Tag Archives: volunteer

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.  

We Called Them Blessings

Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.

The word ‘privilege’ that has become popular in debates and discussions worldwide, reminded me of an old quote. 

The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.

This quote by Eric Hoffer appears in my autograph book, a relic from my school days in Mumbai. Amidst pages filled with colorful drawings, and silly messages from classmates, these words, neatly copied out by a soft-spoken nun who taught math, looked incongruous, but apt. 

I grew up in a small apartment in a suburb of Mumbai. Our multifunctional living room, filled with conversations and laughter during the day, would transform into a bedroom at night. The space where my brothers and I watched TV, played and argued, was always noisy. Whenever I whined about the lack of quiet, my father would tell me about how he and his eight siblings studied under a street light. Even as a young girl I could sense that a room with adequate lighting, if not ambience, was a definite step up.

When I was ten years old, a new girl joined our class. Petite and soft-spoken, Bina was the second of five siblings in a family with a difficult financial situation. The charitable arm of the community to which she belonged paid for their tuition and books. In return, she was required to earn good grades to ensure funding for the subsequent academic year. Bina’s diligence and good cheer made me less inclined to grumble about the hand-me-down textbooks that I received from my older brother.     

In my teens, our apartment was upgraded by enclosing the fairly large balcony that bordered the living room. With the addition of an antique desk, installation of a wall-mounted fan and a table lamp, the rectangular room became a study. And the quality of my student life improved manyfold.

The living room was no longer flooded with morning sunshine but the new sliding glass doors of the balcony helped keep out the dust from the adjacent plot. A narrow abandoned stretch of land overflowing with litter, weeds and stray dogs, was being developed into a new apartment building. 

Among the workers who toiled day and night was a young girl about my age, who carried freshly-mixed cement in a shallow metal tray held atop her head. A coil of cloth protected her scalp from the heavy load. When our eyes met, I responded to her open smile with a wave. I felt compelled to connect with her, despite warnings to stay away from the bustle of a construction site.

‘Shobha’ although a few years older, had never been to school. During our summer holidays, two friends and I taught her to write Hindi alphabets using a small black slate and a piece of chalk. We brought her snacks, a notebook, and pencils. She enjoyed spending time with us, probably more as an escape from her hard life, than from a desire for education. When the building came up, she left with the crew, having learnt how to write her name. 

Urban poverty was real. Inequality was an inescapable consequence. It was impossible to not acknowledge the benefits conferred on me by the accident of my birth. For every pretty shoe or school bag I coveted, I could always find someone who was happy to receive my outgrown clothes and dog-eared books. 

Years later, as a graduate student in the US, I was surprised to find that some of my peers were the first in their family to go to college. My eyes had been trained on the wide range of opportunities available in America. Inequality, although not as visible as in India, was an unacknowledged reality. 

Time changes many things, including vocabulary. 

In today’s parlance, would my childhood, which I considered modest, be classified as ‘privileged’? The dictionary defines privilege as ‘a special right, advantage or immunity granted or available to a particular person or group’. 

Every child has the right to be educated. Yet, not every child receives education. I learnt this lesson early on. 

With no accumulated wealth or ancestral property, my parents decided to invest in quality education for their children. By opening the gate to learning, they put the key to a better life in my hands. 

My ‘privilege’ was not the schooling but the recognition that the opportunity itself was a gift, one that I should not take for granted or frivolously forfeit. By diligently applying myself in school, I participated in building the foundation for my future.

Was I blessed? Fortunate? Lucky? Entitled? 

The words being tossed around in the debate over privilege are powerful, pedantic, and sometimes, petty. But they are just words. Semantics can only go so far. 

The words written by my teacher lodged in my consciousness decades ago. I tried to master the arithmetic of counting my blessings at every major crossroad in my life. And each time, it stirred in me the long-buried desire to help others, just I had done with Shobha that long-ago summer.  

Actions speak a different, more powerful language.

Whether I offered to read books for the blind in Baltimore or volunteered at the adult literacy center in California, I tried to do my small bit, knowing that it might be just a drop in the ocean. 

