Rhea Makkuni is currently a junior at Walter Payton College Preparatory high school. Her hobbies include singing, dance, gardening and judo. Rhea founded nonprofit organization Safe&Aware four years ago when she was in eighth grade to raise awareness and support survivors of domestic violence.
What inspires you to volunteer?
Volunteering is an opportunity to grow personally and develop important skills. In this process, I have also become more empathetic to the people I’m working with and more connected with the community.
Tell us about your volunteer role with Safe&Aware.
I wanted to help people with the emotional distress of being a survivor of domestic violence. I also wanted to help them heal, recover and get their lives back. The main theme is to provide support and resources to help survivors to break free of harmful, abusive relationships.
I create awareness through community outreach and education. I spend about 10 hours each week empowering survivors through self-defense classes, writing blog posts and posting on self-defense forums. We have also held community expos where we’ve had 1,500 attendees on average. At the community expos, we raise awareness about domestic violence as well as sexual violence and dating violence. It’s important to help people recognize when they’re in an abusive relationship because many don’t see the signs until they’re deeply entrenched and by then it’s hard to break out of that relationship.
I have also partnered with various organizations, including Amazon and the Cleaning the World Foundation. With corporate sponsorship, I have led a team with 30 individuals to pack 150 sustainability hygiene kits amounting to over $6,000, for survivors at Sarah’s Inn and Mujeres Latinas en Acción.
People who leave an abusive relationship take very little when they leave, to prevent alerting the abuser. Often, they leave with nothing but the clothes on their backs. These hygiene kits are simple but much-appreciated necessities. We are working on distributing these kits to other Chicago-area domestic abuse shelters as well as internationally.
In addition, as a member of Sarah’s Inn Youth Committee, I provide crucial advocacy and support to domestic violence survivors. The committee helps survivors navigate the complex legal system, accompanying them to court hearings, providing emotional support and advocating for their rights.
What inspired you to get started with this initiative?
I have witnessed domestic violence in my extended family in India. I saw the pain, suffering and long-term consequences, especially in the mental health of the survivors. I saw the impact of the fear and the isolation experienced in an abusive relationship on the survivors and their families.
What are your long-term plans or goals for Safe&Aware?
My aspirations for the future revolve around promoting awareness, prevention and providing support for those affected by this devastating issue around the world. I plan to double the number of kits I have assembled (to date, over 300 kits) and distribute them to the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care. I am currently in India to establish a Safe&Aware chapter for the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
One memorable experience has been witnessing the positive change in an individual when they broke free from an abusive relationship. They inspired me. They moved from a place where they felt ashamed, weak, afraid and hopeless and then they made the decision to leave the relationship. They went through a metamorphosis finding strength and autonomy in their lives. These are astonishing changes and I feel so blessed that I helped play a small part in this. It has been very fulfilling.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
I have gained hands-on experience with community outreach, advocacy, case management and problem-solving abilities. Volunteering has also helped me gain a deeper understanding of the cause I’m working on. Above all, it has led me on an exciting journey of self-discovery and personal growth where my emotional intelligence has been strengthened and nurtured over time.
Tell us about future partnerships, programs or events that you are excited about.
I have recognized the importance of education and information in preventing domestic violence. I plan to partner with Chicago Public Schools to develop comprehensive educational resources and materials that can be shared in schools, community centers and online platforms.
Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?
One of my most memorable experiences is seeing the positive impact of my work. When you see positive results, you’re inspired to do more and hasten the process of creating a collective effort. Volunteering fosters a culture of empathy and compassion. It strengthens your commitment to your community. It’s also an opportunity to grow personally.
Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?
I founded Safe&Aware because I saw a need. If you want to volunteer, ask yourself why. What are you passionate about? Where do you see the need? What do you want to get out of this? What’s going on in your community now and how can you support it? Recognize your own strengths & limitations.
For example, some of my volunteers are really good at designing campaigns for social media, but they may not be as comfortable when talking to a survivor about their emotional and mental challenges. There’s a need for every skill and every background, so don’t compare yourself to others. You bring something valuable to the table,
What do you want people to learn from your story?
In the context of Safe&Aware, domestic violence doesn’t discriminate based on race, gender, sexuality or socio-economic status. Our mission is to create a safe space for survivors including the resources and support they need to break free of abusive relationships. We empower survivors, and help them heal emotionally such as self-defense classes, and give them the tools and practical assistance such as sustainability hygiene kits to help them take control of their lives.
This is my passion. Wherever your passions lie, there’s a way for you to help improve people’s lives.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Rhea? Find local volunteer opportunities.