At The New Century School, service to the community is a core value. Dean of School/Head of Lower School Alicia Danyali has integrated service learning throughout the school year in many ways (read last week’s “check-in” with her for more on specific initiatives).
Last month, she took it to the next level when she invited 11th-grade McDonogh School student Laya Neelakandan to present on her impressive experience with grant writing to support several charitable projects. She learned of Ms. Neelakandan last June after having collaborated with one of Ms. Neelakandan’s teachers (Mary-Catherine Irving) on a service project for her son’s school. Ms. Irving told her about Ms. Neelakandan’s remarkable accomplishments in service initiatives, and they discussed the possibility of a visit to TNCS. “I am excited that the students will have this opportunity, which the 6th- to 8th-grade students can use as a ‘jumping off point’ to initiate their own grant writing to support and fund service,” said Ms. Danyali.
Even this early in her sure-to-be illustrious career, Ms. Neelakandan has already received 11 grants from five different foundations—she has been awarded every grant she has ever applied for!
After introducing herself, she began her presentation by describing her first grant-writing experience for The World We Want Foundation (WWWF). This organization promoted philanthropy among youth all around the world and was introduced to Ms. Neelakandan by Ms. Irving. Her proposal was designed to teach the importance of giving back at a young age, so she recruited groups of 1st-graders to make blankets, hygiene kits, and bags of trail mix to distribute to Baltimore’s homeless citizens.
With her written grant proposal, she was first awarded enough to fund a couple of such projects. She next wrote a follow-up proposal to fund all of her projects and received three $1,000 grants over a 3-year period. This allowed her to expand her philanthropic efforts to include the India Project, which is a school supplies drive for Indian schools. She made and sold friendship pins to buy dictionaries and other supplies that she delivered in person in India.
After a very successful run with WWWF, which closed down in 2015, Ms. Neelakandan went in search of a new project to support and came across Karma for Cara (K4C), which is based in Baltimore and is dedicated to “Empowering Youth to Repair Our World.” Following the online instructions, she applied for and won four $1,000 microgrants. With these, she was able to keep her already successful WWWF projects thriving as well as add a backpacks drive. She continues to support K4C.
She then learned about Disney and Youth Service America (YSA)’s 2017 Summer of Service Organization Grant and, to her surprise, won the $500 grant 2 years in a row. She says the experience “proved that I should be confident in myself and that I can change the world (and you can too!) and showed me that there are people out there who believe in the power of youth.”
Ms. Neelakandan’s work has not gone unnoticed. Recently, the Orokawa Foundation (a grant-making organization in Towson, MD) approached her about funding her projects. She is using the money to establish a library at a domestic abuse shelter. TNCS students may be assisting her in this endeavor in the near future.
And—breaking news–in the days since she presented at TNCS, she has been awarded yet another grant in the amount of $150. Kindness Grows Here is a new foundation that awarded its first Annual Kid Kindness Grants this month! “[They] want kids with awesome ideas to submit applications for ways in which they can help spread kindness in their school, community, town, or neighborhood.”
Ms. Neelakandan closed her TNCS presentation with some hard data (which has since been updated, given the new grant she just won):
- She has raised $10,478 in the 6 years she has been doing these projects.
- She has delivered over 150 handmade fleece blankets, 800 bags of trail mix, more than 1,200 sweet treats, 750 hygiene kits, and 300 backpacks.
- She has directly helped over 1,250 less fortunate men, women, and children.
She has also been invited to speak at fundraisers, won awards, and influenced fellow students. With these mantras in mind, this is how she has done it:
- There is no such thing as a small act of kindness.
- Find your passion and use it to change the world.
- Keep applying to different places and never get discouraged if it does not work out.
- You have the power to change the world, and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.
- Ask questions, be a leader, be kind and empathetic.
Interview with Laya Neelakandan
Because the visionary Ms. Neelakandan had to return to school immediately following her presentation, she kindly agreed to an email interview for this piece, transcribed here.
How did you become interested in grant writing?
“When I was in 4th grade, my mentor, Mrs. Mary-Catherine Irving, asked me if I wanted to lead her class in service projects. She introduced me to the concept of microgrants, and, at the age of 10, I applied for and received my first grant. Since then, I have continued to immerse myself in grant writing to get support for the projects that I make for the homeless.”
Do you plan to go to college? What will you major in, if so?
“I do plan to go to college after I graduate high school. Though I’m not completely certain yet exactly what I want to major in, I’m very interested in English and writing and aspire to be a journalist.”
What future career do you plan to pursue?
“I want to pursue journalism as a future career and use the power of my words to make a difference in my community and highlight social justice causes.” [Ed. note: You go, girl!]
Can you describe your experience of presenting at The New Century School?
“Presenting at The New Century School was an amazing experience for me. I had never presented about my grant writing before, and I loved seeing the students’ earnest and engaged faces as I told them how they have the power to change the world. Their interest shone through especially during the Q&A, where they asked me some of the most intriguing and introspective questions I had ever received, including what inspired me to keep giving back and if my school supports my work.”
Will you be doing additional work with TNCS students?
“The TNCS students are going to be conducting a collection drive for gloves, mittens, scarves, and socks for families at a shelter that I have been working with this past year (this is the Family Crisis Center shelter where I built the library for the children). I am excited to see what other ideas the students come up with.”
What are your hobbies (or, what do you enjoy doing in your free time)?
“In my free time, I enjoy playing piano, classical Indian flute, practicing classical Indian dance, singing, reading, and writing.”
What do your parents think of your work?
“My parents are extremely supportive of my work. They help drive me when I go out to distribute the items to the men and women who need them. They have also instilled in me the importance of using this gift of life to help others.”
Ms. Neelakandan is pictured below right with a woman outside a homeless shelter last January. “I had just given her some handmade fleece blankets. It was below freezing outside,” she explained.
Ms. Neelakandan drove home two primary points for TNCS students: First, youth have the power to do good, and, second, write from the heart when seeking a grant—“If you really care about something, it will show through in your writing,” she said.
“She was inspiring and wonderful,” said Ms. Danyali. It certainly will be wonderful to see just how she inspires TNCS students and what great things they will make happen in the coming months!