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Inner Journey: Neil & Dillan's Excellent Adventure

--Amit Dungarani, on Jan 12, 2012

Do you remember when you were 14 years old and how you spent your summer vacation? Were you sleeping-in? Playing sports? Hanging with Friends?  Going to the mall or to the movies? Getting into trouble? I certainly did all of the above. Would any of you ever list "spreading kindness" or "attempting to gain a deeper knowledge of generosity" on that list? Last Saturday, we had the privilege of interviewing two very special teenagers who did spend their summer spreading kindness and on a generosity knowledge quest. Here are excerpts from that truly enlightening conversation. The phrase “suspension of disbelief” comes to mind when you listen to these two individuals – Neil Thekdi and Dillan Patel – and learn they are just a couple of teens!

Introductions and a Key Experience from their Formative Years:

​​​Neil: “My name is Neil Thekdi, I’m (now) 15 years old, I love making films, spreading kindness, working with ServiceSpace, going to School, you know…all the things that a kid would do…I feel like from a young age I’ve had a lot of exposure that most kids have lacked with kindness and generosity and all of these ideas. And I think that this has really made me who I really am today. It has changed how I see so many things…because of all this work with ServiceSpace, I have been able to look at people for who they are rather than what they look like or how they talk, and I think that has been a great growing moment for me. 

One key experience I had when I was young was for my 10th birthday.  I originally wanted to have a water fight themed birthday party but after talking to Nipunbhai, we decided to have a Kindness Car Wash thing – so basically we’d bring in cars and we’d wash them for free… it was such a great experience, I had a great time, the whole thing was wet and wild, and it was really a growing experience for me. I feel like I met so many new people that day; I got to learn more about how to make people feel better, and it was a great experience.”

Dillan:  “My name is Dillan Patel, I am also 15, and I am the other intern. My passion in this world is definitely simple things like photography, sharing my opinions about any little thing in life, having fun, talking to people and definitely spreading kindness.

I have been good family friends with Neil since childhood. A local place where we would hang out when we were younger was the Hindu temple. This one Sunday there was a guest speaker and it was Nipunbhai – he gave a talk about his walking pilgrimage in India and all he does with what was formerly CharityFocus and is now ServiceSpace. That truly inspired Neil and me. We thought to ourselves that: 'when we were old enough, how would we help the community?' Growing up, we did volunteer some of our time to various organizations and when we turned 14, we asked Nipun if we could intern with ServiceSpace for the summer. It was truly eye opening for Neil and me. With this internship, we transitioned from a state of where we would do community service because it was mandatory (for school), to a place where we would do it not because it was mandatory but because we wanted to and where we can feel all the greatness from spreading kindness.”

The ServiceSpace Summer Internship:

Amit: Neil and Dillan were asked to set goals for their internship and were given various tasks during their time with us this past summer. Some of these tasks included weekly assignments where they had to do “step-it-up” acts of kindness, reflect, in writing, on a particular reading, and support  multiple projects – some involved working with Karma Kitchen or HelpOthers or leveraging their skills like photography (Dillan) or filmmaking (Neil) to aid others in the ServiceSpace ecosystem. When they were asked to do “Step-it-Up” acts of kindness, naturally there must have been fear or hesitation at first but then over time your thoughts and ideas (as well as fears) must have shifted.  Please tell us about those experiences.            

Neil: When we first started the internship we were both a little bit nervous about what we were going to do and we weren’t sure how things were going to run. One of the first things that Nipunbhai, Kanchan and Amitbhai said was that we need write down our goals/objectives for the internship. My goals were:

1.       Help people/ share a smile
2.       Get a deeper knowledge of Generosity
3.       Work on my film making skills
4.       Make some inspirational documentaries

I think the first goal of helping people was definitely one I excelled in – it felt like that summer was just about kindness…small acts of kindness. It was really great because I felt like I was always surrounded by people who were always smiling and was rarely around people that were unhappy. I felt like I got a deeper knowledge of generosity but I feel like I have much more to learn and I hope to master it one day. I also made some video blogs which helped me learn about camera angles and editing. Though I didn’t make documentaries, I did make a series of smaller videos and video blogs (vlogs) that incorporated kindness and film-making. I felt like I accomplished all the goals I wanted to.