There will always be much more to do than what a mere individual can accomplish. 

For me, the first step towards building a more equitable world begins with gratitude, not just for my blessings but for the people who taught me to focus on the right things. 


Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, a former resident of USA, and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog

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.

Local Teens, Global Impact

It’s vital that we don’t forget about aiding communities impacted heavily by the virus even as the lockdowns and shelter-in-place are lifted.

Rayan Garg (Left) Arjun Gupta (Right)

Non-profit Elevate The Future, started by teens Arjun Gupta and Rayan Garg, is a 501(c)(3) organization is focused on “providing youth with the resources and support in order to spark their passions and set them up for success”. This involves giving students exposure to fields beyond the traditional STEM sphere — topics such as business, finance, and computer science. Established a year ago, Elevate the Future has seen incredible success, with 22 chapters all over the world, 200 volunteers, and 1000 completed hours of service.

While the coronavirus pandemic could have stopped this organization right in their tracks, Elevate The Future has emerged resilient and prepared. Recently, they collaborated with the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Cupertino Chamber of Commerce to help family-run businesses adapt to this rapidly shifting environment. This involved providing them online presence for takeout meals and coaching their students in developing websites for these businesses. Not only does this endeavor protect local establishments, but also provides students with a web development skillset that they can use for the rest of their lives.

To encourage the same creative, entrepreneurial spirit that led to their formation, ETF has hosted multiple online Global Entrepreneurship Summits in partnership with local chapters. Their most recent effort is the Cloud 9 summit, which is a virtual competition that produces student-led businesses. The judges include the Head of Global Customer Conferences at Juniper Networks as well as the co-founder of the 1517 fund. First-place winners will receive a mentorship opportunity from an IBM Executive Partner, while top competitors will receive prize money and assistance in filling out a patent. 

During these tumultuous times, it’s heartening to see young students like Rayan Garg and Arjun Gupta encourage and empower their communities. To find out more about Elevate the Future, check out their Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn!

If you are a business and need help, you can complete this form. If you are a student who wants to learn or would like to volunteer and help, you can reach them through their website.

Kanchan Naik is a junior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor of India Currents, she is also the editor of her school newspaper The Roar and the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton.

Dear PostModern Gandhi: What Is the Right Response to Coronavirus?

Dear PostModern Gandhiji:

A decade ago, when I was a first-year medical student, I worried that modern medicine and pharmacology were based on animal products.  I had been raised in a strictly vegetarian Jain household and had been taught to respect all living things.  Thus seeing monkeys and dogs in cages used for experiments and dissections disturbed my belief system.

Fast forward to 2020.  First the good news: physician training in American medical schools no longer requires animal dissection. But with the tragic coronavirus pandemic, my old concern about animals seems quite trivial.  It seems that we should do anything and everything to save humans from suffering.

Because I practice sports medicine, I’m not with the frontline of clinicians tending to those with COVID-19.  As such, I’ve been struggling to understand what Gandhiji would be doing if he were alive today.  What should I be doing?

Dear Friend:

Here are a couple of quotes from Gandhiji that you might find of value.  My own sense-making of Gandhian principles follow the quotes.

“There is a divine purpose behind every physical calamity.”

“I do not want my house to be walled in all sides, and my windows to be closed. Instead, I want cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet.” (M. K. Gandhi)

Thank you for this opportunity to consider Gandhiji’s response to the coronavirus.  I imagine that he would have taken a multi-disciplinary approach.

Young Mohandas Gandhi had been both a trained and untrained nurse.  As a child, he had tended to his ill father by sitting at his bedside and perhaps massaging his father’s head and legs.  As a young man returning to India at the end of the 19th century, he confronted the Bubonic Plague and served his brother-in-law; while the ayurvedic treatments could not save his sister’s husband, he learned something about himself:  “my aptitude for nursing gradually developed into a passion.”  He famously used this aptitude for the healing profession during the Boer War in South Africa as the founder of the Indian Ambulance Corps.  And through the rest of his life, he nursed himself through many fasts and served those with serious illnesses.  His patients ranged from his wife and other immediate family to members of his ashrams and lepers whose stigmatized condition he championed.  I recall this medical biography to suggest that, as a man of science, Gandhiji would have surely been at the frontline today serving COVID-19 patients in the ER or the ICU. 

