How many times have you heard the statement ‘If I can do it, anyone can’?
I think I’ve reached the point where I don’t believe anyone when they say that. I’d really like to hear ‘Actually, I’m pretty darn brilliant, unlike the rest of you lowly creatures.’ Gloria Benny, however, is very genuine when she says that anyone can truly achieve what they set out for.
Along with the other founders, namely Kavin KK, Santosh Warriar, Jithin John, Jithin Nedumala, Sujith Varkey, Gloria has helped build ‘Make A Difference’ (MAD), an NGO that has positively influenced and impacted over 5000 children in the nation. They’ve been able to mobilise the youth of the country to play a role and over 25,000 youngsters have passed through the pipeline to help enable these children in the last ten years. Gloria’s journey with MAD started when she was just 20 and now she’s looking at newer avenues to make a mark.
By all means, this qualifies as extraordinary. Nonetheless, Gloria states in her TEDx talk at Nagpur that she might admire but doesn’t relate to the Mandelas of the world as they truly are ‘extraordinary’. “That excludes ordinary people like me”, she says. What I didn’t know is that this was part of a philosophy she espouses – one that drove her to be able to build what she has.
To Be MAD
Gloria spent her growing years in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. “I lived a very sheltered life back there, given the environment. When I moved to Cochin for my higher studies, it was quite a revelation.” Gloria was always a straight ‘A’ student and did well for herself in academics. As with most children, Gloria was expected to follow a more traditional path.
At the age of 20, though, her trajectory was set to change. “I always liked the idea of working with children, but it wasn’t something I pursued seriously till then.” Back then, a couple of MAD’s co-founders went to an orphanage as a way to do something useful with the free hours they had after college. This piqued Gloria’s interest. Soon, they realized that there was a lot that youngsters could do to provide better opportunities to such children.
Ever since this realization, it’s pretty much been the cause and the children for Gloria.
Soon enough, these friends became the founders of MAD, kickstarting a journey they themselves may have not envisioned at that point in time.
Driven By Skeptics
While the founders were all college students and had youth on their side to work hard, they were still met with skepticism from the NGOs they approached. “They felt that we were too young to make a real impact. This ended up driving us and we worked even harder to prove them wrong.” Eventually, the NGOs realised they meant business.
Within a year, MAD had registered themselves as an entity and mobilised close to thirty volunteers within the city. They also started playing an integral role in the education of these children in three centers as they started to grow as a professional organisation. In recognition of their work, MAD had won the Ashoka Staples Youth Social Entrepreneur award in 2008.
All of this, needless to say, was done with a college schedule to manage. Gloria continued to score well in her exams and decided to write the CAT. “Strangely enough, I didn’t do well there. I have no idea why!” Eventually, she took on a job with Google and moved to Hyderabad. The commitment to build MAD never wavered, though. She soon established the Hyderabad chapter and saw it through exponential growth.
Often, the folks in MAD would face several challenges working with the children itself. Many times, these kids would not take to the system. Some would not turn out the way they wanted them to and in some extreme cases, children would decide to leave the centre. “Earlier this was very emotionally draining for the team. Over time, we learnt that we cannot impact all children we work with the way we’d like, and that the solution was to build something bigger and more impactful. We began to live with the realization that even we would’ve arrived too late for a few children and they would slip through.”
As a group, they also had to face societal stereotypes around being an NGO. Gloria recalls a time the founders were catching a flight to Malaysia to meet with a mentor. When they cited this as a reason to the customs officer in the Indian airport, he offered them a snide remark instead of a word of encouragement. “He asked us if we thought of the numer of hungry children we could feed with the money we were spending on the flight tickets. We didn’t argue with him then but made a side note that we will aim to change this mindset in our country. It was important to choose our battles.”
Both Legs In The Water
Five years after working at Google, Gloria made the tough call of leaving her comfortable job with Google and taking the plunge into MAD full-time. “Hailing from a middle-class family, where financial stability and certainty trumped most other needs, this move did not go down well. I must admit I wasn’t without doubt either. However uncertain I was, I knew with certainty that I was passionate about making a dent in the problem of vulnerable children, and I could see myself work at it for the rest of my life. Nothing else could. Hence, I took the plunge.”
Ever since then, Gloria, along with the rest of the team, has been able to deepen MAD’s work in a big way. They learnt that systems are integral to growth, an element that Gloria feels that many NGOs seem to miss. “Establishing a clear process became a huge part of what we did and that helped us expand even further.”
Today, MAD has established itself in 23 cities across the country with a strong volunteer base. They continue to make a positive impact on children across the nation by enabling institutions and empowering the child through all the resources they possess. They currently have over 3000 volunteer teachers involved in making a difference. “I think that’s been our biggest achievement. We’ve been able to mobilise so many people into playing a role in helping these children and that’s what really counts.”
In her TEDx talk, Gloria says that when ordinary people come together, they can create something extraordinary. Yet, it takes a few to lead that change and Gloria remains modest of that.
The problem, however, is that extraordinary is such a vague term. What could possibly mistake a person extraordinary? Don’t we look at people who’ve been able to do something that counts and then attach that tag?
It seems to be that the Mandelas or the Gandhis of the world had a very strong mission that drove them. Everything else came down to execution. Anyone that’s done anything worth its salt started with unshakeable clarity.
By that benchmark, Gloria and the team that’s following her into her new venture are extraordinary in their own right.
Thankfully, the rest of us can walk that path too.
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