Dillan: In the beginning of the summer, when we started we were definitely a bit nervous, but the guidance given to us by Amitbhai, Kanchan and Nipunbhai was definitely helpful and the homework we were given such as writing a reaction to the article of the week or the stories or ideas that we read about on HelpOthers all had a positive effect on us, it set us into the right place, and its like the seeds of a plant, its how our foundation was based and slowly the roots spread and we grew our stem and the leaves spread. What also helped us “spread” were our internship goals. Mine included:

1.       Use what I do best to help others – often when Neil and I would have conversations with other people and we would tag them with an act of kindness, show them photos we have taken, include kindness in that conversation and exchange ideas about the importance and greatness of kindness. It was definitely an exchange of knowledge.

2.       Doing random acts of kindness on a more daily basis – so this summer Neil and I were definitely at each other’s house as much as we could be. We would keep smile cards on us (and our business cards and camera but the smile cards where very important). Even the simple act of reading the word “SMILE” on the card which was in the back pocket of our pants or thinking about generosity and what we were doing was really helping us promote the random acts of kindness we did which led to our idea of the trackable Smile cards.

3.       Share the smiles I have with everyone  – smiling is a great way to communicate in my opinion, sometimes you don’t want to talk but smiling goes a long way and was a big part of my summer.

4.       Spread kindness in the world – we’d get inspiration from ServiceSpace or our weekly internship assignments and we would blog about our ideas and thoughts on our website and allow people to comment or email us or talk to us and this was great way to spread kindness.

5.       Share my actions with others on a blog – “writing definitely helped us, it allowed us to take a stand or have an opinion” – it allowed us to think about how we could promote kindness with kids.

Amit: What would be very nice is to hear some of the assignments you received or some of the acts of kindness you engaged in during your summer internship – perhaps some of the hesitation you felt inside and how you overcame it.

Neil: One of the kindness acts that happened to me was totally unplanned, I was at a camp, and there was one kid and he had a disability where he wasn’t able to speak properly. A lot of the other kids were making fun of him or wouldn’t talk to him. I kept wondering why you would do that – what’s the point. And so I went up and talked to him, I would normally be one who would just sit on the sidelines and not do anything in this type of situation but instead I decided to go up and talk to him. He turned out to be one of the coolest guys ever, he had the best dance moves, he was rapping, he’s on my Facebook, and he was just a great guy. It was one of the things that really brought a smile to my face last summer. I definitely would not have been able to do it if I hadn’t done the ServiceSpace internship and hadn’t been thinking about this.

Amit: When these kids were bullying the kid and you made the radical move to just talk to him, how did the other kids react?

Neil: It confused the other kids. They were like what is this guy (Neil) doing. I sort of explained to them that it wasn’t right to treat him differently because of the way he was not talking or not talk properly and they just got it and by the end of the film camp we all ended up working together sharing our skills on the film and by the end we all became friends. This kid really helped out with the choreography because he was a great dancer.

Dillan: So I definitely have a few stories to share. I have a big passion for triathlons and road cycling races, and so I have my weekly Saturday morning ride from my house to Stanford up to skyline blvd its about a 60 mile bike ride. I usually carry on me my diabetic medical supplies, juice and emergency money for lunch or anything that comes up. As I was going through Stanford, there is this road called skyline blvd, I’ve had many experiences where I get flat tires. And I saw this old guy and he seemed like a great man but stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire (on his bike) – he had a grin on his face like he could solve the problem but was still trying to figure out how. I usually don’t stop because I don’t like to interrupt my pace and don’t like to be disturbed. But with being so involved over the summer with acts of kindness I couldn’t help but think about helping. I immediately thought why don’t I stop, use my lunch money and ride down to a shop to get him a tire tube and we can get it fixed and maybe we can ride together. So I stopped and he asked if I had an extra tube (which I didn’t) but when I offered to ride to a store to get him one he was blown away that someone was willing and was amazed how no one had done something so little but so generous and how big an impact it had on him. We talked about our internship and ServiceSpace – I even gave him a smile card.

