From Spelling Bee Champions to Young Changemakers: The Story of the North South Foundation

The journey of a group of students and parents from across the country harnessing their collective power through a shared value of education to make digital learning more accessible.
North South Foundation Young Changemakers
Source: Reilly Brooks

The Story of the Team behind the North South Foundation's Young Changemakers Initiative 

It’s a Saturday morning, a cloudy and rainy day in Atlanta, but a breezy summer day in Seattle. Logging on to Google Hangouts, over a dozen teenagers flash bright smiles while adjusting their cameras, enthusiastically greeting each other before the start of their meeting. Trisha pulls out her notebook from her living room in Illinois and waves to Rajapuri, who is calling in from his bedroom in New Hampshire. Trisha shares her screen to pull out a detailed agenda she carefully crafted the night before. "Okay,” she announces, “let’s get started.”  

Today’s virtual meeting is a group brainstorm and planning session. Their objective? Raise $50,000. However, the reason for their meeting stems from a year of collaboration, group learning, and virtual community building. And although these young people live hundreds of miles away from one another, they share a unique identity: that of a changemaker.  

Watch and listen to young changemakers Trisha, Rajapuri, and Krishna discuss their changemaker journeys and group initiative with the North South Foundation.

Building the Changemaker Identity 

Back in Summer 2019, a group of teenagers and their parents signed up for 5-part webinar series about the changemaker journey. Not knowing what to expect, they each gathered around their respective computers late one Wednesday evening. This convening was brought together by the North South Foundation, a volunteer-driven nonprofit that enables young people and their families in both India and the United States (with over 100 chapters!) to excel through scholarship. A powerful force in academic and spelling bee competitions, the North South Foundation is known for cultivating bright minds and young leaders.  

This call, however, was not the typical call with hundreds of eager and wide-eyed students ready to practice for an academic competition with other scholars. Instead, this call was an intimate, small cohort of service-minded students ranging from elementary to high school along with a few of their parents, all intrigued by this idea of “changemaking.” Each were passionate about making a positive impact in the world and curious to know where and how to get started.  

Through a series of virtual conversations about the changemaker journey hosted by Ashoka, a team naturally emerged. The younger participants began to connect with each other informally, sparking friendships over What’s App and sharing an interest in each other’s ideas for social change. After work, the parents began to brainstorm how they could bring this enthusiasm for changemaking to their own chapter of North South Foundation, workplace, and community. They saw a spark in their kids, and they knew it was contagious.  

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North South Foundation team delivers devices for students before the start of the school year.

The Founding of the North South Foundation’s Young Changemakers Initiative 

These conversations resulted in the formation of the North South Foundation’s Young Changemakers Initiative (YCI). In line with the Foundation’s commitment to education, the Initiative aims to promote excellence in empathy along with education. The team aspires to spread the changemaker identity across young people of North South Foundation and beyond, so that everyone feels confident and capable of enacting change. Recognizing the power of young people, Dr. Ratnam Chitturi, the Founder and former President of the Foundation for over 30 years, rallied the families to embark on this journey together. 

When the webinars ended, every participant got to work in their community. The young people began to launch social projects, including intergenerational activities for senior citizens’ wellbeing, health and fitness initiatives for young girls to STEM education workshops in untapped school districts.

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North South Foundation team delivering devices for students before the start of the school year.

A New Challenge Requires New Solutions  

A few months later, the novel coronavirus disrupted everyone’s sense of normality: school and work moved online, celebrations were canceled, academic competitions and spelling bees were postponed, and the world became more uncertain than ever before. This recognition of uncertainty is a time when changemakers rally as their eye for solutions kicks in.  

The team convened again virtually, discussing how the pandemic has affected daily life across their communities and, especially, the stifling effects it has on access to education. Together, the parents and young people were quick to recognize that digital learning requires students to have easy and reliant access to electronic devices with strong internet connections.

They wondered, “what happens to kids that don’t have devices at home or families can’t afford to buy these on their own? What about students living in rural areas with little or poor internet connection?”  

Rather than ignore the problem, a team quickly mobilized to respond, aspiring to help bridge a digital divide in education. This divide reflects a deeper, new inequality in the world where people are been systematically excluded from thriving in a world of change.  

