Movers and Shakers: People of energetic demeanour who initiate change and influence events.
Vishal Vijay was just 11 when he launched his career as a youth activist. Today, as he approaches a decade of experience in the advocacy realm, Vijay and his organization EveryChildNow are tackling their latest challenge – one that emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.
EveryChildNow (ECN) is a national non-profit organization that empowers young people to help other young people. Its programs foster youth activism in support of local and global initiatives designed to promote children’s rights and alleviate child poverty by providing for basic needs – food, education, clean drinking water, shelter and health care. Improving lives is ECN’s raison d’être.
A family trip to India opened Vijay’s eyes to the unfairness in the world. As an 11-year-old, he saw first-hand the crushing poverty of the slums, and the weary faces of the children who lived there. Back home in the Toronto suburb of Oakville, he and younger brother Ishan, then 10, recruited friends to raise funds to help children in India and other developing nations. In recent years, Roshan, youngest of the three Vijay brothers, has also pitched in.
“Kids don’t have to wait, don’t have to grow up, don’t need a full-time job before they can make a difference. There are always things you can do now. The ripple effect is where we really start to see the impact. Small donations and small initiatives, those really add up,” emphasized Vijay, who also happens to be a black belt in karate.
Over the years, EveryChildNow (originally known as Children in Action) has raised $100,000, distributed more than 30,000 school supplies, clothing and food items and provided direct assistance to thousands of families. They built a school in India and a well in Sierra Leone. When an earthquake struck Nepal and the Ebola virus emerged in Africa, ECN contributed to the emergency response efforts by helping children impacted by the disasters. Kids in Canada, including Indigenous youth and Syrian refugees, have also benefited from education-focused initiatives.
EveryChildNow (everychildnow.com) is based on three principles. Inspire. Impact. Advocate.
“Our main target audience when it comes to youth empowerment is elementary and high school students. We’re still focused on kids helping kids but, now, the people running the organization are no longer age 12, 13, 14, 15. Now, we’re 16, 17, 18, 19, 20,” said Vijay, 19, who began recruiting fellow Western University students to join ECN when he graduated to the London, Ont. campus two years ago.
When the novel coronavirus put the world in lockdown, it became impossible for ECN to continue its in-school workshops, speeches and fundraisers. Instead, the team pivoted to address what they expect will be a growing need to help children whose education has been disrupted by lengthy school closures.
Vijay and his colleagues decided to digitally bridge the learning gap that younger students could be facing in the wake of the pandemic by launching a free, online homework help and tutoring service.
“Some students, particularly in low-income households, don’t have the resources they need to succeed in online learning. Many are finding that teachers are completely stretched and are unable to give individualized attention. And, some parents aren’t in a position to help. We realized if we don’t do something now, that gap in learning could trickle down for the rest of their life.”
The ECN team spent a couple of months during quarantine developing the new platform they labelled Social Educating to connect high school and university students with kids in grades 4 to 8. The service is offered under the ECN banner in Canada and Bermuda, where Vijay lived until age nine.
Kids can log on to the website – socialeducating.com – and be matched with an ECN-approved tutor who will help them with their schoolwork. Before and after each tutoring session, the tutor speaks with the child’s parent. Assistance is available for math, science, English, French, geography and social studies.
“As we continue to build out this program, we’re also investigating if it’s feasible for us to provide any sort of low-cost technology to households that might be kind of strapped right now. We’re seeing in many families, there’s only one household computer so it’s hard for kids to do their homework or have access to that educational support,” advised Vijay, who has been a guest speaker at WE Day and garnered several awards for his social activism over the years.
In quarantine, Vijay also took time to plan for the expansion of ECN’s school clubs and re-launch of its youth ambassador program in the fall. Any guidance counsellors or teachers interested in introducing EveryChildNow programming to their school can email Vijay for more information. He notes that parents have been very supportive of their children being involved with ECN because of its meaningful experiences and opportunities for personal growth and skill development.
“We still have our workshops to engage Canadian youth in helping to uplift kids and their families out of poverty. As schools open up again and COVID slows down, one thing we would love to see is school support for children’s rights and young people getting involved in activism in general. That might be educational counsellors or teachers deciding to sponsor a (ECN) school club or support a child, hosting an initiative or bringing in youth speakers or other people who can relate to my generation,” explained Vijay, who will attend Western’s Ivey Business School in the fall after overcoming the difficult but necessary transition to online courses to finish up his second-year studies.
Vijay disavows the notion that today’s youth should be seen only as leaders of tomorrow. There’s no reason they can’t be leaders today, he says, noting age should not be a barrier to activism.
Vijay coined the term “The Purpose Generation” to describe his cohort – a generation he sees as passionate, connected and excited about the future. “We really want to engage in a role in a way that truly resonates, and really engage in meaningful work, in work that we feel really fills a purpose in our life. It’s also about doing work on purpose – doing things with meaning and with weight. My generation’s change is going to be disruptive, constructive and viral. And it’s going to be on purpose.”
All photos courtesy of EveryChildNow.
By Laurie Nealin
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