Rhea & Ankitha
When Rhea Thakkal was in 9th grade, a new girl joined her school — a girl who was her opposite in every way. Ankitha Reddy Vontela was emotional where Rhea was level-headed. Ankitha was laid-back where Rhea was driven. And despite their different personalities, the two girls became fast friends. One thing that they did have in common, was this need to do something beyond themselves; something that would help others.
This motivated them to join the 1M1B leadership initiative. As a part of their project, they visited orphanages and government schools for underprivileged children. While most people would help by distributing food or making a donation, Rhea and Ankitha noticed one area in which these kids’ needs were not being addressed — that of easy access to mental health support.
Both of them had first-hand experience of its importance in a young child’s development. Rhea had experienced major upheaval when her family moved from the US to India when she was just 10. Ankitha had witnessed a loved one suffering from mental health issues, and had seen how crucial it had been to get timely help and treatment.
Backed by their experiences and the support of their mentor Priyanka, they established Vishwasa — an organisation that works with professional psychologists to offer mental health awareness and support to underprivileged children. Almost immediately, they ran up against obstacles. Their young age (they were only 14 at the time!) worked against them and they were not taken seriously by the mental health professionals or the authority figures at the orphanages and government schools. ‘The common reaction was, “What do they know about mental health”?’ Ankitha recalls. ‘We were often just told to donate money for provisions for the kids and leave it at that. The school authorities themselves did not understand the need for this issue,’ Rhea adds.
With their mentor Priyanka’s advice, the girls adopted a strategy where they enlisted volunteers to amplify their efforts. That seemed to work, with their network growing very quickly. The duo went to the United Nations Headquarters to present their project report and came back motivated to scale up their efforts. Then the pandemic hit and Rhea and Ankitha could no longer visit any schools or orphanages to conduct the sessions. While they tried to figure out how to proceed, they started a fund-raiser for migrant workers and raised 14.9 lakhs. ‘That wasn’t strictly aligned to our goals, but we wanted to do something.’ Rhea says. In the meantime, they brainstormed for ideas and consulted with their mentor Priyanka to chart out a way forward for Vishwasa. Eventually, they pivoted to a digital model.
Today, Vishwasa produces video modules that they send to various government schools and orphanages. With the help of professional psychologists, these modules spread awareness about mental health issues and social stigmas as well as offer tangible tips like how to focus, how to ask for help, or what to do when a friend is going through mental health issues. Rhea and Ankita have collaborated with various organisations like Bindu, MyKahani and Roobaroo, to distribute their modules to wider audiences. They are also working to amplify their reach through social media content. They currently have over 40 volunteers working to create content. This is where Rhea and Ankitha’s different personalities become their strength. With her ability to connect with people, Ankitha directs the creative aspects of producing content and working with volunteers, while Rhea’s strong networking and organisation skills help her form strategic collaborations. Together, they are taking Vishwasa to new heights, winning accolades (Rhea recently won The Diana Award!) and learning more about themselves every day.