It was a regular morning for 20 year-old Roopam Sharma as he entered the school lab and turned on his laptop, until he found out that he won in the Microsoft Challenge for Change global contest.
“I shouted in disbelief, then joy,” he recalled. “I felt that all my hard work on the Emancipator had finally paid off, and that this is a great beginning to start improving the lives of dementia patients and their caregivers.”
In India, dementia-related healthcare support is extremely poor despite being home to half of the 35.6 million people diagnosed with the disorder. To address this, Roopam created a real-time tracking system called “Emancipator”, which alerts both the dementia patient and caregiver whenever the patient leaves a certain location or boundary, and provides voice navigation to help guide the patient back home safely. He submitted this mobile app for the Challenge for Change contest a few months ago, never expecting to be among the 10 global winners.
Several miles away, Sonal Jain was on her toes, thrilled at the email announcing her win. The thought of going on a trip with other Challenge for Change winners, learning about the social issues of an unfamiliar country and exchanging ideas with like-minded individuals got her giddy with excitement. She couldn’t wait to be inspired and, more importantly, continue to make a positive change in the lives of children.
Although only 22-years-old, Sonal has already been creating education opportunities for local children and promoting gender equality through the use of technology.
“Gender equality, as I see it, is unrestricted expression of one self. What gender stereotyping does is to limit one’s self-expression, forcing them to curb their interests and capabilities in in multiple domains,” explained Sonal. She believes that educating the young is the key to tackling this. “Personally, having access to good education helped me break out of the gender stereotype that women should unquestioningly sit at home and look after domestic chores or men should solely shoulder the responsibility of earning bread.”
Determined to provide others with the opportunities she received, Sonal is collaborating with seven other like-minded individuals across the world to design a video-based educational programme focused on gender equality called “World in a Box”, which she used as her Challenge for Change submission.
Meanwhile, Abhishek Paudel was in the midst of working on bringing medical care faster to remote areas in Nepal when the Gorkha earthquake shook his country in April 2015, levelling his hometown village and destroying thousands of lives. Access to medical care in Nepal was already difficult due to the geographically challenging terrain and the massive shortage of doctors, and this devastating earthquake further compounded the problem.
“I’ve heard stories where many in remote areas of Nepal die of complications from minor health issues that are easily treatable, like diarrhoea, simply because doctors are unwilling to travel due to safety concerns. And, this left me thinking, what can I do to connect both doctors and patients?” said Abhishek. “My idea is simple: I want to enable telemedicine through the use of Skype and other Microsoft Office solutions, so that Nepalese, whether in rural or urban locations, can have access to basic healthcare services.”
Upon learning that he is one of the 10 Challenge for Change winners, the 21 year-old was simply grateful for the chance to further his vision of bringing better healthcare to his fellow countrymen.
A few months have passed since Roopam and Sonal flew to Nicaragua for their leadership-development trip, and Abhishek attended a similar event in Kenya—and these experiences have only strengthened their zeal to further the causes close to their hearts.
Curious to find out more about their journey, we recently sat down with the trio over a virtual cup of tea (via Skype!) as they shared their experiences of the trip, and how they plan to continue making the world a better place in their own ways.
For Abhishek and Roopam, it was their very first international trip. With bulky backpacks and a whole lot of enthusiasm, they stepped into the airplane not knowing what to expect in the next two weeks in an unfamiliar land. Despite heading to separate locations, they both looked forward to the same thing: to learn how they could make a change in a community across the globe and discover how they would upgrade themselves to take their projects even further.
“Of course I was excited! I was going to meet other winners and at the same time, get the chance to explore and understand a foreign culture for the first time in my life,” enthused Roopam.
After the initial impressions upon touch down—Abhishek was mesmerised by the miles and miles of savannah grasslands, a stark contrast to the mountainous terrain of Nepal—the three winners started to settle into their leadership-development programmes.
One of the challenges they faced was the language barrier.
“Even though Roopam and I took preliminary Spanish lessons, communicating with the locals in Nicaragua was initially difficult. But our facilitators and fellow participants came to the rescue with the translations,” Sonal recalled. “I even managed to pick up some Spanish from Shirley, the winner from Ecuador.”
Abhishek was knee-deep into his trip, where one of the activities they carried out was to simulate the life of a typical Kenyan community with swapped gender roles. The guys of the team, including himself, had to manage the household, which was quite challenging given the limited resources such as food and firewood. Yet as the saying goes, many hands make light work.
“Although the task in hand seemed tough, we succeeded through great team work and a strong, collective sense of responsibility,” said Abhishek.
Meeting with other young and aspiring change makers left a huge impression on the trio. Sonal and Roopam had the opportunity to spend their trip with other Challenge for Change winners, and they shared the same sentiments on how their passion and determination to pursue their own goals, even in the face of adversity, was truly inspiring. As for Abhishek, he went through the leadership-development trip with one other Challenge for Change winner, Saviour Okusenogu from Nigeria, and a group of high school students from Canada and the USA.
“The fact that the students were there on their own accord showed how socially conscious they are, even at a young age. I learned that most of them had to raise the funds for the trip themselves,” continued Abhishek. “I thought that was really inspiring, that even if they didn’t have the means for it, they seek an alternative solution to go out and make a difference in others’ lives.”
Their respective takeaways from the trip were well thought-out, and showed wisdom beyond their age. Sonal felt that the lesson on bringing their solutions to market was interesting and beneficial, and especially relevant when the time will come to get funding for her own ideas and projects in the future. Abhishek learned that it is very important to take a holistic approach when solving a problem.
“For me, I’d say the concept of human-centred design was most relevant,” Roopam remarked. “It is an interesting and creative approach to problem solving, where we first try to understand the needs of the people we are designing for, and then create a solution that meets these specific requirements.”
We asked the winners about the one thing they would do to upgrade their world, and they answered in unison: To focus on just one thing at a time.
“We have fresh ideas every day, but how often do we start on them? Being disciplined on what we want to do and what we want to achieve will help us see a project through to the end,” said Sonal. Roopam further added that it is also important to not lose the vision of bringing a positive change to others.
Before we concluded our conversation, the three winners offered some words of advice to other young and aspiring change makers.
“Get rid of your self-doubt. Have an idea? Take the leap forward and pursue it!” exclaimed Sonal, while Roopam declared, “People with passion can always change the world for the better.”
Abhishek wrapped up by saying, “There will always be difficulties in everything you do, but never lose hope.”
Wise words indeed!
So what are the winners up to right now?
Roopam has already developed a prototype of the Emancipator mobile app and is in the process of testing it with real users, while Sonal is exploring more video creation options with a mobile device for her World in a Box project. In Nepal, Abhishek is developing an implementation plan for telemedicine in a rural village, and has been collaborating with people in related fields to realise his dream for basic health care access.
Though with different perspectives and experiences, Abhishek, Roopam and Sonal are unanimous about one thing: the entire Challenge for Change experience was amazing, life-changing and beneficial, and will greatly help them in their journey to better the world.
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