I still email him from time to time and we even ride together occasionally and just catch and we exchange kindness stories. One of the stories he later exchanged with me after we became friends was how he was in a bike race and saw someone get side swiped by a car and there was an accident and rather than continue on the race or worry about his time, he thought here’s my chance to help and pay it forward. He later shared how good it felt and he wanted to incorporate kindness into his life even more like Dillan and Neil have.

Dillan also shared a story about Neil and his experience with Wednesday Meditations.

Dillan: “Neil and I did a few Wednesday Meditations. They were definitely a lot harder than we thought they would be. When we walked into the room and we could feel all the quiet and all the calm and the peace. Neil and I would often sit next to each other and be the 14 year olds that we were and laugh and text each other and make each other laugh but as time passed, we understood that it was time to grow up and how meditation actually helps. And so we made sure not to have our phones out and turned them off and have no technology. That was really hard because we all rely on technology so much and putting it away for 2-3 hours is definitely very hard. That was one of the challenges we had over the summer. But by the end of the summer Neil and I were able sit, not for a full hour but for a long time with our eyes closed and we sat peacefully without disrupting others and not messing with our phones. We enjoyed the circles of sharing was also a favorite so we could reflect on the article of the week and it helped us understand the when being kind you must be very peaceful and calm and let things fall into place.”

Amit: Why do you think meditation is helpful to spread kindness?:

Dillan: If you think about it, when you are doing good, you want to have a good attitude toward it, You can't be mean and do good – its like an oxymoron, its not real or true. And developing a sense of calm and peace when you are talking is totally inspiring. Sometimes when my mom yells at me ('go do your homework Dillan!) I noticed the impact of being calm or taking a break or getting something to eat rather than reacting with a not so great attitude. 

[I couldn’t help but agree and relate, especially being yelled at by my Mom when growing up.]

Amit: Kindness is not something you can just do as a project, it’s a way of life. How has kindness or the experiences of the summer impacted you now that the internship is over?

Dillan: Kindness is definitely a way of life for us now. Even though I am back in school, I find myself being calm with my friends or teachers. We ended up creating a “Gift Studio” that Neil and I set up. We take photos for others and videos for others. My school came to know about Neil and me, our internship, and ServiceSpace and how I am on the teen “Team Type-I” Ride for the Cure (Diabetes) and our fundraising money for the race. And I was asked to present our experiences and shared the Be Selfish, Be Generous video to the school which everyone talked about after. This past December, the school awarded me with an award called “Mr. Gratitude” – they donated $1000 to a charity of Neil and my choosing, some bike gear and photography gear. 
 
One of my goals throughout this whole thing was to inspire kindness in teenagers. That is one of the most difficult things to do. Teenagers have a very extrinsic motivation for things rather than an intrinsic one. I even found this difficult for myself. But as you continue to do these (kindness) things, you don’t question it and it just begans to naturally flow and it gets greater and greater where it becomes second hand and don’t have to think about it. I have tried to promote it with our group but it is hard and Dillan and I keep trying to learn better ways.  

Nipun asked Neil’s mom, who was on the phone with us, what was the summer like from the parents perspective and what was the transformation they saw pre-summer, during the summer and post-summer

Neil’s mom Sonar (aka Pinky aka Mom): I was reflecting back to the time to when I was expecting Neil and then to when Neil was five. We went to an event for the homeless in San Francisco where we had made sandwiches and passed them out to the homeless. Innocent Neil at one point said he was hungry and asked me if he could have a sandwich and so I said of course and decided to sit and enjoy a sandwich with one of the homeless men – at the time I wasn’t clear about what the impact would be but looking back it was one of many events over time that have led to creating such a consciousness in the kids.

At the beginning of the internship, everything was all about how “I can make better films” or how “I can be a better photographer” but then when they started having their weekly calls with the mentors and listening into how wonderful they were I started noticing changes. Seeing how they interacted with their siblings – treating their younger sisters better, helping more and so many other things. One time I picked them up from a Wednesday meditation and they wanted to get some dessert. I decided to ask them a question as to how the two of them were such good friends since they are two very different individuals. Neil said that together they were like soup – Neil was the vegetables and Dillan was the water, you can’t have soup without either and so hearing that type of insight was a key sign of transformation occurring. The exposure and inner transformation was incredible – seeing the two of them sign up for ways to help others and not necessarily be in the limelight, which is a difficult trait to give up at their age and is very intrinsic to our society, and so it was a huge benefit from their internship.

