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Press Release for Thursday, December 3, 2009

Four UNF Students Recognized for Their Caring Spirits


Joanna Norris, Assistant Director

Department of Media Relations and Events

(904) 620-2102


University of North Florida students Noel San Antonio, Victoria Elian, Christina Kanhai and Valerie Mathias all have something in common: outstanding records of volunteerism. As a result, all four students have been recognized for their caring spirits. The students were all recognized yesterday during a luncheon held at Epping Forest in Mandarin.


San Antonio, a Southside resident, and Elian, a Mandarin resident, were both awarded the 2009-2010 Albert D. Ernest Jr. Caring Award, which recognizes a student who demonstrates the spirit of caring, humanitarianism and volunteerism exemplified by Albert D. Ernest Jr. They each will receive a bronze sculpture created by Frank Eliscu, designer of the Heisman Trophy, the Oval Office’s Presidential Eagle and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. They also will receive a cash award for a charity of their choice.


Kanhai, a Westside resident, and Mathias, Southside resident, are recipients of the 2009 Bill & Angie Halamandaris Caring Internship. The students will intern at the Heart of America Foundation in Washington, D.C. this summer for eight to 10 weeks. Heart of America Foundation is a national, nonsectarian, nonpartisan, nonprofit, humanitarian organization that celebrates, honors and empowers young adults who enrich the human race with the quality of their lives.


Coming from a poor village in the Philippines, San Antonio, a senior electrical engineering student, knew that education would be the key to his success. It was a long journey from his home to UNF but this instilled in him the desire and motivation to return to his village and build a school for the children.


In 2006, the first building was constructed and St. Anthony’s school was opened to 60 pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students. This past summer, San Antonio and five UNF students returned to build a second building for first- and second-grade children, allowing 80 more children to attend school. Through his hard work, as well as through the generosity of many volunteers, these students not only receive a free education but also free uniforms and books. His dream is to one day expand the school to grade 12.


Through the Volunteer Center at UNF, Elian has worked with several groups, such as the Clara White Mission and Lutheran Social Services, but the organization closest to her heart is Stop Child Trafficking Now (SCTNow). After learning that millions of children throughout the world are bought and sold, including many here in the United States, she knew that this issue had her heart.


She interned this summer at SCTNow in Durham, N.C., and, on returning to UNF this fall, worked with the Northeast Florida Human Trafficking Task Force to organize an Awareness Week. The week culminated with a community walk of 500 volunteers, most of them UNF students. Elian, a senior psychology major, continues to speak to groups about this issue and hopes to pursue a master’s degree in art education and use art therapy to help rescued victims.


In 2005, Kanhai, a junior building construction management major, joined AmeriCorp and spent time in Mississippi and New Orleans building homes for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Returning to Jacksonville, she was appointed as a local community organizer advocating for several Jacksonville neighborhoods. She participated in neighborhood cleanups, volunteered at health fairs and assisted in renovating homes with the Northeast Housing Partnership.


These experiences inspired Kanhai and a co-worker to start a non-profit organization called P.E.A.C.E. She provides mentoring to young people in areas as diverse as etiquette, understanding your parents, resume-building, community service and the importance of education. As assistant director of the volunteer center, she continues to influence and encourage others to answer the call to serve.


As a freshman at UNF, Mathias, a junior psychology major, sought out volunteer opportunities, which led to a year and a half of service at Nemour’s Children’s Clinic working with young patients. She has continued her commitment to service through the Jacksonville Jaguars Community Scholars Mentorship Program, mentoring students and encouraging them to pursue higher education. 


Additional humanitarian efforts have taken Mathias on two unique study abroad trips. The first was to a small fishing village in Ecuador, where she helped build desks and worked with children to clean up beaches. A second trip took her to Ghana, West Africa, where she worked with engineering students to improve the infrastructure of the Tamale Children’s Home. She now serves as her sorority’s community service chair, encouraging others to follow her example of caring and volunteerism.