On a chilling evening in December 2014, I was on my way to a restaurant to celebrate the birthday party of my close friend. I was traveling with my friend and her parents in a car. At a traffic signal, I couldn’t help but notice that an emaciated beggar was rummaging through the garbage in search of food, he was very scantily dressed and shivering. The most heart-wrenching moment was when my friend’s parents though took pity on his wretched condition, offered him nothing for they did not ‘have any change’. Since I was penniless at that moment, I could only restrict myself to pity his plight with sorrowful glances. When I narrated the incident to my maternal grandfather, a retired public servant, he encouraged me to be the crutch of our fellow Indians who suffered from pathetic socio-economic status.
I also used to travel a fairly long distance to my school at Ranchi, Jharkhand from the heart of the town to the extreme suburbs on the fringes of the district which was a village. The poverty and plight of individuals in the vicinity to school was quite evident and an unpleasant sight. It seemed as if the sight of illiteracy, poverty, malnourishment, shabbily and scantily dressed village residents had been impregnated in my mind as even thinking of their unfortunate condition was quite traumatising.
I then decided to fulfill my responsibility and carrying ahead the social learning beyond the school textbooks. One of the most triggering events was the launch of the nationwide movement, “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” in January,2015 when I was about to turn 13. I learnt about a Non-Governmental Organisation “Fallen Leaves” and to commence with community service volunteered there and decided to collect and donate books and stationery, old clothes, essential household commodities. Among the humblest initiatives undertaken by the NGO were collection and distribution of usable warm woolen clothes to the impoverished families who sheltered themselves on the roadside or under the shattered roofs of slums even during from chilly winters. During the course of my interaction, I discovered that menstrual sanitation habits were either non-existent or very poor among these folks and as a young adolescent girl decided to contribute positively to this cause of encouraging them to use homemade sanitary pads which were reusable.
In 2017, we moved to Bengaluru and took a while to adjust to the fast-paced lifestyle. One of the major challenges which I faced was to adapt to the abrupt change in school environment and peer group. I then learnt about “Aahwahan Foundation”, from my neighbourhood as a prestigious NGO which operates on a nationwide scale and is noted for its tremendous contributions. I became a volunteer. In no time I was associated with a team of like-minded individuals who were committed and dedicated in the noble work they did. All were of different age groups having very diversified background but all were unified by strong work ethic to serve the society and I am grateful to them for having nurtured further this quality within me. Mingling with numerous people of different social status, caste, colour and gender assisted me develop a very unique social circle and friends who have transformed me.The rich universal interaction developed strong intrinsic qualities in me and bolstered my inner self confidence and then the stage fear had evaporated, public speaking and debate skills mushroomed within me all of a sudden.
Aahwahan Foundation extends its wide domain of work to community development by promoting education, women empowerment, traditional means of agriculture etc. The NGO’s uniqueness lies in the fact that where urbanisation is rapidly being introduced even in the remotest villages, Aahwahan believes in promoting traditional economic systems which has been an inherent part of India’s culture such as handwoven clothes, handcrafted pottery etc. which are indigenous to the rural areas.
As a volunteer at Aahwahan, I became aware in a much more practical way about the atrocities being hurled at our ecosystem. Though being completely aware of the benefits derived from trees, deforestation occurs at a wide scale. There is a very famous proverb that says, “We, the people, for the people.” And at Aahwahan, we do solemnly follow this saying; but we also have another proverb that’s very much popular amongst us. It goes like this: “We, the people, for the planet”. In order to compensate for the major damages suffered by our Mother Nature, the NGO organises a plantation drive in the months of June and July. I have participated in this drive planting saplings in my neighbourhood.
One fine day a domestic help of mine informed during a chat that what the underprivileged receive from various organisations is not what they want but what is donated to them and moreover the donors contribute what they feel are worthy enough to be discarded from their houses or place of work. This rang a bell and struck my conscience as this is not what our work which is supposedly to serve the society must seem at the receiving end.