Q&A with the Crowd:

Audrey: What was one of the greatest challenges during the internship and how did you overcome it?

Neil: One of the challenges I feel was doing all the work – I am just saying this honestly. You would think it would be a simple thing to spread kindness and do the internship but I am telling you honestly that is a lot of work (you can hear Nipun, Neil and me laugh as he says this). But it was definitely fun. I want to major in film. I definitely think it is going to be fun but it will make me want to do more work. The internship was definitely very fun but a lot of work. [you have to love the sheer honesty of this answer]

Anne: When I think of my own children and the challenges they have in their life and how to inspire change in their life and you have given me so many ideas but as a teenager having to step-up and to create a connection is very vulnerable and difficult to step-into. AS parents we need to model that behavior and how to be in that vulnerable situation …how to create that environment.

Neil: Kindness is very hard to do... Kindness should come naturally. One way that they can do that is to just be surrounded by it during their whole time at home. If you surround them with kindness and generosity and create that connection (which I am sure you do naturally as a mother) – they will get those values.

Dillan: With advancing technology, there are so many videos and articles out there to read and watch how others are being kind and how great it is and how it can change their life.

Nipun: A reflective question, how has your relationship to your parents (and siblings) changed, if at all. We have connected to both of your parents and at different points they have been in tears (of joy).

Dillan: At first they were wondering who this “new guy” was not understanding who this new person is doing all this kindness. But then my dad and I started doing kindness together. And when I would
get mad, they’d remind me to be kind and the situation would calm. They were supportive and sincere I became closer to them and Neil’s parents.

Neil: When I first started out, my parents and I would get into much more arguments thinking I knew what I was doing but through the internship I learned tactics on how to talk to people in a nicer tone and coming from a space of kindness. I have definitely toned down. I have become more of a “civilized” person than before. My relationship with sister has gotten a lot better and I feel it is my duty as the older brother to be a role model and teach her about kindness. Even with my grandma, I have started to hang out with her and inquire about her more and serve her rather than just simple acknowledgments. Dillan’s parents have also become my parents as well and so now I have this huge extended family as well.

Pavi: Really beautiful to hear the sharing…what a powerful thing it is to reflect on what if all 15 year-olds had this type of experience and how this world would be such a different place. And to think 15 years from now Neil and Dillan will be holding a similar space for others. What do they appreciate the most about each other and how each of you have helped the other grow?

Neil: Dillan has a hard working spirit. I still have no idea how Dillan has time to keep his grades up, do SAT prep, to do the internship, and get everything done and on top of that he has a social life! I have really seen him grow throughout the internship – changing from “dissing people at the temple" to "serving older people water.”  He has become one of my best friends and I love him.

Dillan: So Neil and I have become like brothers, we’re really close and we talk about every little thing. What I appreciate about him is that he is very sincere. Other people seem to just try and impress but Neil is very laid back and enjoy his life and takes it slowly and thinks about what he does and move at his own pace rather than the pace of others and is just so sincere and understanding. I also love his cinematography skills and amazing ideas and all the time and effort that goes into his videos. He is also very hard working in a different way but just such a great guy.

These kindness kings decided to end the call with an “act of kindness” by surprising one of the callers with a chorus of happy birthday as she decided to spend her birthday listening to this 1.5 hour call on a Saturday! They gave a heartfelt thanks to their mentors and asked if they could be interns again next summer!

The irony of their gratitude was that as mentors, Nipun, Kanchan and I kept thinking throughout the summer about how lucky we felt to be around these two rock stars and how we too were interns at times throughout the summer learning so much from this experience. These two are such an incredible inspiration. Thank you Neil and Dillan for inspiring us and so many others. Here is some more from them :):

Two videos that Neil & Dillan created:
 
Kindness, A Way of Living video!  It got a record number of views (for them :)) with 700+ views and got posted on HelpOthers too, where one comment even suggested that they run for President. :)  
 
All It Takes is Chalk!  Its a beautiful and artful video that introduces trackable Smile Cards, but the most impressive part about it was that it was all volunteer-run, with a team of 9 volunteers!  
 
Listen to the Audio (mp3):    
(Click play button above to start the audio.)