But Gandhiji understood that science has its limits.  He wrote, “To state the limitation of science is not to belittle it.”  I imagine that he would have recognized this crisis as an opportunity to head off larger crises. To be sure, he would have used his political talent to support organizations like W.H.O. to mitigate the socio-economic risks of future pandemics. But I believe that Gandhiji’s greatness lies in his multi-generational vision for humanity. The earth – all of it, and all of its creatures – was a Gandhian home.  Not only would Gandhiji have directly faced the respiratory challenges of the coronavirus, but he, also, would have used the present danger to open windows and minds to confront even greater ecological, social, and spiritual catastrophes like climate change, enduring inequality, and cruelty to animals.

Using his tools of satyagraha, swaraj, sarvodaya, and ahimsa, Gandhiji would have encouraged us to be in satyalogue with each other, in truthtalk, about what we’ve learned about ourselves and each other during this pandemic.  

Regarding your question about what you should be doing, I suggest using all of the gifts bestowed upon you from your religious upbringing and your medical studies; kindly consider how you can use that knowledge for your private spiritual growth and our public universal uplift.

Dr. Rajesh C. Oza has published a compilation of similar Q&A pieces addressing dilemmas that we face in the 21st century.  His book Satyalogue // Truthtalk is available on Amazon.

Indian Girls Are Making Masks Global

COVID-19 isn’t a test of whether we can fend for ourselves. Rather, it’s the story of those who choose to fight for the rest of us. And that’s precisely what a hundred young girls from Uttarakhand, India are trying to do — but they need your support. 

Since the coronavirus was declared a Public Health Emergency in January, countless medical facilities have struggled to accommodate the growing need for surgical masks. Hoarding, misinformation, and price gouging have all contributed to the scarcity of masks in hospitals. And while masks should be a priority for all members of society, it’s absolutely critical for medical professionals and sanitation workers, who are directly exposed to infected patients on a daily basis for hours at end. A single mask could break a chain of infections and hospitalizations before it even begins. According to the Mayo Clinic, masks have proven to filter out COVID-19 particles, thus protecting you from those infected but also allowing victims of the coronavirus to avoid infecting others. These girls know what’s at stake. 

That’s why Uttarakhand’s students, with the support of the non-profit organization Educate Girls Globally, have pledged to sew fabric masks and distribute them among communities in need. With nothing but their grit and their sewing machines, they have already brought a nascent change to their locale by providing a nearby hospital as well as the Uttarakhand Police Department with more than one thousand cloth masks. And that was all in a month’s work!

It was after a representative from Educate Girls Globally reached out to me that I realized the need more resources, attention, and support from the rest of the world. At a time when healthcare professionals are being forced to reuse existing masks, it’s crucial to encourage public movements that make more masks available. With the help of Educate Girls Globally, we started a GoFundMe account in hopes of scaling this endeavor to the international level. 

These funds will allow the girls to purchase additional materials, as well as transport these masks to healthcare facilities. More than twenty hospitals in the United States desperately need masks  — both  homemade and surgical — to protect caregivers, hospital visitors, and volunteers

These empowered young girls from Uttarakhand want to raise $25,000 to distribute more than 50,000 high-quality fabric masks to hospitals in the United States. They tell a story of perseverance amid immense adversity and fear. 

With your small financial contribution, we can give this story the ending it deserves.

To donate, click here.

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being the youth editor of India Currents, she is the editor-in-chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.

Bay Area Sewa Chapter Distributes 28,000 Masks

Sewa International’s Bay Area Chapter donated 28,000 surgical, N95, and KN95 masks to first responders such as healthcare workers, police officers, firefighters, and hospital staff. They also distributed 1500 meals to families in need on Sunday, May 3 in an invitation-only drive-through event as part of its COVID-19 relief efforts.

