Relentless Hero Nikhiya Shamsher: Only 16 and Has Entirely Transformed the Lives of More Than 12000 Children

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You would have to be a true word wizard to name all the achievements of young Nikhiya Shamsher (16) in one brief paragraph. A thank-you note she received from a girl called Roja has changed her perception of the world. When barely a teenager, at the age of 12, Nikhiya formed an NGO called Women Have the Same Set of Teeth as Men. Its initiative – Bags, Books and Blessings – has helped more than 11000 students from 30 schools to receive school supplies, while another project called Yearn to Learn has provided 115 brand new Science and Math laboratories benefiting more than 12000 young souls. A student whose grandmother has arthritis and cannot climb stairs has made a prototype of a Hydraulic lift, thanks to the laboratory provided by Nikhiya’s NGO. In recognition of all her good deeds, Nikhiya Shamsher received the prestigious Diana Legacy Award at St. James’s Palace last year. She has spent the last 18 months developing and validating a diagnostic method to detect the early risk of oral pre-cancer and cancer in chronic smokers. Her research paper has won the Gandhian Young Technological Award and has been featured in the Harvard University Journal of Emerging Investigators. This girl seems unstoppable…

Nikhiya Shamsher with children

Dear Nikhiya, how has your professional engagement changed since you became a Diana Legacy Award holder? Can you tell us more about how new contacts and opportunities have helped your NGO activities?

For my activities to be successful, I need to reach out to a wider audience. A wider audience can offer greater participation. When reputed institutions like The Diana Awards recognize my activities, it adds credibility to my work. It also helps my organization to win the trust of our donors. More than anything it tells me that I am on the right track.

After receiving the Diana Legacy Award, several NGOs, with similar interests, offered to participate and tie-up with my organization. We now have the support and co-operation of NGOs like the Akshaya Patra Foundation, Teach for India, the Kritagyata Trust, Astha Shakti and the Ashwini Charitable Trust. Our organization has deeply benefited from the support of these well-established organizations that provide us with references of schools that are in need of labs, introduce us to school staff, and provide teaching staff and volunteers to help us out.

For instance, the Akshaya Patra Foundation runs the mid-day meal program serving wholesome school lunches to over 1.6 million children in 13839 schools. They have appointed me as their Goodwill Ambassador, and our organization now works with them.

Nikhiya Shamsher

Please, give us an update on what is that you are working on now?

I have spent the last 18 months developing and validating a home-based salivary diagnostic method that costs Rs. 38 (50 cents) to detect the early risk of oral pre- cancer and cancer in chronic smokers. My research paper has been published in the Harvard University Journal of Emerging Investigators and is titled Quit Puff: A Simple Method using Lipid Peroxidative Changes in Saliva to Assess the Risk of Oral Pre-cancerous Lesions and Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma in Chronic Smokers.

The incidence of oral cancer is the highest in India, accounting for almost one-third cases found in the world. The number of smokers in India has risen from 79 million in 1998 to 108 million in 2015. Most cases of oral cancer get detected in the later stages, due to reasons like ignorance and inaccessibility of medical care. Thus the development of a simple, easy to use, home-based test was very much needed.

My innovation has won the Gandhian Young Technological Awards and has been chosen to receive a government grant through the Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions. This grant is offered by the Government of India to  innovations that economize on the use of material, are extremely affordable, sustainable and have the potential of addressing an important social problem faced by the masses.

It is such an incredible fact that a girl who was only 12 years old felt the need to help others by founding an NGO, back in 2015. This act was the key reason you have been honored with the prestigious Diana Award. What was your greatest inspiration for doing this, and who are the people who helped you the most?

It was a small event in my life that became the starting point. When I was 12 years old, my old school bag was given away to our housekeeper’s daughter, Roja. I did not give it much thought at that time. But the school bag had a profound impact on Roja. She was overjoyed and wrote me a thank-you note. She was thrilled with her school bag. Although she was studying in grade 4, she did not own a school bag till then and used polythene bags to carry books. The thought disturbed me. I realized that like Roja there were many kids who did not have the proper resources to go to school and study. An idea started building in my mind. I shared it with my friends and launched my first initiative, Bags, Books and Blessings.

My school principal and teachers have been my biggest supporters. My principal, D’Mello Sir, helped me create a lot of awareness in school and in the entire ward. A lot of parents came forward and participated generously.

My friends and volunteers campaigned tirelessly on the ground as well as on social media. They were there at every stage from loading and unloading of school supplies and on.

My parents have supported me and motivated me at several stages. They helped me with understanding financial aspects and with the legal paperwork required to register the NGO.

You named your NGO Women Have the Same Set of Teeth as Men. What is the message behind it?

