Mahima Varma, 17, of Kolkata and Nikhiya Shamsher, 13, of Bangalore, were honored on May 1st at a gala awards ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History during the 21st annual presentation of the U.S. Prudential Spirit of Community Awards. Mahima and Nikhiya were presented with special commemorative trophies by Prudential Financial CEO John Strangfeld during the evening event held each year in May to present awards to America’s top two youth volunteers from each state. The honorees were also personally congratulated for their outstanding volunteer service by Academy Award-winning actress Hilary Swank.
Mahima and Nikhiya were named top youth volunteers by India’s Pramerica Spirit of Community Awards program in April. They received awards including an all-expense-paid trip for the special recognition events in Washington, D.C.
Mahima, a class XII student at Loreto House, Kolkata, is the co-founder and regional chair of “Girls for Tomorrow,” a nationwide movement to spread awareness about rape and teach young girls self-defense. In the aftermath of the Nirbhaya incident, Mahima was actively involved in many peace marches and protests. With an understanding that it would take years to change societal mindsets, she and two friends decided to empower girls instead of waiting for change to happen.
With the help of professional teachers, Mahima brings self-defense classes and life skill workshops to girls in three organizations: Udayan, a home and school for children with leprosy, Child Care Home, for girls rescued from red light areas, and Bastee Welfare Center, a literacy center for young mothers.
Nikhiya, a class VIII student at Greenwood High School, Bangalore, has launched two initiatives to educate the underprivileged – “Bags, Books and Blessings” and “Yearn to Learn.” Nikhiya started Bags, Books and Blessings after she realized that there were many children like her who did not have the basic resources to go to school.
She started her donation campaign in school, distributed brochures, put up posters, sent emails to all parents in the school database, and took turns with her friends to visit every classroom to motivate students to donate their schoolbags, textbooks, notebooks, stationery and other items.
Nikhiya also designed a website and urged journalists to spread the word so that more schools would donate. Her efforts yielded results and the donations started pouring in.
When Nikhiya learned that many schools do not have laboratory facilities due to limited resources, she decided to fill this void through fundraising efforts that raised a total of Rs. 4.18 lakhs. So far, Yearn to Learn has set up 11 laboratories in three schools in Bangalore, benefitting 2,250 students. Nikhiya says, “We may not be able to solve the world’s problems, but we can make the little part of the world where we live, a better place.” The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards were created by Prudential in 1995 to encourage youth volunteerism and to identify and reward young role models.