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Providing accessible, affordable, and effective healthcare for all of India’s underprivileged is a huge undertaking. But that is the vision of Dr. Ashish Goyal, founder ofAVSARIndia.org (the Alliance of Volunteers for Service, Action, and Reform). “Avsar” means “opportunity” in Hindi.

An Atlanta native, Goyal studied at the University of Michigan (B.S., Biology, 1998). He completed his M.D. at the Medical College of Georgia in 2003, and by the end of that year he had founded AVSARIndia.org. AVSARIndia.org is registered in the U.S. as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and in India as an 80-G Non-Governmental Organization.

The seeds of AVSARIndia.org were planted in 2002. During his final year of medical school, Goyal spent one month practicing clinical medicine in Dharavi, Mumbai, one of the world’s largest slums. He worked with the Niramaya Health Foundation (NHF) and was deeply affected by how difficult it is for slum residents to get medical care—especially for easily preventable and treatable illnesses.

AVSARIndia.org has created partnerships between NGOs in India and volunteers from around the world. Over the past four years, AVSARIndia.orghas provided partner NGOs with over 100 short- and long-term volunteers, and has provided volunteers with infrastructural support including airport pickups, city orientation, housing, and cell phones.

In late 2007, after its first four years of operation, AVSARIndia.org suspended its volunteer program due to financial considerations. The organization is currently focused on fundraising with plans to re-launch its volunteer operations. I considered suspending the interview until the organization’s volunteer operations resumed. I finally decided that the story of Ashish and ofAVSARIndia.org is not any less worth telling.

AVSARIndia.orgis headquartered in Stone Mountain, Georgia, but Goyal now runs the organization from Chicago, where he is in the final year of a combined residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at the University of Illinois Medical Center.

What’s the current health situation in the slums?

Many children are un-immunized, clinically malnourished, and suffering from a variety of preventable illnesses. Common diseases include respiratory disorders ranging from a simple cough to pneumonia, gastrointestinal complaints ranging from diarrhea to worm infections, and itchy skin infections caused by mites that burrow under the skin. Even simple cuts and scrapes become serious skin infections due to malnutrition and unhygienic conditions. Children often acquire infections while rummaging through garbage dumps looking for recyclables. The need for greater healthcare access is undeniable, and I believe that AVSARIndia can be part of the solution.

Give me an idea of the financial history of AVSARIndia.org, and how the organization got to where it is now.

The first year was the hardest. I tried my hand at fundraising with only limited success, so I decided to fund the startup myself.

The following year we received funding from individual donors, the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI), and the Foundation for Global Understanding. After that, it was our volunteers’ monetary contributions (or program fees) which helped us cover our lodging and orientation expenses. These contributions helped but weren’t enough to secure the high level leadership needed for appropriate volunteer recruitment and organizational expansion. In 2006, we closed our New Delhi office due to lack of volunteers, and just recently we faced the reality that AVSARIndia.org’s long-term goals could never be met with the leadership we had in place, and without greater financial support.

We accomplished a lot during our first four years, but our goal now is to raise approximately $100,000 in 2008 to do it right. That means high level management, volunteer recruiters, an online application process, a web-based “hub of information” capable of storing and sharing volunteers’ template projects with nonprofit organizations throughout India, and much more.

Many quality NGOs are doing great work in India; we just want to help them be more effective and connect them with people who want to help. We’re not interested in reinventing the wheel; we just want to help it roll faster.

Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you make the decision to volunteer in the slums of Mumbai during your final year of medical school?

Though I was born and raised in Atlanta, I lived in India for three years as a child. Poverty was everywhere. I became a doctor to help the underprivileged, and I felt a strong desire to help people in India. During my first work experience in Mumbai, I was still a medical student. I thought I was going to have more of an educational experience than one of service. The need was so great, however, that I made an impact within my short one-month stay.

How?

Because I speak Hindi, I could converse with patients and discuss treatment options with doctors. I gave doctors a different perspective on diseases and treatments.

