(March 24, 2022) An eighth grader, Dhruv Rebba landed in India from the US to visit his father’s village – NP Kunta in Andhra Pradesh. The experience was a life changer – as he started a non-profit at the age of 14. The teenager from Illinois was startled by the gap in the standard of living between the US and India, and couldn’t wrap his head around it. “It astonished me that the difference in the quality of life between two parts of the world is so stark — in a week, I experienced polar realities on two completely different continents,” Dhruv tells Global Indian in an interview.
Universal Help, an organisation that helps improve people’s quality of life, began with this earnest need to bridge the gap. That relentless work for the underprivileged, and contribution to stem helped him bag the 2022 4-H Youth In Action Award for Stem. The stem lover is also the youngest amateur radio operator in the US, who obtained his license at just nine.
When stem became his be all
Born in Dallas in 2004 to immigrant parents, Dhruv’s inclination towards stem began as early as age six. “I would play with electronic snap circuits (DIY kits) where anyone can put together a circuit while following a guide, and can build Led lights, fans, and various systems with ease,” says the Class 12th student. It was in fourth grade that he came across stem opportunities that 4-H, a youth development and mentoring organisation, had to offer. “I joined the 4-H robotics club where I was taught by older 4-H members, which led to my interest in stem,” adds the Normal Community High School student who initially felt lost but soon picked up pace.
“We began with NXT Robots, which are lego-based robots, and soon started making line followers. Moreover, we made the robot function through line, ultrasonic and touch sensors. This cemented my interest in the field of robotics,” says the 17-year-old who is currently a part of a 4-H based FRC team, MetalCow Robotics that builds 120-pound robots from scratch.
Dhruv also launched 4-H robotics clubs in elementary school to “create more opportunities for younger kids to get involved in stem.” “I teach third to fifth graders the basic fundamentals of robotics, coding and engineering,” reveals the Normal resident.
Radio ga ga
In third grade, Dhruv attended the Dayton Hamvention, an international ham radio convention, thanks to his dad who has been a ham radio operator for over 25 years. “I was inspired by the convention, and took an FCC exam to obtain an amateur radio license when I was nine years,” says Dhruv who got a place in the Limca Book of Records for being the youngest person of Indian descent ever to earn a general class license.
This love for ham radio helped him bag a project Amateur Radio on the International Space Station that allowed 16 students from various countries to speak via ham radio to astronauts on board the orbiting station. “I was the driving force behind an ARISS contact on October 23, 2017 at Chiddix Jr High School wherein students got the opportunity to talk to Astronaut Joe Acaba on the ISS. From technical preparations to coordinating with Nasa to making the initial ISS contact, I helped at every step. As the lead control operator of the ARISS contact, I made the initial contact between our ground station and the ISS,” says Dhruv, who helped conduct an eight minute live conversation through the radio.
It took a village to see the problems
That visit to his father’s village in Andhra Pradesh (2018) had a profound effect on him, and led to the launch of his non-profit Universal Help. “I walked through a dirt road riddled with potholes. To my left, I saw a deserted primary school with a collapsed foundation. To my right, I saw a medical clinic that was almost always empty and devoid of a doctor. I looked at homes on the street, many of which were small amid a periodic power outage. I thought back to life in the US, with no outages and schools that don’t collapse. A regular middle-class home in the US is magnitudes larger than what I saw in this village. It made me think a lot,” says Dhruv.
The organisation started working for the betterment of people. It has provided textbooks to schools, digitised schools in rural India with projectors, computers and UPS. “We’ve also provided emergency rescue materials during Cyclone Yaas in West Bengal. Currently, we are working on starting a solar panel pilot programme in rural Andhra Pradesh, although it’s in very early stages. Locally, we are working with the city of Bloomington to expand accessibility to recycling, and also with the Ecology Action Centre on a composting project,” reveals Dhruv.
Help during the pandemic
Within two years of launching the nonprofit, the pandemic struck, and Universal Help rose to the occasion. “We distributed two months of groceries to poor Purohit families of Kopparu village in Guntur (AP) and 10 grocery kits to the Purohits of Bolarum, Hyderabad during the second wave of lockdown. We also distributed groceries and other essential goods for a month to a mental health clinic in Shantiniketan, Hyderabad. Together, Universal Help and GSSO distributed food to 380 families in rural villages in India during the first two waves of Covid-19,” adds Dhruv whose non-profit works with volunteers, and is funded by individual donations.
Dhruv’s contribution to the world of stem and social work helped him bag the 2022 4-H Youth In Action Award for Stem. “It feels good that your work is being recognised,” says the boy who plans to study computer science in college, and wants to start a technology company soon. He loves curling with a book or watching tv in his free time.
His parents, who work at State Farm Insurance, are his biggest cheerleaders. “They’re open to things that I want to do, and try to connect me to people who might be able to help me achieve my goals,” says Dhruv who calls “taking the first step” his biggest challenge so far. “Originally, I had no idea how to start a non-profit. However, with the support of friends, mentors, and family, I was able to overcome many of obstacles,” he adds, advising youngsters to “not be afraid to start. However intimidating it is, once you push the pedal it gets easier and less intimidating.”
- Follow Dhruv Rebba on Linkedin