“We wholeheartedly pledge to support the courageous healthcare workers, firefighters, police officers, and many others who are working hard to make our community COVID-19 free.  As part of our pledge, Sewa International has committed to providing these front-line workers with the personal protection gear (PPE) they need to stay safe,” said Sewa International Bay Area Chapter President Jayant Somani.

Supplies were distributed to 20 agencies including San Mateo Medical Center, Oakland Children’s Hospital, City of Sunnyvale, City of Cupertino, and the Mountain View Police Department. Ten volunteers and key donors were at the event to ensure that the event was a success.  “We pledge to continue to support these essential workers each week until the situation improves,” said Mr. Somani.

Mayor of Cupertino Steven Scharf, Mayor of Sunnyvale Larry Klein, San Mateo Medical Center CEO John Jurow, and the City Manager for the City of San Mateo Drew Corbett were present during the drive.

Volunteers at the Sewa International Bay Area Chapter’s drive-through mask drive on Sunday, May 3 in Milpitas, CA

Building Community

“I appreciate what Sewa is doing. It is bringing people together in our communities.  I especially appreciate what Sewa is doing today in handing out these masks and food to organizations and different people in our community who really need it.  I appreciate Sewa’s building this community which is a critical thing, and I appreciate everything they’re doing around the bay and around the world,” said Larry Klein, Mayor of the City of Sunnyvale. 

“I just wanted to say thank you to Sewa for the masks for the community. We are currently seeing a tremendous need out in the community for all the folks who need masks to do critical things, even go to the grocery store. For instance, all the cloth masks Sewa donated today will be delivered to our vulnerable senior population who are not necessarily able to get their own masks right now. They are helping serve a tremendous need in our community, and, on behalf of the city of San Mateo, I would like to thank Sewa for its generosity during this difficult time,” said Drew Corbett, City Manager for the City of San Mateo.

Food to the Homeless

In addition to the protective gear, Sewa volunteers also distributed over 1500 food packets and meals to the Oakland and Mountain View homeless communities, Fremont families in need, the Muslim Community Center of Pleasanton, the Alcosta Senior Center in Livermore, and many others.   “Sewa International and the Mountain View Police Department have been partnering for about three weeks now to help our homeless population get the food that they need and the masks out to the vulnerable population, and we really appreciate this partnership,” said Police Sergeant Wahed Magee with the City of Mountain View.   

Prior to this event, the Bay Area chapter had distributed almost 20,000 KN95, N95, surgical and hand-made masks and face shields to the United States Postal Service, Valley Medical Center, Kaiser Permanente, San Ramon Police Department and many other medical and emergency service responders.  

Nationwide, Sewa International has donated over 300,000 masks, 1000 liters of sanitizer, 4000 hot meals each week, and over $100,000 to food pantries during this COVID-19 crisis.  Through the hard work of more than 2500 volunteers across 43 chapters and 22 metro areas and in collaboration with over 250 organizations across the country, Sewa International has committed to supporting all essential workers and service industries in these trying times.  In addition, Sewa International has set up eight national helpline centers to the field and monitor all calls for help and information. Through the information received via these helplines, Sewa International launched the Plasma Registry Drive which led to successful registry matches for four COVID-19 patients.  

For more information on Sewa International’s efforts to support communities nationwide during the COVID-19 crisis, please visit https://sewausa.org/covid-19.  

Sewa International is a Hindu faith-based, humanitarian, nonprofit service organization.  Founded in 2003, Sewa strives to serve humanity irrespective of race, color, religion, gender, or nationality.  Sewa’s development programs focus on family services; child, tribal, and refugee welfare; women empowerment; health; and education.  

For more information on Sewa International and its activities, please visit www.sewausa.org.

