by Becky Hayes
While his peers were playing ball or hitting the books in high school, 18-year-old Neel Desai of South Burlington found ways to better his community.
Desai won the 2013 Vermont Volunteer of the Year award for his non-profit organization that offered classes on basic internet skills for members of his community.
But why did Desai work so hard on a service project that doesn’t involve a pay check? What’s in it for him?
“Mainly to give back to the community that’s helped make me so successful,” Desai said. “I think one of the cornerstones of why I’ve become so successful in South Burlington is because of the resources that my high school and my community has given me. To be able to pay back even just a little bit was an opportunity I wanted to do.”
Technology for Tomorrow
Back in 2011, Desai was selected by the U.S. Department of State as one of 12 students across the country allowed to participate in leadership seminars in Serbia and Hungary.
As a follow-up to the program, Desai returned to Vermont and started his own non-profit organization called Technology for Tomorrow (www.tech4tomorrow.org) with a mission of bridging the gap between technology and the community.
“I’ve noticed that especially in South Burlington, a lot of people have the resources - we have the computers, we have the ipads - but it’s actually using them in everyday life outside the school or workplace that needs improvement,” Desai said.
Desai and his friends lead workshops that cover basic skills to learn how Facebook works so members can stay connected with family and friends.
“A lot of people think we are a tech company, but I think a better way to explain that is we are using technology as a tool to bring the community closer,” he said.
Desai described a happy moment when his organization recently received 501C3 non-profit certification.
“We’ve come a long way and we see ourselves going forward,” Desai said. “Even after I leave to go to [college in] Boston, we’re forming a team here to keep it going.”
Serving beyond high school requirements
Desai said he plans to continue volunteering in college.
“I think you can go even further in college because you have a lot of like minded students all motivated and driven like myself,” he said. “You can move on to bigger and better things.” South Burlington High School does not have requirements for students to study abroad, but many other Vermont schools do. Desai said he thinks students should volunteer if it makes them genuinely happy, not because they need it to graduate.
“As we grow older, we are more conscious of the effects volunteering has and why we are doing it,” he said.
Desai continued by saying that he thinks it’s important to motivate students to want to volunteer by themselves.
“I think a lot of times we still impose it on students,” Desai said. “Once you realize it provides
long term happiness and it feels great to volunteer, it will happen by itself.”
This summer, Desai went to Chicago for a youth leadership conference and spoke to students about Technology for Tomorrow, motivating them to start projects in their own communities.
Desai said it was very satisfying to meet people younger than himself interested in bettering their world.
“You get to meet so many different types of people when you volunteer,” he said. “I know so many people in South Burlington simply because I volunteer.”
Another reason Desai thinks it is important to volunteer is because it gives you skills for both professional and academic pursuits.
“It teaches you time management, it teaches you all sorts of things,” he said. “It’s not simply your act of community service that is being produced, but you learn so many things along the way.”
How to get involved:
Desai offered these helpful tips to students interested in volunteering in their communities:
1. Talk to high school guidance counselors. They have important information about community service opportunities because they know how important it is, not just for personal fulfillment, but for college applications!
2. See if your school has an after school volunteer club. If it doesn’t talk to your student council and see if you can get one started.
3. The website www.teenopps.org has volunteer opportunities geared specifically for youth in Vermont.
4. Ask around! See what organizations exist in your community such as churches, local chapters for national organizations or simply members of the community. Maybe there is a problem that can kick-start your own service project.
“If we want other students to do volunteer work we have to do more than just give them opportunities, we need to explain and have them experience why they want to do volunteer work,” Desai said. “Then later on when they graduate high school, they’ll be self driven and self motivated to do service on their own.”