January 9, 2013

Discovering the Difference we Make

Guest Post by Jithin Nedumala

Jithin Nedumala is founder of Make a Difference (MAD), an organization that invests heavily in building a positive learning ecosystem for disadvantaged Indian youth.  In 2011, MAD received a Starbucks Shared Planet Youth Action Grant to train 100 youth volunteers to provide educational and mentoring support to more than 3000 children at-risk. 

Six years ago, five of us walked into a shelter home in Kerala, India. Our lives changed forever. We were young, still in college, and did not get along with our teachers too well, but we wanted to make a difference. We realized that the education system in India created a large disparity in the way the rich and the poor learned. We saw a huge untapped resource among us young adults, who if provided the right platform, were capable of bridging the gap. 

Fast forward to 2012. Make a Difference (MAD) today is more than a teaching organization; it is a platform that empowers youth to become change leaders who make positive, self-sustaining social impact in their own communities. We respect our teachers a lot more now. It was not easy doing what they did!

Nearly 1,300 Make a Difference teachers now reach more than 3,800 children in 23 cities across India. However, with impressive statistics, come questions. 

When sharing the Make a Difference story, we are usually asked two questions: Are there really young people who take volunteering that seriously? And how are you able to make young people commit to such a serious program?

To both, we always answer with a resounding “Yes.” 

The average MAD teacher is 19-20 years old, attends college, and balances work, studies, and a social life like any other young person. But they are not like every other young person. Every weekend, for three hours, they put everything aside to teach English to a group of local children. With support from our knowledge partner, Cambridge University Press, the volunteer teaches language skills that are critical for communication and confidence. 

After spending one year as a teacher, the volunteers are able to apply to MAD's Leadership Development program, LxD (Leadership x Design). As a MAD Fellow in the LxD program, the youth run their city MAD chapters and are given tools and resources to become high-impact leaders. 

These days, at MAD, we original founders only focus on one thing: recruiting people who are better than us, people who will take MAD places that we were never able to, people who will find solutions that we never even dreamed of. 

In the beginning, we often questioned ourselves and the work we were doing. Were we really improving these young people’s lives? Our question was answered when we heard Jobish’s story. 

In 2006, young Jobish Matthew was a student in MAD's first ever class at the very first MAD center, a YMCA Boys’ Home for orphaned children.

Last November, Jobish was accepted into the US State Department's prestigious 'Community College Initiative Program,' through which participants receive scholarships to attend college in the US for one year in any discipline of their choice. His MAD teachers had trained him for the exam, for which, English is a primary competency. 

On the 16th of June, Jobish got on a flight for the first time in his life, and flew to his new college.

Before he left, we wanted to see Jobish one last time. We organized an interaction at the YMCA Boys' Home, the same center where Jobish used to study and live. Jobish was able to look into the eyes of youth sitting where he was sitting just a few years earlier. He began telling his story.

The room hushed as Jobish spoke:
“When I used to live here once, I thought I'd never go anywhere. Or achieve anything. But, then again, look where I am now. All I can tell you is: NEVER stop dreaming. Always have big dreams, and you WILL get somewhere.”

The MAD teachers standing around were quite surprised. We hadn't expected to hear such profound and moving words from someone we had taught only a couple of years back!

MAD is no longer just about academics. It’s that feeling I got when Jobish, and many other students, accomplish something they previously thought was impossible. By harnessing the energy and drive of talented students, we can change the odds for low-income children in India. 

Learn about the Starbucks Shared Action Grants that support Jithin's  project.

Jobish meets with youth from the  YMCA Boy's Home where he once lived
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