My NGO is called Women Have the Same Set of Teeth as Men. The name was inspired by Aristotle’s dental logic way back in time. Aristotle considered men superior as they had more teeth than women. Incidentally, it still remains intensely relevant in the patriarchal society we live in; amidst multiple versions of Aristotle who are highly educated but think of women as inferior. Women Have the Same Set of Teeth as Men is my way of asserting the strength and the confidence of today’s women, of women like me who want to bring change in the world.

Nikhiya Shamsher with children

Thanks to your initiative, Bags, Books and Blessings, more than 4000 students have received school supplies including books, bags, uniforms, and shoes. Is this initiative still active, and how many schools have been involved so far?

Bags, Books and Blessings was started in 2015. In the last 4 years, 11525 students from 30 schools have received school supplies like bags, books, uniforms, shoes and stationery items through the activities of this initiative.

These school supplies not only equip the children with the basic tools they need to study but also give them the confidence they need to succeed.

While being persistent in your goal to ensure that children across India have the right facilities and resources to build a better future through education, you noticed that schools do not have enough Math and Science labs. Yearn to Learn was your next step – a new initiative that has to date launched 115 laboratories of Science and Math in 29 schools, benefiting more than 12000 students. Share with us the most inspiring results of this action.

In the last four years, Yearn to Learn has launched 130 laboratories of Science and Math in 30 schools. The impact has been phenomenal. Students are becoming problem solvers. A student facing a power crisis in his house created a prototype of a hydroelectricity unit to generate power. He intends to solve the power crisis not only in his own home but in his entire village. A student whose grandmother has arthritis and cannot climb stairs has made a prototype of a hydraulic lift. A student from Narsipur is facing a severe drinking water crisis. So, she is making a water purifying unit. The list is endless. There is an atmosphere of science and innovation in schools that have Yearn to Learn Labs.

There are letters pouring in from schools about exam results and grades of students having significantly improved. Schools are gearing up for inter-school science exhibitions. In 2017, about 304 students participated in math and science Olympiads, and the number doubled in 2018 with 686 participants. This was their very first time, never before had they participated in any competitive exams. And the results were encouraging with 77 Gold medals, 59 silver, and 57 Bronze medals.

Tell us more about the unique experience of sponsoring 25 visually impaired children. Would you set apart any special moment spent with them?

The aim of Yearn to Learn is to create equal opportunities in the field of education. To further this cause, Yearn to Learn funds the school and college education of 25 visually impaired children.

Interacting with these 25 visually impaired students was a unique experience. Like all of us, they have big dreams and aspirations. Some of them wanted to have a career in computer science, some wanted to become lecturers and music teachers, and one student wanted to do a B.A in Journalism and work at a news channel. It is only with education and  technology that they can be empowered to live normal lives.

We bonded with the students over games. In many ways, the students played better than most of us. They listened more carefully and remembered without taking notes. It was  amazing to see them perform competitively at the games and win prizes. It was an humbling experience to watch how these students had a high desire and motivation to succeed.

The number of underprivileged children you have helped so far is impressive – it counts more than 6000 kids. Testimonials and videos of young ones in schools with their teachers and mentors, posted at the Yearn to Learn website, show the immense importance of your work. Is there a message of gratitude you have received that you will never forget?

There was an email from a 7 th -grade student from Divine Mercy School which I will always remember. He was moved by the sight of an old lady sweeping the floor of his school, and so he requested his principal to assign the sweeping task to a younger person. He did not stop here. He wrote an email to me expressing his desire to build a vacuum cleaner that would ease the hard work of sweeping. He wanted Yearn to Learn to provide additional supplies that would aid him to build the vacuum cleaner. His empathetic and kind-hearted nature and problem-solving intentions touched my heart.

What was it like meeting HRH Prince William and Harry at St James’s Palace in London, and what was the most interesting part of the ceremony?

I am extremely humbled to have received the Diana Legacy Award. The greatest thing about the award was that it was presented to me by Prince William and Prince Harry. The best part of the ceremony was the personal interaction with Prince William and Prince Harry in the Throne Room at St. James’s Palace. When I came back to school, I was a minor celebrity, everybody wanted to know how it was to talk to the Princes and what the Throne Room looked like.

What is your life motto, and where do you see yourself in ten years?

I see myself as a social entrepreneur in 10 years. I wish to scale up my activities across the nation and look at international collaboration. I aim to work with the United Nations. I want to pitch across my idea of Universal Education, which I believe is the most effective way to solve a lot of problems that plague us today in the field of education. My long-term aim is to ensure that every school has fully equipped labs and they are regularly stocked up for future batches. I want Yearn to Learn students to participate and excel in national and international competitions and be at par with current technology.

Photo credits: Raghu

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