Shrey Pothini, Sivani Arvapalli and Praneeth Alla were among the six Indian Americans honored as 2018 state honorees for the 23rd annual Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, Prudential announced Feb. 6.
Shrey Pothini, 14, of Savage, Minn., an eighth-grader at Eagle Ridge Middle School, has organized an annual city-wide “day of service” for the past three years to mobilize community members to help others. Shrey has been passionate about community service ever since he collected new bath towels for a local homeless youth shelter when he was 5 years old. That effort led him to start a service club at his school, and then to encourage volunteerism throughout his entire city. “I wanted children and families in my city to be exposed to the needs in our community and learn how to make a difference while having fun,” said Shrey.
Shrey took his idea for a “Service Day Saturday” to the city’s mayor, city council and city administrator. After receiving permission, he put an ad in the local paper letting people know about the event and then formed a planning committee. He also talked to the city fire, police and communications departments; the local library; every school in the area; and local businesses and nonprofits. On the day of Shrey’s event, residents were encouraged to conduct their own volunteer projects or participate in one of 12 that Shrey had organized. More than 1,500 people participated in last year’s Service Day Saturday, collecting 4,000 pounds of food, donating 2,000 books to nonprofits, decorating 4,000 lunch bags for Meals on Wheels, assembling 500 bracelet kits for hospitalized kids, putting together 375 dental kits for homeless youth, and raising money to purchase 20 goats for families in Kenya. “I’m so grateful that people listened to my ideas and didn’t think I was just being a silly child,” said Shrey. “I would tell other young people to never let anybody tell them they cannot make a difference.”
South Windsor, Connecticut
Sivani Arvapalli, 13, of South Windsor, Conn., nominated by the Indian Valley Family YMCA and an eighth-grader at Timothy Edwards Middle School, volunteers with a school group that has raised nearly $90,000 for child-focused charities by conducting talent shows and organizing benefit dinners and entertainment events. Six high school students started the “Power of Peace (POP)" volunteer group several years ago to improve the lives of children. In 2013, Sivani participated in the group’s first fundraiser, a talent show. Inspired by her father, an avid volunteer, Sivani officially joined the group the following year. “I believe volunteering is important because it shapes people into better humans and makes them more selfless,” said Sivani. “My decision was to make a change in our world, whether it is the smallest or biggest thing.”
The POP group meets once a week to discuss upcoming events, projects and ideas. As one of their events draws near, members break into four teams to organize logistics, guest reception and donations, food and stage operations. When it’s over, the members pick a charity to support with their proceeds. The group has raised funds for sick children at the Hole in the Wall Gang camp, “adopted” 10 orphans each year at the Atma Vidya Ashram in India, donated Thanksgiving turkeys to a food bank, and provided Christmas toys for a local children’s hospital. On her own, Sivani also spent the last three summers tutoring children and organized a neighborhood lemonade stand to raise money for a school program.
Praneeth Alla, 15, of Exton, Pa., a junior at The Episcopal Academy, spent more than 1,000 hours creating a website for a charity in India, improving its ability to collect and manage donations, publicize projects and track income and expenditures. He also founded a network of youth clubs to raise money to improve the education of children in India. When Praneeth was a child, his father told him stories about growing up poor in the countryside of India. “He recounted the difficulties in receiving a quality education, the insufficient health conditions, and the limited amount of opportunities,” said Praneeth. In 2015, Praneeth traveled to India to see for himself. While observing dire conditions of poverty, he also was impressed with the work of the District NRI Foundation, which seeks to improve education, develop rural villages and provide people with basic necessities. After speaking with its leaders, he learned that they badly needed a user-friendly website to raise funds and awareness.
Praneeth returned home determined to design such a tool for them. Using his computer coding skills, he created an all-in-one software product that allows website users to track NRI projects, donate through PayPal, and see exactly how their donations are being used. The site so far has helped the District NRI Foundation raise more than $250,000, and is now being used by another Indian nonprofit to collect food for food banks. To get other students involved, Praneeth organized NRI Youth Clubs in the U.S., mobilizing high schoolers to participate in projects benefiting both their local communities and rural villages in India. There are now 25 of these clubs operating in several states. The youth clubs in Praneeth’s area alone have donated 55,000 pounds of food to the local community, and have made donations to India that include 100 prosthetic limbs, 100 television sets and four wheelchairs.