Showing posts with label ThomsonReuters Community Service. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ThomsonReuters Community Service. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Able and Willing.. Part 2

The Freedom Foundation
AIDS is an absolutely tragic disease. The argument about AIDS' being some kind of divine retribution is crap.
Visiting The Freedom Foundation, my team and I were reminded of how easily we can discriminate. 
If my earlier posts gave you a glimpse of what happens with a government with blinkers, our weekend with the children showed me how wonderfully well behaved and ordinary they all were.
Two weekends ago, Neetha and I decided to pay them another visit. And this time with a small surprise. We decided to cook some gulab jamuns knowing that the kids love sweets. We set about making 100 gulab jamuns, and took it to them while it was still warm.
Anyone who's given a child a surprise can vouch for how much fun and satisfying it is to see the smile on their faces.
Much like an advt for a credit card, their smiles were 'Priceless'!

The Friendship Foundation
The Team that made it possible!

The mentally challenged, a term that is often interchanged with mental illness can be grossly misleading.
Visiting and working with The Friendship Foundation this past week gave me a whole new appreciation of the way amazing work that mental care professionals do among the specially abled.
While I realised why it is so easy to ignore the specially challenged, I also noticed why we have very little progress among those who needed help.
Brushing aside the tons of research that has been documented, nations like India can definitely benefit if all that research is put to good practice.
Nearly all of the children that I met were very well behaved, had no airs about themselves and were ambitious. Most wanted a career in the army and the police.
The more severely affected children made me realise how easy it is for people to victimize them. Oblivious, they don't care and won't know if you are a scheming a**hole or a sexual predator. They would trust you with all the innocence of a 1 year old.
I guess as parents, we sometimes wish our children never grow up and remain the cute, cuddly baby that would gurgle, giggle and roll around in the floor.
But we so easily learn to ignore children who are trapped in a body of an adult.
Are we being fair?


Monday, October 10, 2011

love conquers all

They say a smile is a much better way of exercising your facial muscles than a frown.


The sixth project that I'll be doing as part of the biggest Community Service program of its kind in Bangalore, I was able to visit The Friendship Foundation this past Saturday.
Tucked away, nestled between a busy railway track and a sprawling apartment block, I had difficulty locating the NGO. They had no signage. I was later told that they did have signage but as innocent victims of haphazard development, nearly all of them were uprooted by the most recent civil construction that happened. The first sign of public apathy and civic shortsightedness.

I was able to spend some quality time with Elizabeth Benjamin, founder of the NGO and mental health Professional.
I got to learn about their philosophy and a little about mental retardation. What amazed me was how the foundation's school is very similar to any other institute you'd stumble across in Karnataka. As a principle, they do not sedate or otherwise medicate children who are unruly, because of the obvious medical side-effects of such techniques.
Though Ashalaya, was founded as a Home for the intellectually challenged thirty years ago, The Friendship Foundation is the brainchild of Elizabeth's daughter who is a qualified Psychologist and mental health Professional, believed the society needed an institution who could foster life skills and quality education to those who cannot afford expensive special schools.
Not an asylum, not a hospital, this Foundation has been doing groundbreaking work in rehabilitating special people (Yes, because that's what they are: Special)

Between kinder-garden and ninth grade, the Foundation has around 200 students. Mainly from families that cannot afford other schools.
Some have gone on to pass their tenth grade and get jobs in the mainstream society.
Take for example, Vignesh, an adorable 12 year old boy. He is the youngest resident and a bundle of activity. Mute, yet vivacious and full of energy, he has been here for close five years now. With an IQ of 53, he has the mental age of a two year old but I was able to see how wonderfully well behaved he was. He was able to comprehend and obey instructions and recognize and recollect pictures off books. We communicated with smiles and pats on the back.
Vignesh!

Movies have distorted our collective vision of mental illnesses and people with special needs. While some movies choose to present special people in an unflattering way, most movies are just outright inhumane.