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North South Foundation team delivering devices for students before the start of the school year.

Making Digital Learning More Accessible 

Hungry for digital equity, the team began to raise money to purchase devices for schools, such as laptops, Chromebooks, tablets, and wifi hotspots, to ensure students have the resources they need to participate in virtual learning. The initiative, called “Devices for Education," raised over $30,000 in the first three months, and the first $25,000 was matched by the North South Foundation. In one summer, the team provided devices for over 500 students across five schools.  

The team is learning how to fundraise virtually by reaching out to family, friends, and local companies. Through hosting virtual fundraisers, from bingo nights to donation-based tutoring sessions, these young changemakers experiment with creative ways to support students in their local area.  

Young people are front and center of the initiative – leading meetings, setting up fundraisers, connecting with schools, and ordering devices. Starting with a handful of students, now, they are team of 19 driven and empathetic young leaders. But, there is no one founder. Their collective ambition enables them to divide responsibilities equally and share ownership of the initiative. 

Parents, however, play a critical role as adult allies, offering guidance and advice to the team along with heavy doses of appreciation and validation. Through encouraging and uplifting the team, the parents have become changemakers themselves, embarking on a journey alongside their children. 

Together, this powerful group of young people are students continues to grow as they uphold a shared vision of a more equitable and inclusive future. 

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North South Foundation team delivering devices for students before the start of the school year.

Meet the Team of Young Changemakers  

Meet these young changemakers leading this initiative and learn about their early moments to finding their power below:

Amrutha S. (Freshman at NYU)

“What we do in life echoes for eternity” - Gladiator 

“The time I remember standing up was freshman year of high school where this one boy would not stop following my friend so he could use her phone. Everyone around us thought he was joking, but I could see that my friend was uneasy. It felt empowering to speak out, and I was 14.”

Abhay T. (8th grade)

"Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today"-Malcolm X

"When I was 12, there was somebody at my house that was getting bullied by a few older kids about being weak.  When I spoke out against them, it felt nice to help someone else."

Bhavika P.  (Freshman at UC Riverside)

“Be the change you want to see in the world." 

"The first time I stood up was when I saw a group of kids picking on my younger cousin when I was in the 8th grade. She told me that they were her friends but I did not believe that since they kept on bugging her and teasing her. So I told her “friends” that friends do not treat each other with name-calling and rude behavior. I felt empowered to help someone even though they didn’t ask for help. I knew then that I wanted to help people and be their voices if they are scared to speak up."

Sahasra C. (7th grade)

My quote is “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

The first time that I stood up for injustice was when I was 8, and I saw one of my friends getting picked on by a bully. The bully was calling my friend names, and I stood up to him and told him to leave her alone. I was also bullied by the same person before, and I felt happy and relieved that I was able to stand up to him, and I didn’t just stay silent.

Saketh A. (11th grade)

“Me shooting 40% at the foul line is just God's way to say nobody's perfect.”

"My brother was getting bullied by his friend and I swooped in and helped him out. They were often ditching my brother and mistreating him so I made him meet my friend’s brothers and they all hung out."

Shreeya Y. (9th grade)

“The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.” - Oscar Wilde

"One of the first times that I remember was in 4th grade around the age of 10 when there was this boy who would always aim for certain people to hit with the ball during PE. A few people had to go to the nurse’s office because they got hurt because of him, including me. It started around February in that school year, with him targeting one after the other. I vaguely remember encouraging all my friends to go to the counselor for help. When I was targeted and got physically hurt, I said I am going to the counselors office and if anyone wants to join me. Everyone who had been hurt by him joined and we all went to the counselor’s office in May. It did take us some time to step up for ourselves."

Surya P. (10th grade)

"Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend." ― Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

"I saw a homeless man and I felt that was unfair and asked my parents, “Why does he not have a home?” - the story I often hear from them. Even now, I feel hurtful every time I see a homeless person because nobody deserves to live that way and I constantly think of ways to fix this problem."

