Big dreams start from small experiences. If you have ever felt powerless in making a change in your community, don’t be discouraged. Dylan Mahalingam was first inspired to help children at the age of 8 simply from viewing poverty at its roots. He and his friends created a non-profit organization known as Lil’MDGs (lilmdgs.org) based on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Lil’ MDGs is now an initiative of Jayme’s Fund for Social Justice (jaymesfund.org). He started small with local fundraisers to raise awareness. Eventually his plans spread, leading him to become the Chief Strategist for Under the Acacia (http://undertheacacia.org). In this capacity, he worked with like-minded individuals in all corners of the world to raise funds to build Loita Hills Academy (http://loitahillsacademy.com/) in Loita, Kenya. Besides his fundraisers, Dylan also speaks around the world motivating kids and adults alike to support their communities. His small idea as a third grader has encompassed 39 countries and 4 million youths! Now Amazing Kids! is excited to bring this interview with Dylan to you!
AK: What does your organization Lil’MDG do and where do you intend to take it in the future?
DM: Our mission is to leverage the power of the Internet, digital, and social media to educate, engage, inspire, and empower children in all corners of the world to work together to forward the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The eight MDGs are international development goals set by the UN in September of 2000. There are 21 targets within the eight goals to be achieved by 2015. My goal is to try to garner the support of youth in more countries to join us in our efforts to meet the goals.
AK: How did you get started in raising awareness for childhood poverty?
DM: I have always been fascinated with technology and the power of the Internet. Our organization has been fortunate to capitalize on the fact that the Internet is an excellent communications medium and we have used Facebook, Twitter, secure online forums, and YouTube, to name a few, to develop dialogs between our organization and our target audience. We began using these social media platforms to spread awareness to our target group. In addition, we have also shared facts about global issues, including childhood poverty, at conferences that we have attended in various countries.
AK: How do you fundraise and earn money for your various projects?
DM: Every year we hold a sponsored benefit concert which is our largest fundraising event. In addition, we hold several smaller fundraisers over the course of the year to draw people from different walks of life who are interested in helping fund our projects. They range from snowshoe hikes, comedy shows, restaurant fundraisers, raffles, and more. We also have the support of several large organizations within USA funding specific projects in different countries. We also have individuals in the community supporting certain projects through donations.
AK: What has been one of your favorite projects that you have worked on?
DM: This is a difficult question to answer, because there has been a favorite aspect to most of the projects that I have worked on; nonetheless, if I have to pick one, I would have to say Loita Hills Academy (loitahillsacademy.com). Loita Hills Academy is a program of Under the Acacia (undertheacacia.org). Loita Hills Academy is a primary school providing free education to all our students in Loita, Kenya. The school now boasts three classrooms, an administrative block, a small kitchen, and six latrines. In 2011, we built a medical clinic on the school property in which the parents pay 250ksh ($3 USD) per student per term as medical insurance. Additionally, the clinic is available to the entire community for fee-based visits. The water and feeding projects also launched this year and will be another source of income and create more employment opportunities. In 2012, we are preparing to build a solar-powered Internet kiosk, a girls boarding school, as well as a secondary school. All profits from these basic initiatives go into a community savings fund to sustain school programs and the further development of Loita. Loita Hills Academy is a story about how a school changed an entire community. This is a huge success story that can serve as a model program for other communities to emulate. The school serves a remote Maasai community, and I am particularly attached to this project because the community has taken advantage of the resources offered to them to become sustainable.
AK: You have been selected as a Youth Service America Wofford Award winner in the youth category. What has this award done for you and are you involved with YSA (Youth Service America) in any other way?
DM: Being selected by Youth Service America (YSA) as a Wofford Award winner is a huge honor. The recognition opened up new doors and opportunities for me. I was able to network with executives from several organizations and businesses who have funded some of my projects in different countries. I was also fortunate to meet youth from all corners of the USA who are passionate about some of the same things as me. This has helped me build new connections, allowing me to further expand our organization’s reach toward meeting the UN MDGs. YSA is an amazing youth service organization that stays connected with youth they honor and come to know about. Months after the honor was bestowed upon me, I hear from the staff at YSA, frequently encouraging me to explore new opportunities that would help me in spreading Lil’ MDGs’ message further. I was also invited by YSA to speak at their 25th year celebration in Washington, D.C. this November.
AK: You have spoken in 39 countries. What is your main message you want kids to receive?
DM: I would have to say that the main message is to use our success with Lil’ MDGs as a source of inspiration to learn that they too can make a difference in a global way. I want them to realize that they are never too young to make change.
AK: Besides aiding your community and the world, what other hobbies do you have?
DM: I love music – playing instruments as well as composing songs and singing. I currently play the piano and guitar. In the past I have played other musical instruments. I also do karate, play tennis, swim, and snowboard.
AK: Have you had a mentor that has helped you be successful in your activities?
DM: Yes; I have had several mentors who have helped me over the past six years. None of what I have been able to do and what Lil’ MDGs has been able to accomplish would have been possible without the selfless mentorship of individuals from various countries. Without this support system, Lil’ MDGs would not be where it is today.
AK: What are your goals for your future?
DM: I am interested in technology so I see that as a potential career choice for my future. MIT is my dream college, and at this time, I am hoping that I might enroll for a degree in Computer Engineering, Game Programming, or something along those lines. I also have a strong interest in Math and I have considered Actuarial Science as a possible career path. I anticipate continuing my work with Lil’ MDGs and hope that I can find a program that would provide me with an opportunity to combine my intrinsic strengths with my interests.
AK: What advice would you give kids who would like to become more involved in community projects or would like to start their own charity?
DM: In my limited experience what I have observed is that it is important for us to be sure that the project that we are working on is something we are truly passionate about. It is hard to stay committed to a project that does not interest you, so I would suggest that anyone interested in starting a new project or their own charity to first dabble. By dabbling I mean that they work on the project for a few weeks or a few months to see if they are excited enough to sacrifice their leisure time for it or get up early in the morning to support the project. If not, they should find another interest and try the same until they identify a cause that truly excites them. Before starting their own charity, I would also suggest that they join an existing charity to test the waters and learn the skills they need to be successful with their work.
Editor’s Note: Get Involved with YSA!
YSA offers programs and grants for which youth ages 5-25 can apply. YSA’s biggest event is Global Youth Service Day (GYSD), which celebrates youth-service year round. You can either make your own project assessing a community need or join one nearby. Get started by going to http://gysd.org/get-involved. GYSD 2012 is April 20-22.
YSA also created Semester of Service which is a semester-long service-learning project addressing a community need and based on “duration and intensity”. Prominent national service events are linked to these projects which last at least 70 hours. Anyone can organize a semester of service. There are toolkits and resources located on the YSA website at http://ysa.org/semester.
Started in 2009 by YSA and Miley Cyrus, Get Ur Good OnTM is an online network for youth to support each other in their missions to do “good” in their communities. The description can be found on the YSA website at http://ysa.org/geturgoodon or joins the tens of thousands of GURGO members at http://www.geturgoodon.org/.