By Lama Jarudi '00
Special to the Gazette
Navin Narayan '99 first worked for the Red Cross at the age of 14, cleaning mannequins used to teach CPR techniques. It was lonely and strenuous work. But because his Fort Worth, Texas, high school required 60 hours of community service, he stuck with it.
Over the next few years, Narayan was trained in everything from disaster relief to first aid instruction. And he stopped counting the hours. The Red Cross entrusted him with greater and greater responsibilities. He developed a keener social awareness, practiced his leadership skills, and made lasting friendships.
In May of this year, having not only finished the mandatory hours but volunteered countless more, Narayan was appointed chair of the National Advisory Committee on Youth Involvement, one of the Red Cross's three most important committees. Narayan will return to Harvard in the fall to complete his undergraduate studies and get his degree in social studies. But every few months, he will disappear to attend meetings with the board of directors of the Red Cross and Red Cross President Elizabeth Dole.
Narayan's new position, illustrious as it may be, hardly seems as important as the path he took to get there. During his first few years of volunteering, he admits that he turned to the Red Cross primarily because he enjoyed the sense of empowerment that came with responsibility. Long before he became a first aid instructor or a member on the local board of directors, Narayan enjoyed the drama of a Red Cross emergency.
As soon as he got his driver's license, he was given the opportunity to work in disaster services. "I got hooked when I became 16," Narayan says. "I was given a pager and put on 24-hour call to respond to local disasters such as fires, floods, and tornadoes."
Interviewing victims merely half an hour after they escaped danger, Narayan was often charged with assessing the material losses and food, clothing, or shelter needs. "I once interviewed a man sitting on a log who had lost his prosthetic legs in a fire. Until I called a pharmacy for a wheelchair, he couldn't move," Narayan remembers.
Although he was only a teenager, Narayan was able to serve on disaster services because of his genuine empathy for the victims. The job not only required him to ask questions and make an inventory of losses, but also to provide a consoling ear. Pamela Frable, ND, RN, director of health services for the Tarrant County, Texas, chapter of the Red Cross, was Narayan's longtime mentor. "He is a wonderful listener," she affirms. "That's what made him successful in the fieldwork."
Frable also noticed that when people gave Narayan advice on implementing new programs at the Red Cross, he listened and acted on their suggestions. She and Narayan won the Partnership Award for their work together in the Texas chapter. While he recruited youth from synagogues, temples, and churches and trained them in first aid and disaster preparedness, Frable helped make the branch financially self-sustaining by increasing the number of courses it offered.
Narayan worked at the Red Cross for several years, slowly ascending its ranks, and being honored as keynote speaker at the organization's 1994 national convention. Soon, however, an emergency of his own changed his life: he was diagnosed with cancer, a rare sarcoma.
He realized that his relationship to the Red Cross had changed. "I was asked if I still wanted to speak. I said I did, but I might change my topic," he says.
In his keynote speech, Narayan narrated the story of his youth in the Red Cross, showing audience members the important role that service played in his development. "I want to show you a path," he began. "But I warn you that in spite of its beauty, the path is treacherous at times. And so I ask that you hold my hand because this is a journey I have already taken. And before we embark, I give one piece of advice: do not look too far down the path or else you will fail to appreciate the footprints you are now making."
Narayan, who was a ranked tennis player in Texas until he was diagnosed with cancer, says that on his toughest days he often thought about why he volunteers. "It was no longer about the rush I got from going up to a scene with a dozen firetrucks. After my illness, I interviewed a mother . . . who lost her 13-year-old son. I felt as if I was interviewing part of me in the disaster victim. Now I volunteer because it is something I can do to savor today."
Narayan's health improved significantly during his first year at Harvard, and these days he continues to work for the Red Cross. He has trained volunteers and others in how to trace refugees and reunite families. And he has become an instructor in international humanitarian law, teaching people the rules that apply to civilians, POWs, clergy, and other protected groups during war.
Even in his studies, he has tried to link the lessons of volunteerism to academic interests. Narayan selected his courses to reflect his interest in health and human rights. Most recently, he was a guest speaker on international humanitarian law in a course taught by Professor Jonathan Mann. This summer he is researching his social studies thesis on how nongovernmental organizations respond to child labor.
"Coming to Harvard wasn't just about going to college. It was about re-entering life," Narayan says. Although he isn't ready to revisit being sick for a long time, he is now a devoted "POPper," a member of the Harvard Cancer Society's Pediatric Oncology Program, a student group that tutors and befriends children who are hospitalized with cancer.
Narayan's responsibilities at the Red Cross have largely shifted from fieldwork to policymaking. He strongly supports Red Cross President Dole's commitment to increasing the number of youth volunteers from 340,000 to 500,000 by the year 2000. And he hopes that the Red Cross will help its volunteers achieve their goals, as well. During committee meetings, Narayan has a policy of keeping one chair at the table empty "so not to forget that all the deliberations really represent someone."
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College