Anish Patel was 16 years old when he was on his annual trip to India in the summer of 2010. The Gujarati-origin boy was familiar with his home country, and was used to seeing children his age tap on the windows of his family car, asking for alms. As always, the sheet of glass and years of privilege and education separated him from them.
That year was different. On his flight back to his New Jersey home, the son of two immigrant parents carried an idea to help some of these children. He wanted to bring some classmates to India next summer, and with them, conduct peer counselling sessions with juveniles and other children who had been abandoned or orphaned. But he had no plan, and no clue if it would work. Back in New Jersey, he called up a biology teacher in high school, who had helped him with a culture club he had started for Indians in school.
"I knew I needed an adult to come with me for this," Patel told HuffPost India, "otherwise why would parents send their child with me, 8,000 miles away to India?"
Now, the 22-year-old's non-profit, 'Uplift Humanity', is on its sixth year, and brings dozens of NRIs to volunteer at juvenile detention centers in New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Vadodara, Nadiad, and Indore for 18 days every summer. Patel said he gets hundreds of applications from high school and college students each year from across the United States of America, asking to be part of the summer program.
An Uplift Humanity volunteer during a workshop. Photo credit: Shruti Parekh.
It didn't begin this way. The first year, Patel relied largely on word-of-mouth publicity to reach out to students in his hometown in New Jersey. His parents and family friends emailed their acquaintances, and Patel received a small pool of interested youngsters, mostly from the Gujarati community. The volunteers paid for their own tickets and expenses, which Patel organised with the help of his family in India. The first day in the juvenile facility in Gujarat was awkward, he recalled.
"I was terrified," he said. "We had no idea if it would work and all my fears came true—no one listened to us, and the juveniles mocked us."
"My heart dropped."
Yet, the team arrived at the juvenile center each day, and the barriers slowly broke. They did workshops on anger management, peer pressure, life skills, and addressing issues of low self esteem. By the 18th day, when it was time to leave, "everyone was crying", Patel said. He knew his project was going to work.
Kids at an Uplift Humanity workshop. Photo credit: Shruti Parekh.
"A lot about how Uplift started is about failure," he said. "I had an incredibly hard time attracting volunteers, obtaining donations, and encouraging individuals to join our board." Yet, Patel credited his failures for his successes, he told HuffPost India.
And the 22-year-old recent graduate of New York University's Stern School of Business's undergraduate college has had plenty of success. Now, his non-profit receives steady funding from private donors. The organisation has helped educate over 500 juveniles and orphans with the help of more than 250 American volunteers. Scholarships are awarded at the end of the year to children who show the best improvement and promise, and the organisation has awarded ₹500,000 in funding to these students, along with laptops and computers to help them with digital skills.
Patel has been featured in Vogue India's '28 Under 28: Geniuses Who are Winning Big in 2015' and has been selected in Forbes 'Under 30 Summit' in 2015 and 2016.
There are many things Patel's team has learnt too—they don't hand over cash when awarding scholarships anymore, and instead route it to any skill training or educational course the children choose to undergo. All volunteers now have a training program which they undergo before the workshops, and there is a rigorous curriculum in place for the program. The program was launched in Mumbai on Thursday where the children speak English, and volunteers who don't speak an Indian language can participate.
A volunteer asks a question at a workshop. Photo credit: Shruti Parekh.
The children in these juvenile centers range from those abandoned by their parents to those who have committed petty or even heinous crime. But all of them can change their stories with just a little bit of help, Patel believes. He remembered how, in a workshop in Gujarat two years ago, one child would just peep through the doors every day, watching the volunteers interact with the other kids.
"When we would look at him, he would look away," said Patel. "On the third day of our program, I opened the door and went to him and asked him 'Do you want to learn? He simply said 'yes.' So we brought him into the classroom."
Even though the child at first had trouble interacting with the other kids, by the end of the program, his energy was "contagious", recalled Patel. "It was incredible to see him transform," he said. "What his story showed to me was that if a kid is given an opportunity, more often that not, he/she will seize the opportunity. And if they're provided the right resources, these kids will be able to change and grow to be different people."
Children participate at an Uplift Humanity workshop. Photo credit: Shruti Parekh.
While the program is short—just 18 days—Patel believes they make a significant impact on these children's lives. The non-profit conducts test at the beginning and end of the workshop each year, where the students are asked to react to certain situations. According to Patel, the children are much more sensitive and self-aware when they answer the questions at the end of the workshop than they were 18 days earlier.
Patel is also planning a "pen pal program" where the kids can continue to stay in touch with some of the volunteers, and he is recruiting local Indian students to keep up the training for these children through the year. "We're also trying to get corporate funding so that volunteers who can't afford the trip to India can also join in," he said. "We want to encourage everyone to take part."
There isn't enough support for such vulnerable children, who are at risk of criminal recidivism if attention isn't paid to them early, he said. "We know we can't teach them maths, or science," he said. "But we can use language and arts and crafts and games to help them with life skills that will help take a career path.