In one of my early years as a social entrepreneur, I met Sangeeta, a street child who was 10 or 11 at the time, at an outdoor camp we had organised for kids like her. Quiet and visibly upset, Sangeeta didn’t say a word during the camp. The facilitators let her be, while letting her know that we cared for her and that she could trust us.

During the last day of camp, at some point in the hour-long walk from the campsite to the bus terminal, Sangeeta came and held my hand and walked the whole distance with me in silence. She sat next to me in the bus. When we reached the final stop, from where we had to go our own way, Sangeetha started bawling and pleading me to take her with me and not let her go back home. This was the first time she had spoken in those 4 days.

Many years later I understood the insight that Sangeetha was trying to share with me. For the first time, Sangeetha had experienced a caring, compassionate adult; a safe environment where she could just be herself and show up when she was ready.  

This became one of my most important lessons in enabling young people growing up in adversity to thrive. In the story of Nandish, I explore this nuance of thriving enabled by a caring, compassionate adult, and how that is helping Nandish create similar safe spaces for other young people today.

Nandish was a quiet child, born to parents who worked in the informal sector. He spent a great deal of time alone at home. He was responsible for finishing household chores and taking care of his younger siblings. This left him little or no time for schoolwork or play. Short and thin for his age, he felt too weak and shy to engage with his peers at school. Nandish not only lost out on his childhood but was caught up in needless trauma.

Nandish grew up to love rugby, thanks to a facilitator who encouraged him to explore his talent. (Photo courtesy: Vishal Talreja)

He often found himself feeling lost and anxious with the constant fights between his parents at home. He chose to spend a lot of time alone on the side-lines with his drawing notebook. Having no one to share how terrified and anxious he felt when his parents fought, he bottled up all his feelings. In due course, his father abandoned the family. With the additional work and stress at home, he struggled at studies and ended up failing the fifth-grade examinations. Since he had little emotional support at home and absolutely none of it at school, he found himself more isolated, lost and angry. During this time, he made friends with Manja, Ranjith, Vishnu and Harish who would become his lifeline through the coming hurdles and obstacles in life.

During his 6th grade, a local charity started a rugby programme at his school, where he met a facilitator who didn’t hit or yell like his teachers at school, and who created a safe space for young people to feel seen, heard and just be. Soon, Nandish found himself excitedly awaiting the end of the day so that he could go play rugby.

In my previous article, I have narrated the story of Vivek. Vivek is the facilitator who helped Nandish believe in himself and journey towards thriving.

Being of slight build and short height, Nandish didn’t feel adequate and struggled to play rugby. In the presence of an empathetic and supportive facilitator, Nandish began believing in himself and kept trying, even when things looked close to impossible. A few months later, he began to share what was happening at home and how that was affecting him.

“He (the facilitator) gave his personal time. He used to ask, what is happening to you; what do you want? He gave me time to think, he guided me. He fulfilled my small desires; he spent his money on me. If I have grown so much, it is due to him,” Nandish says.

As he continued to play rugby with great determination and with the emotional support from the facilitator, Nandish steadily improved, eventually getting selected for the national rugby tournament in Delhi. The team managed to place fifth in the tournament. The tournament got covered in the news and when he returned, this unassuming boy was chosen to speak to the whole school about his experience, in front of 500 peers! The validation he received for his efforts pushed him to take initiative and try new things. He began mingling and making friends and even joined a kabaddi team. Along with his two friends, Ranjith and Harish who were only 13 at the time, they took initiative and started a community initiative to train out-of-school children in rugby during weekends.

When he turned 18, Nandish joined a youth centre run by the same local charity because he wanted to help other young people who were going through similar adverse experiences. He followed in the footsteps of his mentor, Vivek. Today, he is a facilitator at this youth centre where they impact the lives of over 5500 young people (14-23 year olds) every year. Nandish is the living testament of what empathy and compassion can do to young people.

Nandish with young people at a mentoring session facilitated by him. (Photo courtesy: Vishal Talreja)

Reflecting on his journey as a facilitator, Nandish says, “Change can happen at any age. At this age, they have the power to think, we just need to give them support. If we give them a push, we can create a spark and make their dreams come alive.” The other facilitators at the youth centre talk about how the young people idolise Nandish and keep hoping to be in sessions facilitated by him.

From being caught in the middle of fights at home and not being able to concentrate in school, failing, feeling abandoned, being a caretaker for his younger siblings and struggling to play rugby because of his height and weight…

…to being selected to participate in the national tournament, to been seen and heard in his school and to finding his identity, discovering his passion and purpose in life through his relationship with the facilitator was the validation and direction that Nandish needed. Having the support of an empathetic adult who supported him without bias or judgment has helped Nandish thrive and also to support hundreds of other young people.

Nandish’s challenges have not subsided with time. His is his family’s sole breadwinner. His younger brother continues to get into trouble with the law. His mother battles multiple illnesses and his younger sister is struggling to find her identity in a society that is pushing her to get married. Nandish continues to battle his own demons of hopelessness and depression on not-so-good days. On the days he is struggling, he has learnt to seek support and help from people around him and on other days, finds courage in the stories of the young people he mentors.

“If children get love and care, they can do anything. When they don’t, their minds get distracted, diverted and they contemplate suicide, escape from marriage, stealing. One must give them purely 100 percent. If one puts them down, how will they grow?  By the time they emerge from that, they will have aged,” Nandish reflects.


  • Vishal Talreja

    Author & Social Entrepreneur

    Co-Founder of Dream a Dream. 18 years of experience in the development sector. Vishal is an Ashoka Fellow and Eisenhower Fellow; Founder Director and Advisory Board Member at UnLtd India; Board Member of Partners for Youth Empowerment (PYE Global) and former Board Member of India Cares Foundation. He is a TEDx Speaker, active writer on development challenges and human interest stories and a poet.