Whenever you meet her, Nandhini’s enthusiasm is overflowing. Talking very rapidly, she shows me around the Trust for Youth and Child Leadership (TYCL) rooms in Pondicherry. Children of all ages run up to us excitedly to bombard me with questions. The walls are covered in motivational quotes, alongside posters detailing the important role a child can play, whiteboards and book shelves.
TYCL works to empower children and let them realise their potential. At age 21, Nandhini heads their programme N’Ka Na (my sister and my brother), which aims to connect children with professional mentors to help the children achieve their dreams. Having completed her undergraduate degree in engineering, Nandhini now works in Chennai, but still comes to visit the centre in Pondicherry regularly.
“The time I entered TYCL was just a miracle, I can say,” says Nandhini as she begins her narrative. She visited the centre when one of her friends was exhibiting crafts there, and was invited to take care of children in a week-long summer camp, to which she readily agreed. “That was like heaven. Filled with 120 children.” For her, the concept was revolutionary. “Studying in my second year of college then, I didn’t even know what an NGO was.”
After the summer camp, she was informed that they were planning on starting a project called N’Ka Na and was asked whether she would like to take charge of it. “The project aimed to connect professional mentors with the children. We used to meet the children, and they would have so many different questions. But for many of these questions, we did not have the right answers. We did not want to give false or half-baked information to them, and instead wanted to connect them to the right person who would be able to guide them.”
Nandhini was eager to learn more, and agreed to help. “The idea was already there. A friend who also joined and I started coordinating for the project with three partner organisations initially. We collected a pre-assessment form from the children and then connected them to volunteers and mentors.”
Nandhini and her team started work with with 50 children, finding both volunteers and mentors. “We have mentees, volunteers and mentors. Volunteers are like us, college-going students. They help the children identify their goals and support them through the journey. Once the goal is known, they connect them to the mentors. Mentors are professionals in the field. If you want to become a doctor, we will be placing you in touch with a doctor. They will be able to answer all your queries about the profession, how to be what you want to be and share their experiences in their professional journey.”
A key aspect of this initiative is the relationship established between the parties involved. “These children treat you as their mother, father, as their sister or brother. That is the kind of bonding this association leads to.”
Currently, Nandhini is working on developing an app to make the process more structured. “We need a tracker, to record what’s going on between the children and the volunteers. We had a tracker in the form of a Google form. But volunteers find it difficult to fill it in. We also find it difficult to type or write on it. So we converted it into an app. The app contains a slider, you can just rate it. If you have any inquiries, you can just send us a message. You can type in your queries or comments in that app, it will convey the same to the coordinators. And then we can help them. We are still developing that app further.”
The greatest challenge so far has been finding committed volunteers. “We find volunteers, but since many of them are in the third and fourth year they start dropping out in a year or two, because they want to continue with their career. Then we have to find replacements. The kids were not feeling satisfied because of this. So now we have come up with a different plan. We want to have an initial orientation for the volunteers so that they understand and are clear in their minds about the process and commitment.”
Nandhini feels she has entered a whole new world through her work. Her main regret is that she did not become acquainted with the programme earlier. “Everyone should know their destination, their goal. What they want to do in life. And they should travel in that path. They should know what they want to become. It was really late by the time I figured out what I wanted to do.”
However, she is very happy and inspired now. “After coming to TYCL, I have learnt how to coordinate, how to take on responsibility, what leadership skills are. This has also taught me how to engage with people and with my own emotions. I have learnt many things. I have a good family here. TYCL is family.”