I also helped the National Health Foundation (NHF) start an adolescent health and sex education program. It wasn’t easy teaching a class about sex, contraception, and STDs in Hindi, but I got through it.

How did that experience lead to your starting AVSARIndia.org?

Making a difference in Mumbai was very fulfilling. I met wonderful people and became part of the NHF family. I wasn’t sure whether I could have an impact again, but after graduating I decided to try. I planned to spend a year of what was supposed to have been a vacation working in Mumbai with three main objectives: clinic reform, the creation of a new clinic for child laborers, and furthering international volunteerism.

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What do you hope to accomplish with AVSARIndia.org?

Leverage.

I’d initially planned on working only with the NHF. The plans I wanted to implement and the problems I wanted to address seemed overwhelming. I was doubtful that I would accomplish even half of what I had envisioned. I worked 15-20 hours per day, and within three or four months the NHF and I had made significant strides in the clinic reform initiative. On December 1, 2003, we opened a new clinic. That day the clinic treated over 70 child-laborers lacking other sources of healthcare. We estimate that the clinic treated over 2,000 patients in 2004.

Eventually, the clinic was such a success that the NHF relocated to a larger facility to meet the high demand.

Increasing international volunteerism in India was another major objective. I wanted to help the NHF recruit at least one volunteer per month. By January 2004, AVSAR had been incorporated, and in February 2004 we hosted six volunteers who worked with four different NGOs. They were medical students and Masters in Public Health degree holders from Harvard, Tulane, Columbia, New York Medical College, and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

My one-month experience has become a life-long commitment to service. My one year of service helped to create clinic reform efforts that continue to grow, a clinic that has likely treated thousands of slum-dwelling children, and an organization that has brought over 100 volunteers to India from around the world. That’s leverage.

How do volunteers impact an organization?

There are pros and cons to having volunteers. Volunteers provide free “human capital.” They often bring a unique skill set which can be transferred to a host organization. Volunteers may go onto recruit more volunteers, make donations, or even bring a local or international spotlight on an organization through news and media. These are the pros, but unfortunately there are cons too.

Many first-time volunteers join organizations believing their help is desperately needed. That’s actually rarely the case. Most organizations have systems already in place, and disruptions to that system can result in what I call “host burden.” Therefore, hosting a volunteer who is not only unfamiliar with the organization, but also unfamiliar with local languages, customs, and transportation systems can be a drain on resources.

In my experience, most nonprofit organizations feel a sense of social responsibility not only to help those in their community, but also to those who wish to help them. A good volunteer always work hard and helps where the help is needed.

How do you balance running AVSARIndia.org with your residency and personal life?

Running AVSARIndia.org could easily be a full-time job. Working 60 to 80 hours per week at the hospital makes that impossible. Fortunately I don’t have to, thanks to Meenakshi Verma.

Meenakshi (who has a Masters degree in Public Health from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) took my place as Program Director when I left India in 2004. After two years of service she now lives in Boston working with the Deshpande Foundation, and she is actively involved as a board member of AVSARIndia.org. Another board member is Abhishek Kumar, a former business consultant from India now getting an MBA from Stanford.

I also have a life outside of AVSARIndia.org. I squeeze in some studying every day and try to exercise at least three times per week, since that is what I preach to all of my patients.

What’s on your personal and professional wish lists for 2008?

A finished residency, a PASS on both of my board exams, a good job, a few new countries visited, and $100,000 for AVSARIndia.org.

I see all of those as very real possibilities. The toughest is the 100K forAVSARIndia.org. My wish is to meet AVSARIndia.org’s “Bill Gates;” someone capable of single-handedly backing the organization. The more realistic wish is to meet the “AVSAR Angels” or the “AVSAR All Stars.”

They would be group of warm-hearted and optimistic individuals able to see the limitless potentialof our organization and dreaming of the same healthy and prosperous India as I do.

We have accomplished so much good in our first four years, and I am excited for us to do much more.

Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.

 

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