab American community’s beginnings and advancement.
He said that in today’s anti-Arab political climate, many “question our motives, intentions, abilities and patriotism.”
“We stand out, not in the negative stereotype, but as students in Ivy League schools, doctors, engineers, and initiatives in combating extremism, segregation and discrimination,” Salamey said.
Two community members— Tom Watkins and Ali Siblani— received the LAHC’s Excellence and Great Achievements Award. Watkins is CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, which has trained more than 20,000 people in mental health first aid training.
Siblani is president and CEO of EnvisionTEC, a global company that develops, manufactures and sells more than 40 models of 3D printers. Since its founding in 2002, the company has been able to offer more than 100 patented solutions to the automotive industry’s rapid prototype market.