Sewa International and South Asian Women Physicians Pledge to Work Together

Sewa International, a nonprofit Hindu faith-based disaster relief organization, with 43 chapters spread across the United States, and the South Asian Women Physicians of North America (SAWPNA), a nonprofit organization comprised of working physicians and physician-scientists, which has 5,320 registered members from all parts of the United States and Canada, have decided to collaborate to respond vigorously to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The two organizations released a joint statement:

“We have watched with concern the unprecedented and unpredictable spread of COVID-19, that as of today, April 19, 2020, has infected more than 2.41 million people and killed more than 165,000 people around the world. The rise in infection and deaths has crested in some areas of the world, while it is still climbing in other parts. Much of the world is in some form of a ‘lockdown’, and governments and communities are struggling to put administrative controls in place so that the spread of the virus can be stemmed and that hospitals and doctors are not overwhelmed by the stream of arriving patients and the heavy load of the sick that they have to tend to. Given the nature of this pandemic, and the deep stresses and strains that individuals, communities, cities, and states are struggling with, we believe that it is essential, indeed imperative, that we work together to stem the tide of this pandemic, help those who are afflicted to find medical care, and support those who are in some kind of financial or personal distress.

“It is in this context that Sewa International and SAWPNA affirm that the two organizations will collaborate and work together to respond to this pandemic and do as much as we can to alleviate the problems posed by this pandemic.

“Sewa International’s 1000+ volunteers over the past six weeks, having set up eight helplines to offer information and resources about travel, health, visas, and visa status; delivery of masks to first-responders and those at the frontlines, and delivering food, groceries, and medicines to those who need them; helping seniors in the community with medical advice, and delivering grocery/meals; helping international students by connecting them to doctors, foreign consulates for helping them with visa and travel updates; assisting stranded students with accommodation needs and food; and providing consultation with doctors and lawyers to those who need them.

“Volunteers have also been busy organizing webinars on a variety of health, wellbeing, travel, business, and other related issues; making and delivering masks; raising funds to buy essential Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and to help those in distress; networking and collaborating with other community organizations to pool resources and organize delivery of services through a single-point delivery system; and setting up a national convalescent blood plasma registry, the first such, to help those seeking blood plasma transfusion and to enable those who have recovered from the infection to register to donate their blood plasma.

“Sewa International has raised over $500,000 already and seeks to raise $3.5 million to help facilitate this work over the next few months.

“SAWPNA, a unique group that brings together South Asian women physicians and women physician-scientists together, is best positioned to offer important and valid information regarding the nature of the virus, medical response to deal with the virus and any advances in the research to respond effectively to those who contracted the virus, such as the convalescent blood plasma therapy. SAWPNA will also be able to leverage the information in the plasma registry on a real-time basis and help in connecting donors with recipients through the network of hospitals and laboratories that members of SAWPNA are affiliated with.”

About Sewa International

Sewa International, a leading Indian American nonprofit organization, has extensive experience in disaster rescue, relief, and rehabilitation operations having responded to 24 disasters in the US and abroad. In 2017, after Hurricane Harvey struck the Houston area, Sewa volunteers helped in the rescue of nearly 700 people and have served thousands of affected families since then. Sewa raised over $3 million for Hurricane Harvey recovery, including a grant of $400,000 from the Houston Mayor’s Fund, and a $500,000 grant from the American Red Cross. Sewa continues to rebuild houses, and greenhouses, which serve as a means of livelihood. Sewa has also provided case management to affected families more than two years after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas. Sewa International has also rendered relief in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2018 and Hurricane Imelda in 2019. Sewa teams in the San Francisco Bay Area continue to build and donate tiny homes for those rendered homeless in California Camp Fire of November 2018. 

Among its other accolades, Sewa International has been recognized by Charity Navigator – the premier nonprofit rating agency – as the number five among the “10 Highly Rated Charities Relying on Private Contributions.” Sewa has for the last three years continuously scored the topmost-rated 4-star from Charity Navigator and has earned perfect scores for its Financial Health and Accountability & Transparency

About SAWPNA

SAWPNA exists as an organization of international scope that advocates the broad interests of South Asian Women physicians of North America. It encompasses physicians of multiple ethnicities, countries, and faiths and is 5320 members strong. The group provides a support system for its members facing domestic violence, physical handicaps, or loss of family members. SAWPNA provides mentorship for young physicians entering the field of medicine. The group plays a big role in physician advocacy programs and CME talks for physicians. SAWPNA has actively participated in multiple charities such as MANASI project with AAPI and fundraisers for Rohingya and Syrian refugees.

