Age is just a number, they all say.
Imagine you’re 13. Your life probably revolves round school, your parents, friends, hobbies, your crush, idols, and the lot. You are likely to be aware of certain world issues, and they might even bother you, but it might never occur to you to do something about it. You’re 13, after all.
Ishaan Patel of West Hartford, Connecticut, USA is (you guessed it) 13. He works to keep his grades up in school. And when he is not studying, he loves playing squash, golf and lacrosse and composing tunes on the piano or playing the drums.
But what sets this average teenager apart from the crowd is the fact he plants pencils, literally! The founder of an initiative called Planting Pencils, he is striving to make education accessible to children across the world by crowdsourcing everything from money to old computers..
Ishaan’s decision wasn’t taken overnight though. The seeds of compassion in him were sown early. With his parents being doctors, Ishaan says they imbibed in him the quality to help the less fortunate.
The Care Factor
“My mom has even let me come in and watch her take care of babies and little kids. I have seen my parents donate money to charities every year. They say it is important to give to those in need as a way of showing gratitude for the things we have got in our lives,” he says.
With his inspiration in place, what goaded the 8th grader further was his aunt’s experiences abroad. “When my aunt Hema Shah went to India and Costa Rice to volunteer at schools that literally had nothing, she came back with stories about kids there. She would show us pictures and tell us how hungry they were for education even though they were not well off. Her accounts inspired me to take a closer look at education around the world.”
Ishaan’s mission kicked off with researching the quality of education in the US and other countries as well as gathering relevant statistics from UNESCO. “I found that there are millions of children around the world who don’t go to school due to reasons such as less accessibility, child labour and child marriages. Having grown up thinking that all children have the same rights, it made me very sad to see the actual state of affairs and at the same time, I was eager to help make a change.”
Ishaan also attended a leadership conference at Stanford University in Palo Alto California and a financial camp in Wall Street, upon which he “realised that I did not have to wait until I was an adult to start my own organisation.”
His ideas gradually started taking shape with the help of his mother, who constantly guided him. “We collected some much-needed school supplies to send to the kids. After I saw how happy the kids were after they received just one pencil, I knew that we should be grateful for what we have in the United States. I knew that this state of how children learn in other places around the world needed to be changed now,” he says.
Planting Pencils, the foundation that he set up a few months ago, has so far raised $5,500, made four donations, including one each to schools in Tanzania and Ghana, and set up four permanent donation sites, with plans for a donation to a school in Jaipur in India in the pipeline. To collect funds Ishaan put up donation boxes, including one at his school, and campaigned for the cause. The donations directly reach the schools in the US, while those sent abroad are handed over to the representatives of respective schools.
Ishaan is the proud CEO of the foundation, a title that makes him one of the youngest CEOs in the world. Not only that. He has also fashioned the name and logo by himself.” My mother insisted that I do the work and feel that the organisation is mine. Her belief was that if I wanted the title of the CEO, then I should be acting like a CEO,” he explains. The foundation’s rise has been staggering, by Ishaan’s own admission. “I did not expect it to become so successful so fast,” he exclaims.
His efforts on the other hand made him quite a celebrity at school. Ishaan relates how his classmates initially were shocked to learn of his progress and all that he has accomplished, and even approached him to ask if he was actually going to do the things he said he would. Inspired, they had offered to help him and were excited for him.
Making a Difference
Of course, keeping donation boxes isn’t enough by itself. And this is a fact Ishaan realises well. It is exactly why he undertakes other initiatives to collect donations. One such initiative involved the most unlikely of places to raise funds - a Zumba class. “We organised a Zumba class to raise money for Planting Pencils and kept the entry fee as $10 per person. The owner of a Zumba studio in my hometown was an acquaintance of my parents and she approached my mother with the idea to raise the money. She believed in my mission and wanted to be a part of it. The whole session on the other hand, was actually a lot more fun and we raised a decent amount of funds to be able to widen the reach of Planting Pencils to other parts of the world.”
The young philanthropist has ambitious plans to take his work forward. He has been invited to visit the schools which have been the beneficiaries of Planting Pencils, and plans to visit schools India and Africa the next year. “In the meantime, I am planning about speaking to students via Skype and hoping to set up interactions between students at my school and students at the schools in Africa. I am hoping that in this way I can help my classmates here to really learn to appreciate the differences between our school and their school and encourage them to take a stand and help make a change.”
The message that Ishaan Patel has for everyone makes one wonder, for the umpteenth time, that whether he really is only 13. “I want people to know that it sometimes seems that the problems in the world are enormous and too big for one person to fix. But if everyone helped out, it could make a huge difference. Every little bit helps. Currently only 2 per cent of humanitarian aid goes towards improving edu-cation around the world. Our focus needs to turn to education,” he adds.
The name Planting Pencils is derived from the concept that a pencil is a child’s first step towards education and something that plants their future as learners and leaders