Skills that serve

Navod Jayawardhane, a 16-year-old Wilton High School student, relied on his affinity for electrical engineering to develop a unique Food Pantry Box that serves the community through the Jefferson Valley Mall in Yorktown Heights.

It’s not every day that you meet a 16-year-old whose passion — electrical engineering — has been used to serve the larger community.

But that’s what WAG is doing on a recent afternoon at the Jefferson Valley Mall in Yorktown Heights, meeting up with Navod Jayawardhane.

The personable senior at Wilton High School has come to the mall to give us an introduction — and then demonstration — of his electronic Food Pantry Box.

It’s a community-service project that’s all about, as its website states, “neighbors helping neighbors.”

It was back in December of last year that Jayawardhane began creating a way to have people, anonymously, not only donate but also receive food.

The project’s approach is simple: “Take what you need. Leave what you don’t.”

It was all sparked by a desire to help, Jayawardhane says.

“It was the observing and seeing a need in certain areas.”

He says he researched designs for boxes for donating food but wanted to create something unique, so he “tried to improve on it by adding the electronics.”

And indeed, his Food Pantry Box is a self-service operation with space for some 50 cans in its rows (with additional space below for larger items).

Because of those electronics, when the stock of cans gets low, the organizer knows it’s time to replenish.

For Jayawardhane — who seems slightly bemused by our fascination — how it works all seems like second nature. He casually mentions the various circuits and programs that he used for the project. A glance at his website reveals a design created on a grid filled with notations that to the novice seem quite the puzzle.

But we do grasp that, in short, each row has a “distance sensor,” which indicates the current quantity of cans in each row. The data from the sensor is sent to a small computer within the box. Inventory can then be monitored remotely, so there is little chance of the box, which Jayawardhane also built by hand, being empty when someone in need comes by.

“I’ve done a lot of projects with electrical engineering and I think this is the first where it was applied to a real-world scenario,” he says.

Previously, he says, he worked on circuit-based projects, often in competitions. He has been a member of his local robotics team for the past five years, now serving as captain of its “build” team. In addition, he points to experience gained from a summer-camp program at Cooper Union in Manhattan to hone the skills used on this community work.

From concept to finished project, it was some six months of work — including CAD or computer-aided design — with the box unveiled at the mall in June. Its kickoff was buoyed by a food drive.

Jayawardhane says the mall management has been quite supportive, even helping with the signage.

The Food Pantry Box has been placed on the second floor off the food court, adjacent to the mall management office. The placement, it must be noted, allows relative anonymity for those who are there to pick up food.

“I’ve been to the mall several times after it’s been installed,” Jayawardhane says. On this day, we note, he has brought canned goods to replenish the box.

The project has been recognized. In August, for example, New York state Sen. Peter Harckham honored Jayawardhane for the box’s installation and its service to the community.

Stand Out For College is a Cross River-based college-counseling organization dedicated to “helping students get accepted into their top choice colleges through meaningful community service projects.” Its founder, Ronald Feuchs, has worked with Jayawardhane.

“He is a very special, intelligent young man with a big heart and his project is helping an underserved and sometimes invisible population in Westchester,” Feuchs says.

As Jayawardhane looks toward college — and studying electrical engineering with an eventual goal of developing product and circuit design — he remains dedicated to the Food Pantry Box project and its mission.

“I’ve created a second one, as well, so that one’s looking for a home,” he says, noting he’s integrated a few improvements.

As we wrap up our chat, it’s the quietly moving words of Jayawardhane gracing the sign next to the Food Pantry Box that catch our eye, seeming not to only sum up its mission but perhaps Jayawardhane’s outlook, as well.

“We ask that you please respect the contents and the dignity of the people it serves. Please support the food box and our fellow brothers and sisters. Thank you.”

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