 

Indian Led Bay Area Nonprofits Respond

The world as we knew it a few weeks ago has been turned on its head by the invasion of the alien virus we call COVID-19.  Normal activity has ceased over much of our globe; for a very large majority, being told to stay in place where they are and off the streets is tantamount to taking away their livelihood – it’s a sentence to starve. Many of our elderly need help to obtain food, medicine, and other essentials. The emotional impact has spared no one.  Mother Earth, it seems, has stopped processing, stopped spinning, and stopped orbiting; she is free-falling through space, trying to escape the bonds of gravity.

In any crisis, our humanity and community spirit take over. People jump in to help in any way they can.  Inventing new and creative solutions. Checking on each other. Making masks. Generating optimism and goodwill. Showing gratitude by banging pots and pans and cheering on the frontline medical workers as they put their own lives on the line to try and save others. Three Bay Area nonprofits exemplify this spirit. 

Sukham is an all-volunteer organization that advocates for healthy aging, living well and being prepared for life’s transitions in the Bay Area.  Under the leadership of one of its members Saroj Pathak, Sukham is pairing seniors with a younger volunteer living in the same area who could assist in shopping for groceries, picking up medicines or run other essential errands on a mutually agreed-upon schedule. They can also be that friendly voice that calls up to check in and say hello. If you or someon you know could use this service, inform Sukham or send them an email to sukhaminfo@gmail.com. Provide the name, address and phone number of the senior citizen needing assistance.

The Hindu Community Institute (HCI)  is a service-learning organization dedicated to serving the community by integrating contemporary knowledge, technologies and Hindu wisdom and traditions. Under the banner “Community for Immunity,” HCI – led by Board member Gaurav Rastogi – is now offering free daily online sessions for yoga and meditation via Zoom.  If social distancing is getting you down, or you are struggling to deal with self-isolation, do try out these sessions led by seasoned practitioners. Register at https://www.hinduci.org/online-yoga.  Special yoga sessions catering to seniors and kids are also available.

On a more somber note, HCI has prepared a Hindu last rites process checklist to assist those dealing with a death in the family to handle all the formalities in the current COVID-19 environment. They also offer families the option of talking to knowledgeable individuals who can offer guidance and counsel in their time of loss.  The checklist, as well as contact information for counselors, can be found at  https://www.hinduci.org/last-rites.

Indians for Collective Action (ICA) is a Bay Area nonprofit founded in 1968  to support sustainable development in India by partnering with dedicated non-government organizations (NGO’s) and individuals.  A core mission of ICA has been to help victims of natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and drought. Now, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, ICA has organized the Forum initiative, a webinar and video-conference series that connects and enables nonprofits, partners, and interested individuals in India and the US to exchange ideas and share best practices as they bring help to India during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Forum is moderated by ICA’s Dr. Anju Sahay who can be reached at anjusahay@gmail.com. In the first webinar late last month, Snehalaya shared their approach to mobilize and distribute food and supplies to the needy slum dwellers and their plan to distribute food packages to 45000 people. Other projects being prioritized by ICA are listed on their website: https://icaonline.org/donation-for-covid-19/. The next webinar with other project leaders sharing their approach to fight COVID-19 is on April 17. 

Let’s support each other and do all we can. Together we can – and will – put these dark days behind us!

Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community. 

Fierce Helpers

Fierce Helpers, started by two Bay Area teens, is a Cupertino-based organization aiming to help vulnerable populations get through the COVID-19 pandemic.  A key struggle, for those susceptible to the virus, was obtaining groceries and supplies. People who are at-risk, the elderly and those with pre-existing respiratory conditions, are especially vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 and thus, risk their lives whenever they enter public spaces. In places like grocery stores, it is difficult to maintain social distancing due to the confined space. 

Ramana Kolady dropping off groceries for an elder.

