Tag Archives: #seva

A Challenging Yet Rewarding Journey For a Desi Jain in Zambia

(Featured Image: Nirav Shah with his family in Zambia, mid-Peace Corps service)

Nirav Shah is a man on a mission.

After his father passed away, 11-year-old Nirav and his mother left India and moved to Chicago. His mother wanted to live near two of her sisters, looking for a better life and a culture where she could raise her son more independently. 

Nirav went on to earn his undergraduate degree from California State University, Long Beach, with the assistance of financial aid. Having experienced the positive influence governmental assistance could be, he knew his path involved giving back and it led to his pursuit of a Master’s degree in Public Health at Benedictine University.

Nirav completed an internship in public health in Tanzania and Kenya, where he met some Peace Corps Volunteers and became interested in following their path. He served as a health Peace Corps member in Zambia from 2013 to 2015. Once he returned, he found his way back to the Peace Corps as a member of their public affairs team. Nirav is keen on spreading the message of seva to his South Asian community.

What does it mean to be a Peace Corps Volunteer?

“It’s all about building bridges of peace and friendship, whether it’s with your neighbors, family, or friends in different countries. It’s about giving back and making sure that when we leave this place, we leave it better than it was,” he said. “During my internship, I recognized that my passion was in serving the global community in the public health sector. It was a turning point in my life. I wanted to use the talents I developed overseas to serve communities that needed them most.”

Nirav followed his passion and applied for the Peace Corps, eventually serving as a health Volunteer in Zambia from 2013 to 2015. Over a period of three months, he learned Chinyanja, one of the local languages in the south-central African nation, with the help of trainers and his community. Nirav lived with a host family in the Eastern Province, working over a period of two years on health initiatives. 

Nirav’s place of service during the Peace Corps

During this time, he was a coordinator for the Stomp Out Malaria project, relaying preventive health messages to the community. He also implemented a USAID/CDC-led project called SmartCare, an electronic medical record system that provided individuals with a wallet-sized plastic card that gave medical facilities access to their medical history. The card helped ensure continuity and improved quality of care at critical times.

It wasn’t easy…

“The whole experience opened me up for challenges and helped me see the world through a different lens. For example, people in my community initially thought I was Muslim in Zambia because of my brown skin. I was able to explain that I was Indian-American and follow Jainism as my religion. Jains don’t eat eggs and meat, so my mother sent me care packages with spices, crackers, beans, and rice every three months or so. My Zambian family took good care of me, making meals with ingredients I gave them,” he said. 

With the cultural pressure of marriage mounting, Nirav began making wedding arrangements with his fiancé whilst in Zambia.

Nirav kept in touch with his fiancé during service through long-distance phone calls; he would bike to the city to recharge his internet service. About midpoint during his service, Nirav took a week off and joined his fiancé in Mumbai, India, where they were married. As Nirav’s service drew to a close, his wife, mother, and in-laws visited Zambia, and he took time off to go sightseeing in places like Cape Town, South Africa. 

He managed to appease cultural expectations and chase his goals. Despite the challenges, he was able to reconcile the two things.

Benefits of joining the Peace Corps…

After completing his service and returning to America, Nirav used his non-competitive eligibility (NCE) to gain employment as an adjudicating officer for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, where he interviewed applicants seeking work permits and permanent residencies. Peace Corps Volunteers are granted NCE hiring status, which makes it easier for federal agencies to hire those who meet minimum qualifications for a specific position. Eventually, he returned to Peace Corps, this time as a federal employee.

“My passion to serve made me come back to Peace Corps. I love this agency, the mission, and the team I work with. I value the opportunity to inspire others to serve abroad, and to be a voice in the South Asian community for this awesome mission,” he said.

Nirav wants to get his global volunteerism message to a South Asian audience. His goal is to inspire South Asian U.S. citizens to explore nontraditional career paths and volunteer in areas they are passionate about.

“As an immigrant, I appreciated the opportunity to excel here in the U.S. and valued the opportunity to give back as a volunteer in a safe and secure environment,” he concluded.

