Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Riya Shah of ‘Sunshine in my Bag’ Is Helping To Change Our…

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Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Riya Shah of ‘Sunshine in my Bag’ Is Helping To Change Our World

I think the first stride that needs to be taken is more funding for cancer patient support programs! It means a lot for patients to have a community that they can share.

A second thing that can be done is reaching out to your local hospitals and infusion rooms and asking them if there are any supplies that they need. Organizing supply drives can keep patients secure, and happy.

The last thing can be done on a personal level. If any of your loved ones are struggling with chemotherapy, reach out to them! Make them feel loved and supported, and make sure they know they’re not alone.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Riya Shah.

Riya Shah is the 15-year-old CEO of a nonprofit called Sunshine in my Bag. Her organization addresses self-esteem and body confidence issues in female chemotherapy patients by surprising them with hand-curated care bags, or “Sunshine Bags”. She operates at four infusion rooms across North Carolina, and has raised over $5000 to help over 100 women through sponsorship, grants, and brand deals. Her company has received several accolades, including being featured on Spectrum News, as well as receiving the Spark Jr. Award from the Better Business Bureau of Eastern NC.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in Cary, North Carolina and I am currently a junior at Enloe High School. I was always interested in medicine, and I was so lucky to have opportunities to explore this interest!

You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Of course! My name is Riya Shah, and I’m an aspiring health care professional and philanthropist. My nonprofit deals with a little-known aspect of chemotherapy: the damaging effect it can have on self-confidence and body image. Scientific data shows that more than half of chemotherapy patients have a negative body image, and I want to change that!

That’s why I create self-care packages called Sunshine Bags! Not only do they encourage healthy practices and habits, but they also build self-confidence, and are always the sunshine in someone’s day!

My goal is to show every woman in chemotherapy how much she is loved and appreciated, and show the world what empowered girls can do.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Cancer has affected one of my closest family friends. She used to babysit me, and it made me so sad to see the lively person I once knew, turn into a frail person who struggled to get up each morning.

However, while talking to my babysitter, I learned something many people don’t know- the additional toll chemotherapy drugs take on the body and how they impact self-confidence, an essential aspect of life. Many cancer patients, especially women, dislike their bodies. Patients sometimes lose their hair, experience weight changes, and manage other side effects. They often balance responsibilities like work and children on the side.

Imagine the effect this can have on mental health. Scientific research shows that more than half of chemotherapy patients have a negative body image, and many struggles with self-esteem. With these issues, it can be extremely hard to take care of oneself.

I wanted to do something to help, and that’s when I started my nonprofit, Sunshine in my Bag! I surveyed more than 100 cancer patients and survivors on the bags and goodies they needed the most and compiled them into small gift bags-or Sunshine Bags. I used my birthday money and social media to create an initial round of bags to give to Duke Cancer patients- and people loved them! It made me so happy to see the joy I was able to bring to people’s days through a small gesture of kindness, and I hope that I am able to make a difference. I also run different programs, like a kid’s summer camp, to raise money for this cause, as well as accepting donations and grants from small businesses.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

The trigger was when I realized the impact my small idea could have- the first care package I made for my babysitter was just made from things I got from the local Dollar Tree. However, when she encouraged me to expand this project, I took to social media. Soon enough, donations started pouring in, and I realized that this was a cause I was truly passionate about!

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I did a lot of research and planning before I started my nonprofit. The first thing I did was talk to dozens of cancer survivors and support groups. Listening to your target audience about their lived experiences is one of the most beneficial things you can do as a leader. Secondly, make sure that you have a budget plan. I began raising donations as soon as I could because I knew I needed to invest in my charity to maintain its upwards trajectory.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

The most interesting thing that happened to me since I began leading this organization was winning an award from the Better Business Bureau. I was the only person below 40 in a room full of distinguished people, but I decided to be fearless and begin talking to the people around me. The connections I made allowed me to be featured on television! It really taught me the importance of networking- leaders need to be confident and advocate for themselves.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest mistake I made when I was first starting was when I would hand make my tags and labels. One day, I was delivering care packages, and we got caught in the rain. The ink from the tags began dripping all over the bags, and they were a sopping mess. Thankfully, my products were intact! That experience taught me to always be professional, and always be prepared.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

My greatest cheerleader has always been my parents. They always encouraged me to dream big and do my best. I was always raised to thrive in the face of adversity.

One event in my life that was very important to me was when my dad was diagnosed with a neurological disability. I was devastated when this happened and began to lose motivation in my organization due to my personal troubles. However, the entire time, my father told me to keep going, and he was right. As I was able to empower individuals with chronic illness in my own community, I gained strength from their stories, and I was able to empower myself too! I think service can be a beautiful experience for everyone, wherever they come from.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

On the day of my first news interview, I was very nervous. The reporter had asked if there was anyone willing to share their story, and I worried that no one would step up maybe I hadn’t made as big of an impact as I thought.

I was overcome with emotion as I watched one chemotherapy patient step up, and talk about how beautiful my cause was. She explained that she had been having a bad day, and this small gesture, even from a stranger, was exactly what she needed. I’m so thankful for all the patients that help support me in my mission.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I think the first stride that needs to be taken is more funding for cancer patient support programs! It means a lot for patients to have a community that they can share.

A second thing that can be done is reaching out to your local hospitals and infusion rooms and asking them if there are any supplies that they need. Organizing supply drives can keep patients secure, and happy.

The last thing can be done on a personal level. If any of your loved ones are struggling with chemotherapy, reach out to them! Make them feel loved and supported, and make sure they know they’re not alone.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I want to tell them that whatever you do to others, happens to yourself! Being a leader and volunteering has taught me so many life lessons that I will carry with me.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to eat with Ms. Michelle Obama! She is a fellow woman of color who has overcome massive adversity in order to make a big difference in the world. I would love to talk to her about empowerment and philanthropy.

How can our readers follow you online?

Our website is www.sunshineinmybag.org! You can also follow us on Instagram @sunshineinmybagnonprofit. Thanks so much!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your great work!


Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Riya Shah of ‘Sunshine in my Bag’ Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.