I stumble out of bed at 4 a.m. groping for my glasses and slippers. Wondering what in the world possessed me to volunteer for such an early service, I am mindful of my sleepiness as I carefully drive the 30 minutes from Palo Alto to the Orchard St. homeless shelter in San Jose. But as I near the shelter, the final wisps of sleep blow away. At five in the morning the shelter is a hive of activity. Other volunteers are already there, unloading cartons of milk, orange juice, and eggs from the trunks of cars. There are also bags of potatoes and pancake mixes, jars of syrup, and boxes of sausages to haul inside the shelter from a back door that leads into the kitchen.
I rush to help and we all set up quickly inside, donning aprons, hair nets, and gloves. There are a few familiar faces, but we are all friends, united in our desire to efficiently cook and serve a hearty breakfast for the 200 or so occupants who will be lining up in about 90 minutes.
There’s not a lot of chatter, but the set-up is done incredibly fast. How do we each know where to go and what to do? The site manager of the operation gives us a few directions, but by and large we just slot ourselves wherever needed. There is an almost spiritual air to the service, with egos discarded outside the kitchen. All we care about are the people who are looking forward to this breakfast, probably their one hot, substantial meal of the day. So we will do whatever is needed, from breaking eggs in an assembly line, to chopping and seasoning potatoes, to squeezing out an endless supply of pancakes. It is mindless work, but it puts us in a sort of meditative state. There is a sense of joy and satisfaction that pervades the small space. This is the spirit of Community Seva, a non-profit whose mission is to feed the hungry and serve the homeless in the Bay Area.
The germ of the idea of Community Seva began one day in 2009 when Nathan Ganeshan bought a pizza on an impulse for a homeless person in a park that Nathan passed every day. This small act led to many such others and when he shared his experience with others he found there was tremendous support and interest in the local Indian American community to join his efforts.
“When I shared my desire to start an organization to feed the homeless with my friend and community activist Mahesh Nihalani,” says Nathan, “His immediate reaction was, ‘Just do it, it will go well.’ He was absolutely right.”
Community Seva (Seva means “service” in Sanskrit) as a formal organization was born in 2013. It is one of the first and few Indian American non-profits to focus its entire efforts on the local community instead of fundraising for causes back in India.
Says Nathan, “I want to give back to the community where I belong today, where I am earning my bread and butter and where my children are growing up. Also, when you donate to the local community, you get to volunteer and you get to see where your donation is getting used and how well it is put into use. Most important is the instant gratification you derive out of volunteering. I do applaud the efforts of organizations supporting the need in India, but I feel we should also support our local community.”
After distributing pizza for a while Nathan looked for ways to help the homeless and hungry in a more systematic and scalable way. He approached a shelter in San Jose at random to see if there was a way to provide hot meals to their residents. The shelter had a dinner slot available. Nathan collected 25 dollars each from 10 volunteers and Community Seva served its first meal at this shelter for underprivileged families – pasta, chicken, garlic bread, and salad.
To get a steady source of funds for future events, Nathan asked his friends and volunteers to spread the idea of sponsoring a seva. As a youngster Nathan had always felt that celebrating special occasions like birthdays was much more meaningful when shared with the less fortunate. The desi community eagerly responded. “My dad turned 75 on Sep 17th 2016. He lives in India, far away from us and we thought a great way to commemorate his 75th would be to sponsor a breakfast on his birthday,” says Varsha Dandapani. “He said it was the best gift we could have ever given him and that made me super thrilled!” Varsha was also able to volunteer for the service.
Says Shriya Shetty, “In my role as a volunteer coordinator with Community Seva, I have been amazed by the willingness of people to pitch in and volunteer on short notice and sometime multiple times in the same weekend. Our core team members are fine examples of this enthusiasm and I believe it rubs off on our volunteers as well. It’s humbling to see how many people are so willing to give back to the community.” Community Seva has over 1600 volunteers today.
Some of the volunteers also put aside religious and personal preferences to serve. One such volunteer, Sangeeta, is a pure vegetarian. “She would not even enter her own kitchen when the family was cooking eggs,” recalls Nathan. “Yet, on her very first service she cracked dozens of eggs and served the cooked dish as well.” Today Sangeeta is a core volunteer who not only handles meat and eggs for Community Seva, she also shops and stores them in a refrigerator in her garage!