Tejas P. (8th grade)

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”---Benjamin Franklin

"One injustice that I fought was against food insecurity, I was around 9 years old and I took a trip to New York City and saw that people were starving on the streets. I helped fight this injustice by donating money to an organization that helps these people. It felt great thinking that my money was going to help people. Additionally, I brought awareness locally by telling my community to reduce their trash in general and plastics in particular by half. Still, there is a lot of work to be done and it is in progress. During this COVID-19 pandemic, we realized that Education is the single most important thing one can get as well as impart to others. It is an investment that stays with you forever. What better time to impart education to others than in this COVID-19 pandemic times. Hence, my involvement with this “Device Project” is to do something about the big digital divide (injustice) that exists today in our communities across the nation."

Vishana B. (9th grade)

“The rise of childhood obesity has placed the health of the entire generation at risk.” --Tom Vilsack.

The first injustice I fought was when I was 5 years old. As a child, I had seen people taking turns to use the desktops at the library for 30 mins. I asked my dad, "Why are they using computers at the library instead of at home?" That was when my dad explained to me that not everyone had computers at home. Shocked, because we had so many devices at home, I asked him if we could give them some of the computers we had at home. Eventually, after playing around with the idea a bit, I ended up giving a laptop and a printer to a highschool girl in need of devices as my 5th birthday present. It was so gratifying, and it was my first step towards changing the injustice that still affects us today. As part of this initiative, I have been able to give back and fight this injustice at a much larger scale.

Trisha P. (12th grade) 

“Be the change you wish to see in the world” --Mahatma Gandhi

"One injustice that I fought was against hunger. I was around 12 years old and I took part in “feed my starving children”. I felt bad for many who did not have access to food and wanted to be part of a team that took direct action. This also forced me to think that we should not waste food or take anything for granted. Another injustice that I saw was widespread bullying going on in school when I was 11 years old. I tried to handle it myself but realized that awareness has to be spread. The bully changes over time, but action must be taken early on so that there is no significant damage being done  physically, mentally, and emotionally to the person who is being bullied.  Another injustice that I see is the lack of STEM education in schools/school-districts, and in my community. Kids, especially girls are affected and are at a receiving end and most of them lose interest from an early age. From my middle schools, I am helping many kids not to lose interest in whatever capacity I can. I run STEM clubs to keep that interest in students and give them something to move forward. During COVID-19 pandemic, we realized that to do any STEM related activities, many underprivileged students across the US need digital devices to even continue remote learning. Hence, my involvement with this “Device Project” is to do something about  the big digital divide (injustice) that exists today in our communities across the nation."

Krishna C. (10th grade)

"I was 5 years old, and I saw a friend getting bullied. He was often bullied quite a bit, and it was almost always the same people. I saw it happening and one day, I snapped. I told those kids to leave my friend alone and I told them to stop picking on others. Everybody else was watching as this played out, but they didn’t pay much attention. I felt great when I spoke out, it was nice to help represent my friend and it felt nice to let him know that he didn't have to take these hits from his oppressors."

Rajapuri S. (6th grade)

 “It is not enough to be compassionate, You must act.” - Dalai Lama

"The first time I stood up for injustice was when I was 7 and my friend was getting bullied because he was not good at English as he came from France. I asked the bullies to stop the rude behavior and reported to this my Principal when they repeated it. I felt good to stand up for my friend who turned into my best friend."

Sai S. (9th grade)

“You miss 100% of the shots you don't take’” -- Wayne Gretsky

"When I was in 4th grade, I was not even 4 feet tall! I was 3’ 10’’. People picked on me because they thought I wouldn’t be able to fight back. They thought I wouldn’t be able to say anything, and they would feel powerful.  I was also the new kid in school. I had only been there for a year, and had almost no friends. I was bullied at first, but I found a friend who didn’t pick on me. Someone I could relate to. A few weeks later, I saw a person that was bullied because of his color. Because I was bullied before, I understood how that kid was feeling. I stood up to the bullies, and I made the kid feel happy and safe. The next year, I joined with some friends in the Gifted Program at my school to create posters and stuff to spread diversity around the school. Together we made the school a better place, and we felt happy that we were able to create a better environment for students. Differences are viewed as weaknesses and flaws to some people, but we have to understand what the world would look like if everyone was the same."

