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Naayaa Mehta - Primary Short-listed Nominee - Social Volunteer Awards 2021

Naayaa Mehta is a 16 year old with a burning passion for solving societal issues through empathy and innovative ideas. The importance of giving back to one’s community is a value ingrained in her since childhood and she has striven to create change whether it was creating solar cookers for Indian Army Jawans or raising money for libraries in slum areas or speaking up about environmental issues on Primetime TV or now, her initiatives Project Golden Buddy and ReadSmart which target the very source of our societies issues – mental health and quality education. Her spheres of interest range from environment to literacy to mental health and sustainable design and she, through her social initiatives, wishes to make a world where the youth uplift society.

VOLUNTEERING FOR ME Our world is a tapestry of stories which we sew through our actions, decisions and ideas. Unfortunately this tapestry, like our world, is not perfect. There are many loopholes and tears such as poverty, inequality, war and disease and I believe it is up to us to fix the fabric of our societies.

VOLUNTEERING JOURNEY I have been volunteering ever since I could understand that I can bring tangible change to our communities through my actions. Whether it was something as small as teaching handicapped students or something as big as participating in river clean-ups, volunteering has been a part of my life in some way or the other. As someone who has always wanted to bring change to our societies and empower others to really be the change they want to see, volunteering has not only help me make change but also connected me to likeminded people who want to breathe life into their ideas and that is why I am always inspired to volunteer as it not only helps me change other's lives but also mine as I learn and grow.

VOLUNTEERING STORY I have always loved reading ever since I was a child and I believe my love for it has made me what I am - and empathetic, understanding but ambitious and creative person. I believe that what one reads, makes them what they become later in life. In the first 10 to 12 years of one's life this base is made and during these crucial years a child either falls in love or gives up on reading mostly because all children are treated the same and no customisation is done for each child or their reading interests. While it is important to read avidly, what is more important is to Read Smart, or in other words, read scientifically, with an aim to not only enjoy and understand the book but to also understand ones reading level, interests, language and comprehension skills and to steadily better them. At the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, I realized that all bookshops and libraries would be closed, leaving children with no access to literary matter other than their textbooks. Moreover, with the likelihood of the lockdown getting extended, this gap in their regular reading and a total lack of customization would be a huge cause for concern for parents and teachers alike. To address these challenges, I came up with a plan for using this free time during the lockdown as the perfect opportunity to introduce children and their parents to a new system of reading, which will help not only overcome the challenge of non-availability of good books but also help solve the basic challenge faced by all parents - what books to give to their child to read, to help progressively improve their reading level, vocabulary and comprehension. It was tough work as I had to work through thousands of pages of scientific research to develop the right system and then had to spend countless hours matching Lexile levels, books, children and teaching plans. But the 10 weeks I spent creating and running ReadSmart were some of my best 10 weeks ever. Not just the joy from seeing the children I was mentoring grow but having them come back to me with questions and having interesting discussions truly made the lockdown easier not only for them I am sure but also for me.

PROJECT Project Golden Buddy ORGANISATION Project Golden Buddy MISSION & VISION Our Vision is to alleviate the loneliness and related mental health issues of senior citizens and teenagers by increased mutual interaction through volunteer community-based intervention centered around their symbiotic relationship. Our Mission is to expand Project Golden Buddy to cover over 30 senior care homes by the year 2025, with volunteers from as many schools and colleges joining the movement.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION Our project intends to be a community-based intervention that re-ignites hope and joy in our senior citizens - especially those that have been neglected and reside in senior care homes. The project is structured under the aegis of UN SDG #3, Good Health and Well Being. The fundamental premise of our project is that children and senior citizens have a symbiotic relationship. There is a natural fit where the two groups are not judgmental and instantly embrace each other. We are convinced that interactions with children would allow senior citizens to break their daily monotony, allow them to recollect their experiences, talk about them, learn what drives and motivates young children. Project Golden Buddy intends to build on the symbiotic relationship between teens and the elderly by crafting a community programme that creates a platform for social interaction between these two groups. These weekly interactions over the medium term are intended to significantly create a positive engagement with the elder citizens and hope to aid in detecting and preventing any mental health concerns. Our project identified and enrolled over 50 national and international volunteers in the age bracket of 14 to 20 years. These volunteers were motivated to spend an hour each week dedicated to this program. We also enrolled a number of old age homes that spanned geographies across both North and South India. The volunteers were trained with the help of a professional psychologist. The volunteers and seniors undertook numerous sessions where they built symbiotically on each other’s experiences. The sessions were enriching to both parties who got the most out of the experience. It was gratifying for us to observe that the experience was as enriching for the teenagers as it was for the seniors. Feedback forms filled by the volunteers allowed us to continuously improve the sessions. The Golden Buddy team is working to scale up this initiative through an online presence and by recruiting more senior citizens as well as volunteers. It is our firm belief that innovations needs to address societal issues in a practical and meaningful manner. The Golden Buddy project builds on the spirit of meaningful innovation by garnering the spirit of volunteerism amongst students and reaching out to senior citizens searching for companionship in the