(April 3, 2022) Into his teens, a peer-education programme opened up new possibilities that gave the differently-abled a “smiley” to tackle life. Then a Class 8 student, D Kavin Vendhan gave students with special learning needs guidance at his school. A month into this not just changed his perspective, it also gave him a purpose. “It made me understand the importance of non-academic skills, and how every child has potential beyond marks,” says Kavin who founded Society for Motivation Innovative Leadership and Empowerment of Youth (Smiley) India, a non-profit initiative in 2019.
The idea of empowering youngsters resonated with the youth of Chennai who came forward to participate in the programme. Kavin’s Smiley India not only won the trust of youngsters but also picked the Ashoka Changemaker Award 2019 and Diana Award 2021. “It was a validation for the work that we have been doing over the years,” Kavin Vendhan tells Global Indian.
A special place for all children
The Hyderabad-born Tamilian was a victim of bullying at his primary school. His father, a public health professional, with a transferable job, Kavin studied in over 12 schools. Often, it was hard fitting in due to speech difficulties. “Kids made fun of me in primary school,” reveals Kavin who even confronted a friend for bullying another child at school. “I had been through it, and, as an act of vengeance, I also bullied students in middle school. However, something in me shifted looking at my friend. I asked myself if what we were doing was right,” says Kavin. His turning point became a beacon for other children to stand up against bullying. Empowered by the realisation that anyone has the power to bring about change, Smiley India is spearheading this movement.
Its full potential struck him in 2015 when he joined to help children at school. “Our school had children with special needs, and in the programme, each student was assigned a peer who would help them learn and grasp subjects better. That experience nourished me as a person and helped me imbibe the quality of empathy,” says the first-year law student even though the very next year, many were dropped from school citing “learning issues.”
“Schools only value marks, and don’t believe in a child’s potential beyond that. That’s when I realised the significance of skills and talent over marks,” says Kavin, committed to finding a solution. He joined hands with a handful of children from the programme, and launched Smiley India, a movement for the students and by the students.
“We focus on the importance of non-academic education, social responsibility, and addressing mental health issues,” says the Tamil Nadu Dr Ambedkar Law University student whose aim is “Better Youth for Better India.”
“The youth is the future of India. We work on the overall development of young minds by conducting workshops. We give them a platform to speak their minds and understand the possibilities within,” adds the 18-year-old whose non-profit has 70 volunteers between 13-19 years of age across Chennai and Chengalpattu.
One in seven Indians aged between 15-24 is depressed, according to a Unicef report, and Kavin is no stranger to this disorder. “There is so much going on in the minds of youngsters. We want them to open up in a protective environment without any sense of shame or guilt. Not many open up to adults about mental health issues. We bridge that gap, as we encourage them to speak to peers who act as a support group,” says the young changemaker who started training peers as counsellors, reaching out to 1,500 students.
A benchmark for all
Kavin believes that the “pressure in the educational system” pushes students to the brink and they feel “isolated.” “We try to build trust. About 90 percent of the issues are minor and can be taken care of at the initial stage, but serious cases are referred to psychologists,” says Kavin who witnessed a rise in suicide among youngsters during the lockdown. “It becomes more important to speak to youngsters at a time when they feel isolated with a lack of social support.”
His relentless work earned Kavin a Diana Award in 2021. “I felt grateful to the 40 volunteers for their hard work,” he beams with pride. The young changemaker is ecstatic that the awards and recognition have “changed perspectives” of people towards his non-profit. “The tables have turned. Now, schools approach us to conduct workshops and sessions,” says an excited Kavin, answering the early skepticism of volunteers’ parents.
The laurels have been the perfect nudge for Smiley India, but not without the challenges. With almost no resources, Kavin found it hard to “bridge the distance between his vision and reality.” Also, as a young organisation with teenager founders, trust had to be built. “At times, even volunteers questioned themselves and their mission,” reveals Kavin, who is planning to expand Smiley India’s mission to Tamil Nadu and other southern states. “The aim is to create a peer-based programme, and make them understand that change can be sustained in school,” avers Kavin.
The self-proclaimed movie buff finds life lessons in films like KungFu Panda and Spiderman. The avid reader indulges in martial arts too. The changemaker gives his parents the credit for “supporting me blindly and instilling the ideals in my mind.”
Kavin aspires to get into civil services by cracking the UPSC exam next. Smiley India’s good work will continue. “It has now become a functional organism with a life of its own,” adds Kavin.
The young changemaker advises fellow youngsters to “follow your heart and dreams,” he feels, adding, “Everyone has a unique purpose in life. Try hard to make it a reality.”
- Follow D Kavin Vendhan on Linkedin