Once Community Seva got off the ground and its activities began spreading by word-of-mouth, desi parents began clamoring for service opportunities for their kids, not just for high school service hours but even for children younger than 10. Community Seva came up with the idea of a care-bag seva. Care-bag sevas involve creating little kits for the people in shelters that contain soap. shampoo, and other essentials. They are quite popular with shelter residents, as are the winter bags which contain warm clothing accessories. These sevas are done at homes and community centers with one large event, packing 1000 bags, being done at Livermore recently. “Families and friends met at the local community center to pack the 1,000 bags,” recalls Varsha Venkatram, a high school student at the Stanford met Online High School who is in charge of the youth efforts at Community Seva.
“It is due to the enthusiasm and support of the community that we have been able to serve over 69,500 meals in the last five years,” says Saras Venkatram, who is on the board of Community Seva. Saras, who is a web designer by profession, knew Nathan much before the idea of Community Seva came about. When he approached her to join the organization, she was delighted to find a way to give back to the community.
“Serving people at homeless shelters is a way for us to show them that they are also deserving of love and care,” says Saras.
Varsha Venkatram echoes these sentiments. “When I first went to distribute the winter backpacks in person I was quite nervous, never having had contact with a homeless person before. But when I met them, I realized they were just like us, only down on their luck. Someday I could be homeless and then I would be glad to have an organization like Community Seva in my life.”
“It is true that we are not able to help people who are not able to make it to shelters so in the future we would like to partner with a local organization to provide mobile shower and laundry services,” says Saras. “Maybe even a meal.”
For the moment the weekend meal services are the priority. Community Seva has recently invested in a kitchen, thanks to the support of the community, and plans are to cook and serve many more meals from this centralized location. Priya Ramdas, who is a board member as well as the VP of Operations, is excited about this new venture. “I get a lot of fulfillment from being on the ground, cooking. Now that we have this kitchen, we can dream of something like Meals on Wheels, through which we will be able to expand our reach.”
Nathan has even bigger plans for Community Seva. “It’s no secret that I want Community Seva to have a shelter of its own,” he says. “We are also trying to help homeless people who are interested in finding a job.” A few companies like Shasta Foods have started hiring the homeless. The new kitchen has also hired a couple of people from the shelters to wash dishes.”
Adds Priya, “We have grown faster than anyone expected. We are largely funded by sponsorships and I have seen that anytime we put out a call for a sponsor, we immediately get a response. People are always looking to help, they just need an avenue that they can trust.”
For their efforts, Community Seva has been recognized as Nonprofit of the Year in California’s 27th district. “I was speechless when I found out,” says Nathan humbly. “I did not know that such a recognition existed.” He adds, “I am really very happy to see the efforts of our core volunteers and the selfless service of our volunteers at large getting recognized at the state level. This recognition will allow us to do more.”
The spirit of Community Seva has spread outside the Indian American community. “I would estimate that 20-30% of our volunteers are non-Indians,” says Saras.
Says Katie Tse Cape, a volunteer, “We carved hams, cubed potatoes, cut vegetable, sliced pies and served the South Bay homeless veterans and community with a big smile while sharing laughter with new friends. We are proud to be a part of their mission and be associated with this amazing group of volunteers.”
Back at the shelter the 90-minute mark is approaching. We fill warming pans with steaming scrambled eggs, sausages, oatmeal, pancakes, and potatoes and get ready to serve. As the residents line up, we heap plates with the food of their choice, directing them to coffee, juice, and syrup nearby. The next hour passes in a blur. We can’t stop smiling, there is so much satisfaction in being able to help. Just when the last of the eggs are being scraped from the pan we hear a rhythmic drumming. It is the residents, banging the coffee cups in a beat to thank us for our efforts. Our smiles get wider and wider. Can there be a better way to begin a Saturday morning?
Community Seva is having its very first fundraiser on September 22nd 2018 to raise $175,000 to feed & serve the homeless in San Jose, Sunnyvale, Gilroy, Fremont & Hayward for one entire year. In addition, funds raised will be used to purchase amenities for their centralized kitchen to cook and serve over 25,000 meals through the year. Tickets to the gala have been sold out, but to become one of the sponsors, contact [email protected]
For more information, check out communityseva.org.