Venkat D. (5th grade)

“Be The Change You want to see in the world.” -Mahatma Gandhi

 “When the world is on fire, be the water” -Venkat Dhulipala

"The first time that I stood up for injustice was when I was 7, and I heard my school mates living in my neighborhood calling me names due to my color. The bully was calling me names, and I talked to him after I talked to my mum. I did not fight but instead had a good talk with him about how it feels when someone misunderstands a person based on color. My mum and I planned a presentation on International day and presented together about Mother India to educate the classmates about the great history of Ancient India. The coolest part was I gotta wear a traditional Indian outfit for the presentation and I became a popular kid and people called me “Indian Prince”. It was a good opportunity to teach other kids about diversity and respect for each other."

Ujwal C. (8th grade)

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” Robin Williams

"When I was 10, all of the 4th grade (in my school) went on a field trip together to a place called BizTown, which is basically a place where kids go to know what it feels like to have a job. When we were there, we were given some money from our parents to buy souvenirs. One kid did not have money from his parents, so he had to watch while everybody else bought something. Because of this, he was made fun of. I saw this happening and I went over there. I told the bullies to stop and go away, but when they didn’t, I just dragged the kid who was getting bullied away from them. I asked him why he was so sad, and he said he didn’t have money to buy anything. Since I had already done my “shopping”, I bought him something from the gift shop from what I had left. Not only did it make him happy, but I also felt pretty happy because I knew I might not affect the world, but I affected someone’s world. The happiness and satisfaction I got  through this incident has made me lead other kids in various ways to give back to the community. I do this not only as a board member of PGNF Youth, but also as a YCN."

Ramitha M. (11th Grade)

“The harder you work for something, the greater you’ll feel when you achieve it.”

"The first time I spoke out for something was when I was 12 years old. This was during the Nepal Earthquakes, and the world was watching as Nepal was facing a huge natural disaster. I decided I wanted to help. I went to my nearest grocery store, and asked if I could put up a bake sale to raise money for UNICEF. I was rejected many times, but me, and eventually my friends that joined me, did not want to give up. Ultimately, we found a local Indian grocery store that was willing to use their shop. The day of, my friends and I spent all morning baking cupcakes for the cause. Because we ourselves were kids we decided UNICEF was the best organization because they were an organization that specifically helped out kids going through crisis across the world. That afternoon, from 12 to about 8 p.m. we collected donations by selling cupcakes for $1. What surprised me was that even though the cupcakes were cheap, we still ended up raising a lot because the people there genuinely wanted to donate and give back, so we normally got a lot more than $1. In the end, we ended up raising $400, and all though it wasn’t a lot, that day, it felt like we had accomplished so much, and truly helped out for a cause that mattered."

Suhas P. (10th grade)

“Treat others as you wish to be treated.” - The Golden Rule

"When I was in sixth grade, me and a group of friends were looking at a few problems in the world (treatment of women and children, peacekeeping etc.) and felt like things could have been done a lot better in regards to these issues in poorer areas of the world. So we spent the whole year researching these topics and at the end of the year, we fundraised enough money to get a trip to New York and speak at the United Nations building. It was one of the best experiences of my life and I was glad that I was able to talk about and help share about the injustice occurring in the world in order to raise awareness."

Havisha N. (11th grade)

“We can do anything we want to if we stick to it long enough.” ~ Helen Keller 

"The first time I stood up for an injustice was during sixth grade in middle school, when I was twelve. My friend, who had a physical disability that caused her to be on a wheelchair, was being bullied and teased by individuals in our grade for being incapable and not being able to do simple tasks. It was that moment when I decided to speak up for her, and let her know that she was not obligated towards remaining silent and taking in these harsh remarks. It felt empowering and uplifting to speak up for such a small injustice, but it was one that held a significant impact, letting her know that she was validated, and that she was capable of great things."

Akhil S. (10th grade)

“You have two hands. One to help yourself and one to help others.” - Rishika Jain 

"The first time I stood up for injustice was when I was 12 years old and my friend kept getting picked on so I told the bullies to leave him alone."


Asia Rinehart contributed to this story.