Sometimes, it is necessary for us to fail. I believe that failure is just a symbol of not picking myself off the ground hard enough. My experience volunteering for autistic kids by teaching them chess went through a lot of ups-and-downs, but I stayed confident and invested in my vision for success. If you want to volunteer to support autistic kids in your community, you can stay confident and be resilient too.
The Journey to Chesslandia
I was inspired to create a chess program for kids with special needs because I had a vision that chess could unify children of all abilities. I focused specifically on autistic kids. As an avid chess player, I’ve attended tournaments since I was five and have been matched up with players of varying skill levels, including those with autism. I was very intrigued by how some kids with developmental disabilities are able to learn and play chess so fluently.
At first, trying to set up a chess program seemed a bit daunting. A key obstacle I faced was the simple fact that kids with autism learn differently from non-autistic children. Tailoring a curriculum to meet the specific needs of autistic kids was quite the challenge for me. In the end, after persistent research and revisions to the curriculum, I came up with the idea of teaching through storytelling. I created the fantasy world of Chesslandia, where all of the pieces on the chessboard made up the characters of a central plot, slowly introduced one episode at a time. In this way, my students could view the chessboard, remember how the pieces move, and decide their strategy, all using the storyline.
Another obstacle I faced was that when I shared my program with multiple autism institutions, they assumed it was not viable since I was a high-schooler. However, I kept my spirits high. I had the vision that my program would certainly garner success, I just needed the right people to believe in me. With the support of OAR, I decided to reach out to my local library. After they listened to my pitch, they were convinced that my program would become a huge hit, and gladly advertised it on their website. Since its inception, I’ve taught 20 total kids, aged from 6-14, in my program, and all are regular members. Seeing the joy on their faces when they solved a tactic and laughing along with them about the silly stories of Chesslandia’s “Black King Shaky” really made me realize the true power of both mine and the students’ perseverance and our shared belief.
My Advice to You
If you want to do something good for other people in your community, I believe there are steps you need to take to make that goal a reality:
- The first step is a vision. You have to know exactly what you wish to accomplish. A direct and specific goal helps you to stay focused and not lose sight of your overall objective.
- The second step is planning. I certainly wouldn’t have succeeded with my program without proper planning. Creating a timeline of when you wish to accomplish goals on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis is vital in ensuring you can put in the time towards your endeavor.
- Finally, the third step is implementation. This is 99% of the work and is summarized as a process called outreach. Outreach is to the process of successfully marketing your product to different audiences. You have to persist with all of your known contacts and use every resource that you have available. I can’t even count off the top of my head how many institutions I wished to have my chess program in. I talked to so many. Putting in the time to properly use all your resources is the key to leading a successful volunteer experience.
If you want to support autistic people in your community, really anyone can do it. However, I do suggest doing some research and reaching out to experts. Look for opportunities around your local area to help those with autism, especially opportunities that fit your area of expertise or opportunities that you have the passion to put in time and effort for. There are so many different ways to get involved with this type of volunteer work.
Another piece of advice I have is to remember that volunteering is a team effort. I needed the support of my local library to launch my program. Additionally, I’d like to thank Michael Maloney, the Executive Director of OAR, for his advice, guidance, and support that got me to the position I am in today, a proud chess coach of 20 bright and intelligent autistic students.
My final advice would be to remember that failure is going to happen to anyone who wishes to volunteer regularly. It’s how you respond to that failure that determines your success in volunteering. I hope you will go out there and grab the right volunteer opportunity that’s out there for you.
Suraj Oruganti is a high school senior attending West-Windsor Plainsboro High School South in New Jersey. He has played in chess tournaments since the age of 5, landing himself as a top 100 age-13 player in November 2017, and is the current chess varsity captain for his high school. Suraj’s volunteer work at OAR for the past year has earned him the Youth Education Leader Certificate of Excellence. His current research focus is on stress response systems with neurodegenerative diseases. In his free time, other than playing chess, he likes to shoot some hoops, read about organic chemistry, or lift weights. He can be contacted by email at surajoruganti @gmail.com.