Vrinda Mohan is a little bemused about what she’s doing at the Gulf News office when we meet her one Tuesday morning earlier this month. ‘I’m sorry, but I’m still unsure what’s interesting about me,’ she says with an apologetic smile.
It’s my turn to be bemused because what isn’t fascinating about a 17-year-old girl who channelled her winnings from the two Shaikh Hamdan Awards for Academic Excellence in 2011 and 2014 – a whopping sum of Dh40,000 – to set up a charitable initiative in her hometown in India and provided electricity and education to marginalised communities?
She answers my question with a characteristic teenage shrug, one of the few times the youthfulness of her years slips through her mature worldview – one rooted in the belief of overcoming wealth inequality no matter what your economic and social standing is.
‘It’s not about the rich giving to the poor. I believe even if you have a little extra money or resources it’s your responsibility to give that to someone who’s deprived,’ says the youngster who shares her birthday with Nelson Mandela and hopes to emulate his leadership qualities to make the lives of those around her better.
Charity truly began at home for Vrinda, whose Dubai-based parents Mohanan and Ajitha introduced her to social work and volunteerism as a four-year-old when they’d take her to visit old age homes, orphanages and centres for determined ones such as Al Noor Training Centre in Dubai.
At first, Vrinda furthered that habit by setting up Down To Earth, a student-led non-profit organisation that conducted food distribution drives, assisted Emirates Red Crescent society with charitable events and more. But when changes were made in UAE laws governing charitable organisations, Vrinda closed Down to Earth and started seeking alternative ways to continue doing good.
The turning point came during a trip to India in the summer of 2016 when while driving back to her house in Kozhikode, Kerala, she noticed women and children living in makeshift doorless sheds without electricity. ‘We travel quite a lot by that road and I never noticed it until once I had to pass by the area at night. It was horrifying; anybody could come by and harm these people without fear of getting caught! And there were no other houses in that area.’
The families, Vrinda and her father found out, were Rajasthani immigrants who had come to Kerala in search of greener pastures.
‘Nothing was being done for their development and I kept thinking about the crimes against women that were so rampant. Their safety was at risk in that dark accommodation. I couldn’t imagine staying there even for one night.
‘There were 15 children there who were really good students who studied under candle light or an emergency lamp. That really troubled me as I’m a student too and living in the UAE meant I was blessed to have all the facilities I needed.’
Instead of immobilising her, the horror of what she saw galvanised Vrinda into coming up with a plan using the money she’d won for her academic brilliance. ‘My parents had kept it aside for my education but I had always wanted to give it away; I can get admission on merit. And when I saw this, I knew a part of that money should definitely go to these immigrant families.’
Torchbearer of change
Vrinda says that her light-bulb moment occurred during a school trip to Abu Dhabi’s planned, sustainable city – Masdar City later that year. ‘I had already learnt from our school’s eco-club that solar panels and renewable energy was the way to go and then that trip just emphasised it.’
The trip also sparked an idea for another initiative to conduct LED fabrication workshops in a school in the southern Indian city of Kozhikode for students from poor families. An acquaintance of Vrinda’s who is also a teacher at the school and knew of her altruistic endeavours invited her to visit the Bilathikulam Upper Primary School, a 115-year-old dilapidated structure where around 40 students studied. ‘It was pathetic! The benches were broken, the building was crumbling and the children had no enthusiasm to learn. Their books were torn. The teachers too had lost all steam because while they wanted to do their best for the kids, they had few resources.’
Vrinda decided to address the issue of the neglected school and the forgotten immigrants by launching a project called Enlighten. ‘I wanted to lead these marginalised communities away from both the literal and figurative darkness in their lives,’ she explains. ‘I knew Dh40,000 could be used at so many different places and make a difference in so many lives.’
After months of groundwork and research, the first leg of Enlighten saw Vrinda approach the people’s representative of her hometown Koyilandi, to help her acquire the necessary permissions and sanctions to install solar panels in the living quarters of the immigrant workers. Once she’d crossed the red tape, she paid for the panels and got government organisation Anert (Agency for Non-conventional Energy and Rural Technology) to install them. While her parents guided her, Vrinda did all the organising on her own. She engaged in bureaucratic interactions and ensured everything was in order before returning to the UAE for her new academic term. Back in Kerala, Anert and the people’s representative ensured the money Vrinda had given was spent on installing solar panels, LED bulbs and fans at the migrants’ homes while the students were also provided with books and other facilities for learning.
