The Little Big Influencers

Towards the end of 2020, I finished teaching a gratitude and mindfulness workshop to school kids in NYC. Working with high schoolers reaffirmed to me how we often, even if unintentionally, forget how badly kids were affected by the pandemic.

Between not knowing if they would ever see their friends after the virus hit, to understanding that their peers might be struggling with mental health, to witnessing their parents lose their jobs, to comprehending the loss of lives… Navigating the pandemic has not been easy on the younger lot.

Yes, it is important to be grateful for what’s working for us. But have we created safe spaces for children to process the grief? Are we acknowledging how they have had to grow up and adapt to unfamiliar times? Or how they might have transformed other people’s lives by creating awareness, starting conversations, and making a progressive difference in the communities!

Kids and the Pandemic

I know many tweens and teens are doing inspiring work. In this piece, I want to share the work of three girls who are using their voices in a positive way to call attention to mental health, sexism, storytelling, communication, women’s voices, and much more. They are making an impact in the lives of others. Meet Tanisha Deep, Ishika Sharan, and Elina Brahmandam.

What does a mental health advocate, sportswriter, and author have in common? They are all under 18 and desi!

Tanisha Deep, 16, aims to help students with issues they can’t discuss with adults.

“Mental health is important to me because I have seen the way it can impact those around me,” says California resident, Tanisha Deep, 16, an 11th-grader who started the Peer Resource Club at her school.

“I became interested in mental health after an incident with a very close friend in high school,” Deep says. “She had a difficult home situation and often confided in me. I always encouraged my friend to talk to a counselor or seek some other form of help, but she said that it would make her uncomfortable to speak with an adult because adults can seem authoritative and, thus, intimidating. Eventually, she got to the point I had to let my school counselors know about the situation, because I feared for her safety.”

Deep started the Peer Resource Club because she did not want any other kid to feel they could not talk to anyone because they were uncomfortable with adults. When I asked her what the club is about, Deep explained that it is a group of students who are trained peer counselors.

“We receive training from a local non-profit called SAVE, as well as our school counselors,” Deep said. “I set this up with the help of my school’s assistant principal, and our AP Psychology teacher, who currently serves as the club advisor.”

While Deep was still planning the launch of the club, the assistant principal invited her to join the school’s Wellness Committee. It comprises a group of administrators, counselors, faculty, and students committed to promoting mental wellness.

“We hold forums and panels, and well as work on individual projects that we feel will overall contribute to the wellness of the student body,” Deep says. “All sessions are headed by my school’s assistant principal and have both staff and students [attending].”

Ishika Sharan, 16, supports girls who like sports.

Ishika Sharan spurs people in other ways, thanks to her interests.

“From the time I was 9 years old, the only thing I have been truly passionate about has been sports: cricket, tennis or Formula 1,” says Sharan, also 16 like Deep, but who lives in Kolkata, India. “My parents and aunt encouraged me to start writing blogs … on Medium. Writing and posting on that for a couple of years helped me improve my writing skills. Eventually, I submitted my articles to an online sport magazine called Sportskeeda,” The editors accepted seven of her articles.

It has not been roses all the way for Sharan. While she has evoked positive reactions with her commitment and content, she has also had to deal with sexism at a young age.

“I have had people say, ‘Oh, you don’t like the sports; you just like the good-looking sportsperson’ or ‘You don’t actually understand the sport; you’re just blindly in love with that one player.’”

Sharan faced sexism in predictable and unpredictable ways. People would condescendingly say, “I didn’t expect you to have so much knowledge. You play pretty well for a girl.”

Sharan, who is in Grade 12, is determined and has not let the naysayers stop her.

“Along with a couple of my friends, I have started an Instagram account called Women in Sports,” she says. “This platform celebrates all females in sports – professional international players as well as young local kids. Additionally, it is for girls who are ridiculed … for being sports enthusiasts…. We celebrate women in all sports …, also inspiring younger girls to take up sports. We also record podcasts about different events in the cricket world.”

Sharan and her friends support female journalists who have been made to feel that they should not be involved in the sports world. Sharan believes rooting for female sports journalists also raises the confidence of younger girls — those who might not play any sports but are extremely passionate about it.

Elina Brahmandam, 11, authored two books in one year and designed an app.

Elina Brahmandam of Livingston, New Jersey, has made her mark in fiction.

“I have always had a love for stories, whether they be in storybooks, or exciting TV shows and movies,” says Brahmandam, 11, and a fifth-grader.

“When I was around 5 years old, I discovered the joy of creating my own stories at school when we did assignments like building alternate endings to stories we read. Over time, I worked on my writing skills and started my blog (alongthestarryway.blogspot.com) as well. During the pandemic, as I was tutoring elementary kids on reading and writing skills, I started writing my own book. I then developed my digital illustrations, and eventually published my first book in time for Thanksgiving.”

Brahmandam’s first book, “Yay! It’s Thanksgiving,” was inspired by a writing prompt her fourth-grade teacher gave her. During the Covid lockdown, her parents encouraged Brahmandam to convert the story into a book.

“The reviews were very heartening and validated my passion for storytelling,” Brahmandam says. “I decided to extend my first book into a whole series about holidays – and published my second book, “Yay! It’s Christmas.”

Brahmandam also used the coding skills her parents had given her to develop and publish her first app.

“During the pandemic last year, due to social distancing, we had to rely upon texting friends a lot more to stay in touch. I quickly realized that there weren’t enough ways to express this for school-aged kids. I decided to design and create digital stickers and made them available via a sticker-pack app, that I then built and published for iPhones.”

“The only limit to your impact is your imagination and commitment.” ~ Tony Robbins

Read about the viral risk of a return to school, working women and their work from home woes. Also read an ode to Indian parents.