When Divyesh Nagarajan was growing up, he saw two of his friends, who both have autism, being bullied at school.
But as his friends were getting a hard time at school, Nagarajan recalls the joy and belonging they all felt once the three of them could get together and hangout.
The now Grade 12 St. Michaels University School student wants to ensure every kid gets to feel that, so Nagarajan has founded the Be My Friend project.
The project aims to do two things: bring support and companionship to vulnerable youth and address the region’s food security challenges.
“We often forget that problems like food security exist in our own backyard,” Nagarajan said.
The project is already helping increase access to food in the community as it recently delivered $7,500 worth of food gift cards to the Saanich School District, which will be doled out to families in need. The money was raised through donations from several local businesses in support of the project.
The next step will see the initiative partner with more local businesses, which will be able to “adopt” a school and help provide food for the kids in those communities for up to a year.
The project’s broader mission will focus on creating a “buddy program” for vulnerable youth, where high school students pair-up with others who could use a friend. Those interactions will be virtual for now, due to the pandemic, but will be in-person in the future.
Nagarajan said the program will focus on anyone needing some companionship, but will be focused on people who face additional challenges when it comes to making initial connections and friendships – such as students with special needs.
“People really underestimate the impact of just these little interactions,” the Gordon Head resident said.
Nagarajan said the initiative will have mutual benefits for vulnerable youth and their buddies.
“They can try to see what life is like for someone who may not make friendships as easily, and maybe that can be a learning experience for them.”
The project’s registered buddies are currently made up of Nagarajan and his close friends. He hopes to get more students – who are already expressing interest in the cause – involved once it has a sustainable plan for the future in place.
“Why not create something really meaningful that everybody can work together on and establish meaningful relationships with fellow peers,” he said.
Registered buddies will get service hours, but Nagarajan says it’s not about just checking another box in order to graduate, it’s about creating lasting, joyful and mutual connections.
“I’ve been trying to push for this project because it really makes a difference in people’s lives just by having an additional friend.”
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