I surfed the net and tried to recap what this section of the community actually wanted and realised that it could be broadly classified into clothes, toys, books, medicines, cleanliness, hygiene, utensils, ration etc. I shared this idea and then started collecting from donors in a targeted manner under various categories as the donated items included clothes and toys for infants and kids, old books and unused notebooks , stationery , sports goods, utensils , pots and pans, dust bins , door mats, food products like biscuits, chocolates, carbonated drink bottles , clothes, footwear and sandals , old wall and table clocks, clothes for both the genders in all formats. After collecting the next stage was segregating which required a large number of volunteers and everything was broadly classified into infant products, kids and children product, books and stationery, food products, female garments, male garments, utensils, household utility products and kitchen products. This also called for cleaning the clothes which we had received. Each volunteer then pooled whatever each had collected and broadly segregated based on these categories. The next step was distributing and then on announced spaced dates we moved from one area to another and when the recipients lined up each of them were issued two tokens. The queuing up was prioritised in order of age and then gender. In batches of five the recipients were released to the collection area which was laid in open foldable desk and each recipient had an option of selecting any 2 products from the option available based on one owns individual needs. I still remember that a recent mother just walked up to the infant desk and picked up baby clothes and diapers. Similarly, an elderly lady just picked up a saree and a pair of sandals. A grandfather walked up to the children section and picked up an old badminton racket and books for her granddaughter. A middle-aged woman walked to the kitchen section and picked up a lidded dustbin and utensils and we also gave her a door mat to encourage hygiene. This was quite an experience of managing, mobilising and integrating the same with supply chain. We followed the principle of 4S – ‘Segregate’ and ‘Sanitise’, ‘Stockpile’ together the collection and then let the recipients choose and ‘Select’. This process of 4S led to great satisfaction and a new dimension of thinking and learning. I was an integral participant and we termed this as the Mahabazaar.
In similar fashion, I continued to try my utmost and volunteered on a regular basis with one single question burning inside my mind of how a large section of our country have their birth right snatched away and how they represent an astonishingly a humungous population of our society but enough isn’t done to uplift them.
I had been unable to go the Aahwahan workplace since the lockdown was declared in March 2020 as the unfortunate pandemic had spread across the nation with cases increasing exponentially every day.A day came when I self-realized that if the world could work with requisite precaution then why not community service. Keeping those who live in remote areas and do not have access to proper medical care in my prayers, I realised that in the unprecedented times of COVID-19 wherein the entire education system is being sustained by technology, it is heart wrenching to realise that there are millions of unprivileged of my age who do not even have access to a diverse range of books.
Though I was initially quite hesitant that many wouldn’t respond, I was overjoyed by the overwhelming response I received via WhatsApp and email which were coupled with questions such as my intention behind the book collection drive and the safeguard measures that would be taken during collecting amidst lockdown in the pandemic. The answer was obvious on the need to collect, and maintaining social distancing with minimal contact while collecting these old books. Necessary safe guards of face mask, sanitizers and gloves were also used in the process maintaining the social protocols.
The large number of books were a burdensome load to be carried and since I was not accustomed to wearing gloves and face mask for a long time, I soon became uncomfortable and had difficulty in breathing while the collection. However, the thought of the smile lit on the child’s face who would now have books to read comforted me.
As the book collection for the first day got over, I realized that I had collected around 700+ books and was proud of my achievement but it was soon cut short by mother who made me realise that even half the work is not done as the task of segregating the books and packing them up in the boxes was pending. Indeed, it was challenging to do the same after having running up and down the buildings to collect books from everyone’s doorsteps. As I laboured to finish the work until midnight with my mother accompanying me and encouraging me. Both the days, I had to go make several trips to the same places as more and more people came forward to donate. The exact same procedure repeated the following day but both the days as I toiled through, I was showered with blessings and was fortunate to not only collect 1000+ book but also befriend so many people of all age groups who were helping me in my endeavours though I was nothing but a stranger to them. I am immensely grateful to Aahwahan for teaching me the selfless ways I can contribute towards our developing nation. Volunteering has helped me not only empower my community but also myself. I have learnt to communicate and celebrate the company of diversified communities which are an integral part of our society but also developed entrepreneurship skills. The enthusiasm and dedication of all the volunteers has shaped me to always stay dedicated and motivated to attain my goals. Looking at the joy of the impoverished people on receiving small donations from the NGO educated me to have an optimistic approach to life. The self-confidence and courage to bring about a revolution has amplified within me as Gandhi once said, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’.