What truly proved difficult and pushed Vrinda’s multitasking and time management skills to the limit was the second leg of Enlighten where Vrinda set out to transform the Bilathikulam primary school into a more hospitable and conducive environment for learning. ‘As a psychology student, I knew that a lot of factors go into ensuring children absorb the education they’re given – they need good nutrition, have to be physical and mentally in good health and the classroom needs to have basic facilities.’
Also read: In the UAE: The young and the eco-conscious
Vrinda devised teaching aids that were more visual, one of them involved using a game of Snakes and Ladders to teach moral values to the kids: ‘A bad value would see them slide down a snake while if they could identify a good habit they’d climb up a ladder,’ she explains. Her summer holidays were dedicated to developing game cards, worksheets and language clinics for the students. ‘We also held story-telling sessions where children could stand up and speak. It gave them a feeling that what they have to say is being heard by their parents and teachers.’
She also hired a yoga teacher for the kids so they could stay active and energetic. She sends a monthly stipend to the school to foot the bill of providing breakfast to the kids free of cost.
Vrinda’s intuitive understanding of the socio-economic problems that plagued the migrant community meant she knew that she’d have to teach them to independently sustain what she’d started. She did so by setting up the LED fabrication workshop in conjunction with a local engineering college. Engineering students visited the school and taught the students’ parents how to make a simple bulb.
‘There’s usually a poverty cycle: the father has no education, hence no job, so he can’t afford to send the child to school, and if the child has no education the cycle continues. I had to stop that somehow.
‘Giving the opportunity for employment meant each family could earn money. The eco-friendly lights also helped cut down on electricity bills. That would ensure more money at home than usual which meant more chance of kids attending school.’
The third and final initiative that’s part of Enlighten involved Vrinda donating 80 of her treasured books to another school, the Chembakadavu Lower Primary School, that had all facilities except a library.
‘I’m an avid reader, so giving away my precious books was painful but knowing that they could inspire and influence other lives like mine made it worthwhile,’ says the fan of fiction and autobiographies, who even donated her favourite book, Helen Keller’s autobiography My Life Story. ‘Being deaf and blind meant her own body didn’t support her but she did so many wonderful things. So imagine what we, who have all our senses intact, can do?
‘I believe small actions make a huge difference. It might not make a huge impact immediately, but it will generate a ripple effect.’
Back in the UAE, Vrinda ensures her initiatives did not fall by the wayside. She constantly emails and talks to the teachers over the phone, finding time for it all between a gruelling schedule that includes extra-curricular activities such as chess and debate tournaments and preparations for her exams.
A trained Bharatnatyam dancer and Carnatic singer, Vrinda also constantly performs at concerts and recitals around the country on a professional level and the remuneration received from these events if any are directed towards financing the breakfasts and yoga classes of poor students.
Juggling all these different activities and responsibilities come easily to Vrinda; she credits her teachers at Our Own English High School, Sharjah, for allowing her to participate in every activity and initiative withing the school, even in the run-up to her 12th board exams. ‘They’d be at events cheering me on and trusted me that I’d score well even though I wasn’t spending eight hours studying every day.’
True to their predictions, Vrinda scored 96 per cent in her CBSE Science exams and plans to pursue medicine in India – ‘another way of helping lives. But after that I want to clear the Indian civil service exams, become an administrative officer and bring about the changes I’m championing now at an institutional scale.’
In the more imminent future, Vrinda intends to use the Dh15,000 prize money she won with the Sharjah Excellency Award in 2017 to set up a hi-tech nursery in Kerala.
It’s going to be a lot of hard work which means the teenager who turns 18 next month will hardly have time for herself. But she has no qualms: ‘Making others happy makes me happy.’
The debater flounders for words when she’s narrating the response of the Rajasthani migrants when they first received electricity: ‘I had mothers come and bless me. Seeing the hand-written letters those school children sent me thanking me for their new found speaking skills is my happiness.’
Vrinda is, in the words of her idol Helen Keller, making the light in others’ eyes her sun.