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Weapons of Mass Compassion

Area Students Wield Ingenuity and Grit to Help Improve the Lives of Others

Article by Lauri Gross

Photography by Ana Gutierrez Covarrubias

Originally published in Potomac Lifestyle

Robin Bali

A Potomac resident founded a charity during the summer before his freshman year at Winston Churchill High School. A Winston Churchill student is also a contributor to, and student board member for the Stanford Parkinson’s Disease Story Exchange. And, Winston Churchill boasts a student who did an oncology internship at a Walter Reed-affiliated center and a nano-chemistry internship at Johns Hopkins University.

All these students are actually one student: Robin Bali, who graduated during Winston Churchill’s virtual coronavirus commencement in June. 
 

Asked how he accomplished so much even before beginning college, Robin said simply, “A lot of work,” before adding that Winston Churchill is “filled with overachievers and I’m a workaholic as well.”

While working on a current-events assignment in the eighth grade, Robin was surprised to learn about the extent of child poverty in this country. In the summer between eighth and ninth grades, Robin decided to do something about it and founded Charity 4 the Children. “My dad always said I can do anything,” Robin recalled, as he explained his dad’s willingness to contribute financially to help Robin get his plans off the ground “as long as it was worthwhile.” Robin said his dad told him it was Robin’s job to figure out how to accomplish his goals. “So that was a bit of pressure,” he laughed.

“Originally it was a club through freshmen year. Then the summer after freshmen year, I was like ‘Dad, let’s expand it.  Let’s work on a mission statement and bylaws.’ We got it incorporated and it was a 501 c (different from a 501(c)(3),” Robin explained.

Robin’s dad, Vikkram (a patent examiner with the U.S. Dept. of Commerce) and his mom, Monica (a family-medicine doctor) were born in India and came to the United States as adults. Robin and his older brother, Sunny, were born here. Vikkram is a board member, co-founder and CFO of Charity 4 the Children.  

Charity 4 the Children seeks to empower, equip, and ameliorate the circumstances of economically disadvantaged children. C4C (as it is known) has raised enough money to donate books, mathematical tools like compasses and protractors, and other resources to schools throughout the DMV.

At his internship at the Walter Reed-affiliated center, Robin learned about the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing system, “I created dual-CRISPR vectors and deleted carcinogenic proteins,” he said. At his Johns Hopkins internship, he worked with the development of nano-sensors and learned the social dynamics of working in a lab. Through his work with the Stanford Parkinson’s Disease Story Exchange, Robin helped transcribe stories for the group’s podcast, and hosted some of his own podcasts.

In the fall, Robin plans to attend the University of Maryland College Park. “I’m majoring in biological sciences: neurobiology and physiology with a minor in computer science,” he said, and added, “I’m hoping to double minor in entrepreneurship or double major in supply chain management. I am also hoping to expand C4C at school,” he said. “But I am realist. I know that being in pre-med and dealing with the covid situation, and taking all these classes, and having a double major and a minor etc. is zealous.”

“My dad says, ‘At the end of the day, be realistic. Do what you can do, and be grateful for what you did.’” Robin said, and added, “I am grateful for what I did and I plan to stick with it.”

Ryan and Carli Needle

Due to the coronavirus, college student Ryan Needle found himself - like so many others - studying for final exams at home. Unlike most, however, he figured he had spare time to help improve the lives of others suffering during the pandemic. A rising sophomore mechanical engineering student at the University of Michigan who had already flexed his entrepreneurial muscles by 3D printing and selling fidget spinners to his classmates at Winston Churchill High School, Ryan said, “We were determined to be agents of change and find a way to contribute within our local community and across the country,” referring to a venture he undertook with his sister, Carli, a rising senior pre-med student at Vanderbilt University.

Ryan founded EZShields and designed and prototyped his product. “It’s a protective face shield that attaches to most hats, visors, and glasses, providing a physical barrier between the wearer’s face and the external environment,” he explained. The shields can be cleaned and reused. They provide an extra layer of protection over the cloth face masks that many people are now wearing in public. “The most unique aspect of this product,” Ryan said, “its the 3D-printed clips, that allow the shields to fit on hats and glasses.” After many late nights and more than 20 early clip designs, Ryan settled on a clip that works.

Carli serves as Director of External Outreach. “I am working to extend the reach of this project to particularly vulnerable populations in our local community,” she said. Through her partnerships with Montgomery County non-profits, EZShields has so far donated about 150 shields to Stepping Stones Homeless Shelter, So What Else (a regional after-school non-profit), SEEC (an agency that supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities), EveryMind (a mental-health education and advocacy group) and Nourish Now (a foodbank).

Ryan prints the plastic clips on his personal 3D printer at his family’s Potomac home. “I can probably print about 50 sets (of clips) in a day,” he explained. For the clear acetate shields, Ryan uses binding covers used in lamination. Staples in Rockville donated some of these, which Ryan and Carli used for the shields they donated. “They so generously agreed to donate some supplies to help propel this project,” Ryan said of Staples.

Ryan and Carli list the goals of the project as: helping society defeat COVID-19 using Ryan’s engineering background and Carli’s experience with community outreach; learning the intricacies of E-commerce and online advertising; and creating a viable business with a primary objective of giving back to the community. In addition to donating shields, they are also selling them on Etsy and on their EZShields website.

“Orders are coming in from all 50 states and we also have some international orders,” said Ryan who explained that they have sold about 400 as of the beginning of June. So far, he and Carli pack and ship everything themselves but if it grows a lot bigger they are prepared to consider outsourcing those functions.

When the siblings return to college in the fall (Ann Arbor for Ryan, and Nashville for Carli), they hope to expand their community outreach and donate more EZShields. “Being there physically give us better access,” Carli said, “And there is definitely a need to fill in those areas.”

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