Where can one finish a workout, relax with a glass of sugarcane juice, and then have an ayurvedic massage before heading home? Yes, you read right – sugarcane juice will be on the menu at the new India Community Center (ICC) café after a juice extractor machine is flown in from Florida in the next few weeks. ICC moved to its new 40,000 square-foot location on July 1. The new facility is twice the original site’s size and is located next door to its current location in Milpitas. “We ran out of room,” says Executive Director Chitra Vivek, “because of how successful our programs and classes have been in meeting the community’s needs.”
As soon as I walk into the new center, I am struck by the modern, contemporary look that is evident in the lobby area and beyond. Seniors, children, and adults mill around the lobby on a weekday morning. I walk around and observe yoga, Bollywood dance, and fitness classes in progress in different parts of the building.
The center now boasts a 13,000 square-foot gym co-managed by Club One Fitness, an auditorium that has banquet-style seating for 550, and theater-style seating for 650, several conference rooms and classrooms, and a library. A focus on the cultural needs of the Indian-American community is evident in the planning of the kitchen, where a tandoor pit and long dosa griddle wait to serve our varied culinary preferences. “Currently, we can cook vegetarian meals to support events held in the auditorium,” Vivek says. “We plan to offer non-vegetarian meals in the future, but, when we do this, we have already planned for vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals to be cooked in separate areas of the kitchen.”
Planning, planning, and more planning consumed ICC founder Anil Godhwani for the past several months as he geared up for the new center’s opening. He admits to having learned from past mistakes when it came to building the new center: “My mantra is to have multipurpose spaces here. At the old center, we missed having more spaces that could be put to multiple uses through the day and evening hours.” Evidence of planning for multiple uses can be found throughout the center. The Malavalli auditorium has a stage equipped with state-of-the art equipment suitable for arangetrams, cultural functions or performances. It can also be transformed into an elegant banquet hall setting for weddings and family celebrations. Medical examination rooms have been built to double as spa rooms when not used by doctors. The classrooms can be used to teach yoga, dance, music, art or language. I see another example of ICC’s forethought when I glimpse a simple room divider tucked away in the corner of a classroom, allowing the space to expand and accommodate between 20 and 40 students at a time.
The planning process for this new facility was largely dictated by the knowledge base that ICC has built working with its members in its old facility. But part of the process has also been dictated by reaching out to the managerial and operational expertise developed by the Jewish Community Center (JCC) and the YMCA. Members of the JCC have advised ICC about the need for multi-use spaces, building ahead for expected membership growth, and many other similar operational issues.
Looking at the lobby of the new center, Godhwani describes ICC’s founding in early 2003: “My brother Gautam and I worked on my hunch that within the 200,000 strong local Indian-American population, there was a need to
have one physical space where the whole family could avail of services, programs, and classes based on age levels and interests. The seed for this was planted years ago in my mind, as I watched parents bring their children to our house in Houston to learn Hindi and Hindustani classical music from my mother. They would wait in their cars for an hour, before taking their child to another activity. From those early experiences, I believed that close-knit multi-generational Indian-American families needed a single space where working adults, seniors and children could go together to enjoy classes and services. Gautam and I worked for a year on this idea and formulated a business plan to make it work.”
ICC opened its doors in April 2003, some apprehension still lurking in Godhwani’s mind. Godhwani had visited several successful YMCAs and the JCC, but would the Indian-American community respond to what they had built? That question was answered in the first 10 days after the inauguration. “One thousand people came in and signed up as members,” Godhwani recalls. “It was an incredible feeling. In my wildest dreams, I did not think that we would have so many signing up for membership, validating our mission.”
The success of ICC has been fueled by its focus on three strategic areas: it forms a cultural hub for those of Indian and non-Indian descent to take music, dance or language lessons; it is a unifying force within the community; and it offers seniors programs and free legal and medical services that few organizations provide.
A look at their website is enough to testify to the wide range of class offerings, including Bollywood dance, yoga, Indian languages, classical music, dance, and art. ICC also has a number of partner organizations, like Maitri, which works in the area of domestic violence in the South Asian community. Vivek says, “There is no need to reinvent the wheel. We have a successful community partners program where we partner with organizations that have already developed expertise in a particular area. We also provide a space where these organizations can meet under one roof to learn from one another.” Another recent partnership formed with the City of Fremont will provide services for Indian-American seniors.
Dr. Anmol Mahal, current president of the California Medical Association, and other doctors in the community have agreed to provide free medical services to visitors from India who do not have medical insurance. Medical examination rooms in the facility will be used for this purpose, and patients will be referred to local specialists when necessary.
“When some question our mission as a service organization and say that we resemble a club, I respond with this—our programs for seniors, and our upcoming partnership with Dr. Mahal and others to provide medical advice, or our free legal advice clinics will not be offered at any club,” Godhwani says emphatically.
I visit ICC during one such service program held for seniors, and it is immediately clear that the center does provide a unique support network and a physical space that nurtures that network as well. The network created at ICC has led Indian seniors down uncharted paths. Jollywood is a group of seniors that regularly practices and performs Bollywood dance routines.
Volunteer Pragna Dadhbhawala says, “When seniors come to live with their children, we don’t realize that they have so many problems adjusting to a new culture. Many seniors do not want to live within the protective cocoon afforded by always living with and socializing with other Indian-Americans. I was amazed at how much they enjoyed a recent visit to a Vietnamese center for seniors. These experiences give them a different peek into the culture that is usually not explored along with their adult children.”
Jaya Mehta moved to Fremont to live with her daughter four years ago, after her husband passed away suddenly. “I moved here after having lived a very independent life for many decades in India. At ICC, we seniors support each other through our yoga routines. I also felt bold enough to take a Bollywood dance lesson. It was difficult for me to even lift my legs to the rhythm of the song initially. Soon, I started enjoying the dance routines, and we now perform at the annual ICC banquet and at local senior centers.”
Apart from the Jollywood dancers, seniors have handled several creative projects. Knitting shawls and scarves for distribution at local shelters has evolved into an annual ritual. Staging plays that deal with multi-generational conflicts within the Indian family have helped many seniors develop their latent theatrical skills.
Many seniors mentioned the word “family” when they talked about the atmosphere at ICC. Gopi Godhwani, chair of the seniors program, says, “A young couple told me that their parents had become so busy attending ICC programs that they did not complain of boredom any more. There have been numerous similar success stories where they have formed strong emotional links with each other, and have also been able to develop new interests such as dancing or yoga by attending classes.”
As I talk to many associated with ICC, a nagging question arises in my mind: Will the burden of catering to everyone at the same time be too much to bear? At the same time, ICC’s ambitious mission of trying to serve all sections of the community deserves our support and patronage.
Director of Marketing Tanuja Bahal is proud of how far ICC has come. “It is the small victories that make my day,” she says. “I spend my day having meetings about our core mission and ways to implement the mission. But, when a senior walks up to me, or if one of our other members tell me that we are providing so many services that are just not available anywhere else, then, I feel validated and rewarded.”
|Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is on the editorial board of India Currents.|