If you would like to apply for the Peace Corps:

You must be 18 years and older to be eligible.

You must be a US Citizen.

Check out their application and website HERE!


Tamim Choudhury is a public affairs specialist for the Peace Corps. Having volunteered as a guest lecturer at a rural school in Bangladesh, he knows the value of community building and has witnessed how Peace Corps Volunteers have made a grassroots development in South Asia.  

Community Seva Means Many Things

“I just wanted to say thank you again for the portable charger. I need to keep my phone charged in case my kids need me… You really have no idea how much this helps me out,” says Angel, as a Community Seva volunteer hands over a mobile solar charger to her at a homeless encampment.

To most of us, a dying phone battery is a minor inconvenience with an easy solution – we can just plug it in and go about our day. That simple act is an impossibility for nearly ten thousand unhoused individuals living in the Bay Area. The number of difficulties that they face every day is nearly impossible to comprehend, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these issues. With no access to news media or health guidelines, many unhoused people weren’t even aware of the pandemic for a long time. Already lacking proper healthcare, nutrition, and sanitation, the pandemic has exponentially worsened the lack of access to toilets, water, and fresh food. Beyond the direct risk of infection, which is already much higher for unhoused individuals, they have no shelter to ‘shelter-in-place’, and are left with no ability to even maintain basic hygiene. The homelessness problem is increasing dramatically now that many more people are losing their jobs, and hundreds have been recently forced out of their homes and onto the street.

Healthy burrito given out by Community Seva volunteers.

Community Seva, a non-profit organization based in the Evergreen area of San Jose, has aimed to alleviate some of the struggles that these individuals face. Community Seva’s mission is to “Feed the Hungry & Serve the Homeless”. Since 2013, Community Seva Inc. has served over 150,000 meals, distributed over 7,000 backpacks filled with winter essentials, delivered 6,000 hygiene kits, and given over 1,000 showers to the homeless population in the Bay Area. During the 12 weeks since the COVID-19 pandemic began alone, the organization has served more than 12,000 healthy, nutritious, and freshly-cooked meals to the people living in 7 different shelters, 5 encampments, and even to individuals who have been forced to live in their cars or RVs. The challenges faced by the homeless community are growing, but as Community Seva founder Nathan Ganeshan says, “Together we can, and we are, making a difference!

Nathan Ganeshan delivering food.

Community Seva has launched a new set of initiatives to respond to the recent needs of the homeless community. As members of the homeless community have lost access to places where they could charge their phones due to the shelter-in-place order, they raised funds to purchase and distribute solar power chargers: giving unsheltered individuals the ability to call 911, use flashlights, and thus better protect themselves.

Further, Community Seva Inc. began a new program to help women in these difficult times. They packed and delivered female care hygiene kits to the nearly 3,600 vulnerable homeless women living in the Bay Area. Volunteers entered homeless encampments in an effort to clean up living spaces, throw out trash, and distribute food, hygiene kits, and backpacks with essentials such as blankets, towels, beanies, socks, and rain ponchos. They also distributed Personal Protective Equipment: 400 gloves, masks, and face shields were given to homeless individuals and homeless advocates working on the frontlines. 

None of these achievements would have been possible without the generosity of Community Seva’s supporters. Bay Area businesses such as Jalsa Catering and Events, 8Elements Perfect Indian Cuisine, Bella’s Bar and Grill, Shastha Foods, and Biryani Bowl have donated their time and resources to help provide daily breakfasts and lunches.

Talented musicians, a youth group, and comedians have participated in fundraisers to help with Community Seva’s COVID-19 alleviation efforts. There has been an outpouring of support from the Bay Area community, whether through individual donations from families or corporate grants and sponsorships from Silicon Valley tech giants and other companies.

Community Seva and countless other organizations have stepped up during this time of need: as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” 

Varsha Venkatram is a rising senior at Stanford Online High School. She has been volunteering for Community Seva since 2017 mainly focusing on social media posts, newsletters, articles and image/video management. She has also cooked breakfast, dinner and led youth care bag sevas for the organization.