September 2009: Risha Shukla
Bringing Smiles to Kids in Hospital
Risha Shukla, 12
Risha Shukla learned at a very young age that it is absolutely no fun to be a sick child in a hospital. After her experience, she decided to create the Kids Who Care Club, which helps to cheer up young hospitalized children. Risha started this work when she was just seven years old, and has been doing it for more than five years! She talked with Teen Voices' Kinne Chapin about how she got started, what her organization does to help children, and why she thinks it's important that all of us give back to our communities.
Teen Voices: Could you explain your nonprofit's mission?
Risha: Our mission is to cheer up critically ill children all over the world. We also teach kids at a very young age to be caring and compassionate, and raise awareness about pancreatitis. We cheer up kids by sending smile packs, and also take our traveling variety show to local hospitals and Ronald McDonald Houses. Our smile packs are boxes that include a card quilt, books, games, DVDs, gift cards, and anything else that will keep children entertained. When we receive a request, we make sure we know what the child likes, so we know what to pack for them. The traveling variety show is a show that usually lasts around an hour. We go to places like the Ronald McDonald House, or local hospitals, and perform acts like singing, dancing, puppet shows, and interactive songs to cheer the kids there up. It's a lot of fun!
When I was younger, I was teased a lot, because kids didn't know what was wrong with me. They knew I was different though. I missed classes to go to the office or to the doctor. Because of this experience, Kids Who Care tries to teach kids to care by having them make cards for other children. We tell them who the cards are going to and what condition they have. If another child comes to school with the same disease, we want them to know that they made a card for a child in the hospital with this disease, and not to treat the kid at school differently.
TV: Why is helping children in hospitals so important to you?
Risha: It's important to me because I was once in that situation. You're away from all your friends and family, and you start making friends with the nurses, since you're there so long. But when you realize people care about you enough to spend the time to do something for you, it feels really good. I have several medical conditions, and most of them have no cure. So, I know how it feels to be a patient, to go for different medical tests and have tons of doctor's appointments. As the founder of Kids Who Care, I also know what it feels like to give.
TV: Why did you decide to start the Kids Who Care Club?
Risha: I decided to start my own nonprofit when I was seven. What happened was that I had to go to Minneapolis to get an auto-islet cell transplant and a pancreatectomy. My parents didn't know what the outcome was going to be, so they threw me a soccer going away party, because I loved soccer. My friends secretly made cards for me, and my sister's preschool teacher, Mrs. M, wove them together with ribbons. In the hospital, I did not want to do anything besides sleep. I would barely eat. I was in so much pain from the 12-hour surgery. When my mom woke me up and showed the card quilt to me, it was the most special thing I had ever seen. It was so exciting to open the package because I was away from home, with no visitors. It proved to me that my friends really cared about me. After that I started wanting to do things. My mom hung it on the wall, and I would get up and roll around in my wheelchair to read the cards over and over again. My room was so nicely decorated compared to the rest of the rooms around me on the transplant floor that the doctors would say, "Wow! Your room is filled with love!" That made their day, as well as mine. That's when I decided that I wanted other kids to feel the same way I did.
TV: Tell me a bit about pancreatitis. Why is raising awareness about this disease important to you?
Risha: Pancreatitis is a rare disease in children, and there is no cure. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth cause for death in the United States. When you look it up on the Internet, all you get is information on adults with pancreatitis.
[When you have pancreatitis, the] cells in your pancreas that make insulin start to die. This can cause diabetes. The pancreas also helps in the process of digestion. Pancreatitis causes severe pain in the stomach. Raising awareness about it is important because there's not much information out there. We [at Kids Who Care Club] know all we know from other families [we've] met. It's really hard if you don't know anyone else out there. You don't know where to go or who to turn to.
TV: When you first started Kids Who Care Club, what were your goals? Have they changed since you've been running the group?
Risha: Our goals aren't much different, although we have a few more new programs than when we first started. For the first couple of years, we were only sending out card quilts. Last year, we added a "smile pack" program, where we add gifts to the card quilts. In May of this year we started our traveling variety show, where we entertain critically ill children and severely disabled children for an hour. Our main goals are still to cheer up kids in the hospital, teach kids to be caring at a young age, and raise awareness about pancreatitis.
TV: What advice would you give to other teens who want to raise awareness about a cause?
Risha: I say, go for it!! There are so many ways you can make a difference, and it's so much fun when you get friends involved. You feel good that you're helping, and you make new friends, too. There are a lot of people out there who need help, and even the slightest change can make a difference.
TV: Tell us about a typical week with Kids Who Care. How many hours do you work on the project and what sorts of things do you do?
Risha: We usually plan for our events in the next six months, or answer emails to volunteers. This past month we have been making a new website. Right now, I am working on writing some grants and getting acts for our next traveling variety show. I give presentations, upload photos, and help with the website. Every volunteer gets to work [on] what they are interested in, and you can be any age to volunteer. We try to teach [our volunteers] leadership skills. I have spoken to over 2,000 people, and I continue to do that by going to schools, Rotary and Lions Clubs, universities, etc. In the summer I work at least 14 to 20 hours a week. During school, I work about four to eight hours [a week].
TV: How were you able to start your own organization at such a young age?
Risha: It's mainly because I wanted to make a difference to other kids the way my friends helped me. I told the idea to my parents, and they helped me with it, because I was only seven.
TV: How has your role in Kids Who Care Club changed as you have gotten older?
Risha: When I was seven, you can't really take on as much responsibility. But as you get older, you can. I'm still the founder, but I take on a lot more responsibility than I did when I was seven. I'm learning new things every day, like how to write a grant, or create a website.
TV: What accomplishment of Kids Who Care Club are you most proud of?
Risha: I think I am most proud of the fact that we just sent out our first grant a few weeks ago. Writing grants takes a lot of time and work, and my parents and a few volunteers from New York helped us out. We are now having other volunteers get involved with writing grants. Our traveling variety show is getting popular, and we have sent out 10,000 cards to 500 children, with the help of over 1000 volunteers. I personally was chosen Hero Kid of the Year by Mission Hospital, and received a $1,000 scholarship from Kohl's.
TV: Why do you think it's important for us to give back to our community?
Risha: I think it's important to give back to the community because it feels good to make a difference. Every day you can make a difference in the smallest way, and it can mean the world. With the help of youths in the community, we help bring a smile to children who haven't smiled in days or weeks. I've seen how and know how this makes a difference in someone's life.
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