Alex and Ramana started the organization to help alleviate the stress placed on those in at-risk groups by offering free and safe delivery of groceries and supplies. Ramana had prior experience working with seniors through his nonprofit organization, Students and Seniors United, and understood many of the seniors’ concerns. After observing threats to high-risk groups, Alex and Ramana could not simply sit back and watch.

The delivery of groceries drastically cuts down on the risk of exposure to the virus; instead of being exposed to potentially hundreds of people, the customer is only exposed to one person – the deliverer. Furthermore, the deliverer is checked to be in the low-risk bracket of contracting COVID19 and deliverer takes precautionary measures when shopping and delivering supplies.

Alex and Ramana have both observed the issues people in high-risk groups may face and wish to help keep the community close together by making everyone feel safe and secure during this unprecedented time.

Volunteers are in the low-risk category which includes those who are young, without respiratory conditions. Many of the current volunteers are college or high school students who are looking to fill up their free time by helping their community.

Do you know anyone who would like to help out or anyone in need of some help? Volunteers can easily register at Fierce Helpers and begin helping their community immediately. Requesting a delivery is just as easy; all you have to do is visit the website and fill out a simple form. Customer orders are usually fulfilled within 3 days.

Ramana Kolady is currently a Junior at Cupertino High School and is the founder of Students and Seniors United, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the elderly and learning more from them, through research and community service. Ramana aspires to become a geriatric physician in the future and is extremely interested in the geriatrics field.

Alexander Wang is currently a Junior at Cupertino High School and started Fierce Helpers to help those in need during the COVID-19 pandemic after he noticed the struggle that those in at-risk groups faced when trying to carry out everyday tasks. 

This piece was edited by Assistant Editor, Srishti Prabha.

 

Desi Craft Kitchen Goes From Dine In to Drive Up

It was a mere two months ago that I fulfilled my lifelong dream of opening a restaurant to serve the community. My vision for Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen in Downtown Fullerton, CA was to create a space where I could not only bring people together at the table to eat, but also showcase Desi cuisine in a novel, elegant manner. And so, Khan Saab was born. But, not soon after opening our doors, California and the rest of the country began taking all necessary precautions to curb the spread of COVID-19.  Unfortunately, we were forced to close our doors, as our number one priority is the safety and wellbeing of our guests and staff. We stand in solidarity with our partners in the hospitality industry to do our part and get through this together. 

These are uncertain times for sure, and while my restaurant is closed for the time being, my calling to serve my community is alive and well. During this challenging time for all of us, I want to do what I can to help reassure our neighbors and community that they are not alone. In the midst of social distancing, we hope to help bring a feeling of togetherness. That is how my team at Khan Saab and I decided that the best role we can play at a time like this is to provide provisions and meals to our community. 

Chef Imran and his team

We’ve since pledged that every Friday from 4pm to 7pm, we are going to give out hot meals, as well as uncooked rice and lentils, to anyone that comes by.  We’ve launched this program to help our neighbors in need; our seniors and single parents, especially those unemployed as a result of COVID-19 layoffs. But we won’t turn anyone away. This effort began with us hanging a sign on our door and posting on social media two weeks ago that we would be handing out basic provisions in the community; we had more than 50 families reach out to us for help. This just went to show the volume of people in our area who need assistance during this challenging time.

Now, weekly on Fridays, anyone seeking a hot meal can pull into our parking garage attached to the restaurant and a staff member will deliver the food to the car window. The food will feature variations of rice dishes like biryani and other specials served in the restaurant, rotating weekly depending on the products available, and will be a combination of 100% halal with vegetarian and non-vegetarian options to accommodate dietary restrictions. Despite not being able to showcase our food exactly the way we would like, we will maintain the restaurant’s integrity of serving high-quality Desi cuisine and give the same care and attention to these offerings as we do in the restaurant. We will do our best to feed everyone who stops by on Friday nights, and plan to increase the number of meals to support the demand on a weekly basis. 

While our restaurant might be closed for in-house dining, we still want to be able to share our food with those in need. We want to become an integral part of the community and give back to our neighbors. Our priorities have now pivoted towards doing everything we can to help during these uncertain times. In addition to our weekly “Drive Up” program, we are currently working with UCI Medical Center in Orange to drop off individually packaged meals to hospital staff, doctors and nurses to show our gratitude for those tirelessly working around the clock to help battle this pandemic. 

