16-year-old Nandini Arakoni was born with a cleft lip and had several surgeries to repair the birth defect at a very young age. After visiting family in India, the Naperville, Illinois teen realized how fortunate she’d been to have a procedure to resolve the issue, as many children globally do not have the resources to undergo repair procedures, suffering long-lasting health issues.
Uniting with her best friend, 16-year-old Sanjana Gangadharan, also of Naperville, in January 2017, the two joined efforts and started Side by Side Smiles, an organization dedicated to helping sponsor cleft surgeries for the thousands of children globally who cannot afford them. The teens work day and night making handmade charm bracelets, using the profits to put towards sponsorship for surgery – which costs about $250 per child. To date, the two have raised over $24,000 and sold more than 600 bracelets, and are today’s Daily Point of Light award honorees. Points of Light spoke to them to learn more about their work with Side by Side Smiles.
What inspires you to volunteer?
Sanjana: Nandini is pretty much like a sister to me, so thinking about what would happen if she had never gotten this surgery, I can’t even imagine. Even though I don’t technically have the personal connection to this issue, it feels like I do because she’s like my sister. If it affects her, it would affect me just as much. Being able to help kids who can’t afford this surgery is just so rewarding.
Nandini: I’ve always been so lucky — I got the surgery at such a young age. Growing up, my family visited India a lot and I saw how privileged we were in the U.S.. I’ve wanted to help people for such a long time, and taking something that was close to my heart helped me be more passionate about it.
Explain how receiving surgery for your cleft lip changed your life, Nandini?
Nandini: It changed my life a lot. Cleft lips and palates affects how you speak, breathe, eat. Children who don’t receive these surgeries struggle with all of these things. A lot of them can’t go to school because of it. Maybe if I didn’t live here and didn’t have the surgery, I wouldn’t have gone to school, and that would have changed my life.
Describe your volunteer role with Side by Side Smiles.
Nandini: It was my idea because I had this personal connection, I was born with a cleft lip. As I grew older, I realized how lucky I was. Many children don’t have the opportunities I’ve had. I told Sanjana I wanted to give back to the community struggling with cleft lips and palates, and the first thing she said was, how can I help?
Sanjana: When we first came up with idea, we knew we wanted to give something back to people who donated to us. Jewelry-making runs in both of our families, so we thought we could give back by making our own charm bracelets.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
Nandini: Just starting this organization in general has been rewarding. A lot of these children suffering from clefts are bullied and discriminated against in society, they’re not able to attend school. When they receive these surgeries, it’s life-changing. Those are the things we take for granted here in the U.S. — being able to go to school and not being alienated.
Sanjana: Also, knowing that – it doesn’t just affect the children, it affects their families. As a woman who would one day like to be a mother, if I was a mother who knew there was a solution, but I couldn’t afford it, I can’t imagine how devastating that would be.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
Nandini: It’s kind of cheesy, but thinking about how your scars aren’t anything to be embarrassed about. Scars are proof that you’re a fighter, it’s evidence you came through something. That was something I’ve learned through this experience.
Sanjana: I’ve learned the importance of being kind. Even the smallest act of kindness can change someone’s life.
Are there any future partnerships you’re excited about?
Sanjana: In the near future, we’re looking at getting another cause or charity — we want to start funding special needs programs in the Chicago area.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
Sanjana: I think it’s very easy to do something kind. It doesn’t have to be starting an organization. Even if you give someone a compliment, it could change their day. You don’t know what people are going through in their daily lives.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
Sanjana: As two young Indian women, we’re fighting stereotypes. As teenagers, as women, as people of color. No matter who you are or what you’re doing, you shouldn’t let anyone else tell you what you can or can’t do. No matter who you are, you can do what you put your mind to if you have passion and are willing to put in the hard work.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Sanjana Gangadharan and Nandini Arakoni? Visit All For Good for local volunteer opportunities.
Post written by Marlena Militana.