Paying it forward: Young man shares his gifts to help refugees

Apr 11, 2024
Clients of Catholic Charities Comprehensive Refugee Services stand with 15-year-old volunteer computer teacher, Dhanush (fifth from left) and his brother, Sohith, fourth from right, after their first computer class at Catholic Charities. Youth mentor coach Maria Diez, far right, supervises the sessions, now via Zoom. (COURTESY)

ORLANDO  |  Dhanush is 15 years old. As a young boy in India, he discovered a gift for technology. Seeing those less privileged around him, he wanted to share it by teaching computer skills to the less fortunate. He found that opportunity by serving refugees through Catholic Charities of Central Florida.

In March, Dhanush taught his second computer skills class to a dozen teen refugees from three counties who now call the Diocese of Orlando their home. Dhanush designed the curriculum with insight from his 12-year-old brother Sohith and his father. This is not the family’s first-time volunteering to help others. They understand they are blessed and are compelled to pay it forward by helping those they consider most in need.

Fifteen-year-old Dhanush volunteers as a computer skills teacher for Catholic Charities of Central Florida’s Comprehensive Refugee Services. (COURTESY)

Dhanush first had the idea of teaching computer basics when he was 12 years old and living in the State of Telangana, India, but he was too young. “I wanted to give back to my community,” said Dhanush. “Now that I’m 15, I decided this was the time to do it. And what better way to give back to the community than by teaching them upcoming technologies, enabling them to be more relevant to the times?” He said he thought the best way to do that was to teach computer literacy because it is almost a requirement for daily living and employment.

Having been an immigrant himself, Prabhav came to the United States when he was 24. “Refugees are at a very hard time in their life. Many don’t have their families,” he said. Dhanush added, “There are a lot of immigrants who come from India to America that are very lost.” He credited his father for igniting this awareness and need to help.

“We were looking for refugee kids because we felt that’s the part of society that can most benefit from that kind of expertise and his passion and love for teaching,” Prabhav said. It took a few months for Dhanush and his father to find an organization that cared for refugees whom they could serve. When they discovered Catholic Charities, they knew they found the right agency.

Father and son met with staff, including Maria Diez and Kim Latt who both serve refugees through Catholic Charities’ mentoring and tutoring programs. After getting enrolled, the Catholic Charities team met Dhanush and all liked him. “He is very spontaneous and knows what he wants to do,” said his father proudly. Dhanush’s confidence was contagious.

The pilot program launched in February. Diez, the youth mentor coach for Comprehensive Refugee Services recalled being excited about the potential a program like this had for helping her clients. “This pilot project is very useful for our mentees and youth clients,” said Diez. “We haven’t had anything like that before. Computer literacy or information is crucial and very important to know. It is really needed for school, college, mentees’ lives and future jobs.”

Jonathan, a 19-year-old Haitian refugee testifies to that statement. In Haiti he had little experience with computers. He said Dhanush’s lessons are helping him. Already struggling with a new language, attaining computer skills will be vital when he goes to college. He hopes to become a medical professional.

Geraldine arrived from Colombia nine months ago. “I’ve already used the presentation skills (Dhanush) taught us. And the basic tools and advanced search techniques help me work faster and more efficiently,” she said. “Improving my ability to use these tools is a great asset.”

Dhanush’s initial class took place at Catholic Charities headquarters in Orlando. Diez was thrilled with its success. With Dhanush’s brother Sohith assisting, answering questions for students and helping them navigate the computer programs during their projects, the team instructed a dozen students roughly Dhanush’s age.

Interested in computers since he was young, he would build presentations, create word art, or animate videos in his spare time. He applied his knowledge to school assignments. Now he applies those methods to his classes. He explained, “In the middle of a lecture, I stop, collect all of our thoughts and get everyone to do a singular project that applies all the knowledge we just learned.” He believes application is the best way to integrate and retain learned skills.

To improve the lessons and better serve his students, Dhanush asked for feedback. Discovering their desire to learn how to create presentations, he modified the next lesson to meet their needs. He appreciated the feedback which helped him improve the program. “If you have an uninterested class, it cannot be sustainable,” Dhanush said. “The fact they wanted something more shows (the program) is working well on both ends.”

Dhanush has two sessions under his belt. The second took place via Zoom, as will those in the future due to the difficulty in coordinating transportation for students from three counties.

Currently Dhanush teaches Catholic Charities’ clients once per month, but the hope is to have weekly classes, expand the types of lessons and recruit more volunteer instructors Dhanush’s age. “With the computer, you get access to unparalleled resources for anything you want to do,” Dhanush said. “So, in the future I might teach them to use other associated programs. But I am absolutely sure I will teach them how to use skill-based vocational education with the computer, something that will have good implications on their life and that they can use in their everyday life.”

Growing up in India, Prabhav said he was taught to “associate everything that is good from every religion.” “We just want to help,” he said. “One thing in common with all these religions is universal love and helping. And that’s our philosophy. We are blessed and privileged to do something for others. God blessed us so much and this is the best use of our time and knowledge.”

Dhanush agreed. He’s not sure of a major yet. After college he is considering establishing a tech start-up and going from there, but he is certain of one thing. “All I know is right now I like helping the community,” he said.

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, April 11, 2024