We plan to continue the “Drive Up” program for as long as it is necessary.  We are also looking for more opportunities to assist as time goes on. Feeding healthcare workers is something important to us.  It is our hope that through this weekly program we can help those in need during this crisis while building and cultivating relationships with our neighbors. When this is all over, we look forward to serving guests one again inside our restaurant doors, while continuing to build, maintain, and grow these new relationships

Executive Consultant Chef Imran Ali Mookhi is an award-winning culinary chef specializing in traditional Indian cuisine. He has earned national recognition as the executive chef of several high-caliber restaurants and leads the kitchen in his new eclectic eatery in Downtown Fullerton, Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen.

 

Youth Assemble for Grassroots Education During Quarantine

In the light of school closures due to the Coronavirus, two high school seniors, Uditha Velidandla and Sarika Sriram, set up a free online program for elementary and middle schoolers through the Almaden South Asian Women’s Association

After learning about the 3-week school shutdown on Friday, March 13, Velidandla and Sriram put in more than 24 hours over the course of two days preparing lesson plans and the technology needed to go live on Monday, March 16th, the first day of the shutdown. Their main goal?

“To give parents enough time to find an adequate replacement for formalized education”

Over three days, their volunteer-run program grew from 6 students per grade to more than 50 students in each grade. In the second week now, the program includes over 400 students and 90 volunteer tutors. 

All classes are run on Zoom, an online video conferencing platform. “By using Zoom”, Sarika explained, “the social aspect of class is still present. The students and the teachers can see each other, and lessons are more interactive.”

For elementary schoolers, the program consists of lessons taught by high school student volunteers from 9 am to 3 pm. The curriculum is based on various sources, including textbooks used in local elementary schools, and state standards. “We wanted to ensure that we were keeping the kids engaged while helping them refresh concepts learned in school earlier in the year. We know from experience how easy it is to forget material over an extended break.”

The successful first week included classes such as mathematics, reading comprehension, creative writing, and also STEM-based experiments and activities, Hindustani and Carnatic music lessons, and an arts class.

Udyat building a spaghetti tower for science class.

They announced this week that they have expanded their program to include a middle school.

“There was a high level of demand for a middle school program. We are fortunate to have enough volunteers who are willing to teach the middle classes.” says Uditha. “None of this would have been possible without the help of our dedicated volunteers- they have spent countless hours with us along the way, from planning the curriculum to teaching classes and responding to questions on our behalf. Both Sarika and I are very grateful for all of our volunteers.”

They are also trying to work with the San Jose Unified School District to make their lesson plans available to children in San Jose who are unable to access e-learning.

“It is heartwarming that we have been able to contribute to the community that has given us so much. We hope to be of similar assistance to communities that do not have easy access to e-learning infrastructure. We are proud of the fact that we hit the ground running and that the program has continued into its second week”, they say. 

They have received positive feedback from parents, receiving messages and emails that are similar to this one parent’s experience: 

I’m amazed how all the kids and tutors have progressed so well, to get comfortable with the online learning concept, with order and respect, in just 4 days of classes. Today WhatsApp has been very quiet, which is awesome! Congratulations to all tutors, organizers, and students. And I must say my kid is quite eager to attend classes and loves ‘seeing’ his friends and future middle-school friends in the e-world. Thank you all.”

It has not been all smooth sailing for the two founders. They continue to spend 12 to 15 hour days bringing this service to the community. “In addition to adapting our communication styles, we have had to iron out technical issues and assist tutors in managing online classroom behavior. We have taken the help of parent volunteers to ensure that the classroom is a welcome learning environment for everyone.”  

If you are interested in learning more about the program or donating to their cause, Sriram and Velidandla encourage you to send an email to info@asawa.net, and to explore the ASAWA website.

Suchitra Patri is the founder and president of the Almaden South Asian Women’s Association. She is an accountant by profession and enjoys reading and spending time with her family in her free time.