Through the course of the day, I was able to understand how it is so easy to ignore a special person. People who are intellectually challenged are not fussy. They can't fight for their rights. They won't fight you if you jump in front of them in a line. They won't pick up an argument if you are giving them the cold shoulder. While the society extracts its share of practical jokes and pun on 'mental people', the truth is that they suffer in a way that you and I cannot comprehend. I've never had to interact with a special person until last week and I bet most of us would never have had to and that is the reason why our societies view intellectually challenged people in a way that is simply not right.
One of the most important fact I learned was how dementia and mental illnesses have very little in common with retardation. Retardation is not an illness and as the name suggests, is just a sign that neurological development didn't happen at the time it was supposed to happen for various reasons, mostly during pregnancy.

They need all the love that we can give them. They after all not asking for privileges but opportunities to be understood.
I've said this often and I'll say this again - As people who has been created by the same God, in His image, with all the love and tenderly care that only He can think of, they deserve to be treated with equality and love.

In the meanwhile, I'm looking forward to visiting the Foundation in the coming weeks.
I've got a date with God's Special People.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Stigma and Prejudice

AIDS.
One of those terms that instill intense fear, loathing and segregation.
A form of apartheid that continues to hold entire societies in a vice-like grip.
No longer a fatal disease, but a controllable chronic disease, our fears are largely unfounded.
Being HIV positive no longer means the individual will look languished or ooze blood or even die in a few months. (Courtesy: Philadelphia)

Although I consider myself very informed about the disease and had very little prejudice against individuals who were infected, my most recent project to The Freedom Foundation was a wonderful eye opener.
Having heard of the ground breaking work they have been doing for several decades, when I visited them the past week, I expected to see a facility that was well funded and adequately supported. But what I saw was depressing. I could not believe how a government that showers billions of dollars on CWG would not want to fund a Foundation that is serving the less fortunate in our society.

A facility that cannot be terming sprawling by any stretch of imagination, I met two dozen kids. Twelve boys and eleven girls.
One would imagine being infected with the most famous virus of the past decades, they would be sickly, coughing and without any will/dream of their own.
But on the contrary, they are very much like you and me. Very ambitious, playful, every bit intelligent and bursting with energy.
But our collective ignorance and the stigma associated with some of the ways that the virus can spread has resulted in millions being denied the care they deserve.

The youngest, Mahalakshmi, at only a shade over four years old, is already a survivor of two brain surgeries. A slow learner, the Foundation has been tutoring her so that she does not miss out on a regular school curriculum when she joins school next year. Spirited and vivacious, she is a bundle of joy.
Or take for instance, Saraswati. Shy and reticent, at 14; you'd think she is going to be depressed and suicidal. No. A creative person, she is training to be a fashion designer.

Having spent two consecutive weekends at The Freedom Foundation, I've seen how being HIV positive can be living a life where you are always judged and labelled.
But what also struck me was how ordinary they are. Off the 23 that stayed at the Foundation, nineteen of them ranged from four to ten years old.
Every bit as capricious and ambitious, we never imagined we could have as much fun as we did. Some of my team who took part in the project on Saturday, made it for the project on Sunday too!

During the course of the day, I began to feel guilty every time I remembered how sick they might be. As a person, you tend to treat people who are sick with kid gloves. You'd want to stop them from running too much, or exerting too much pressure on themselves.
But the truth is, they don't want to be treated any different from how you'd treat your kid brother/sister.
They don't want free handouts. They want opportunities.
They don't want a free meal. They need healthcare that matters. They deserve research that will guarantee a better future.
Take them seriously, but don't discriminate them.
Recognize their right to live as full a life as you or I have.
The Team that made it possible

After my visit to The Freedom Foundation, I've learned my most important lesson - AIDS is no different a disease as heart disease and diabetes.
But it's sufferers can certainly benefit a lot more from a society that is willing to understand them and their disease a little better.

I've always believed that only a less informed individual can be prejudiced. While India is the cradle of civilization, looking at the plight of individuals with HIV positive, I get the distinct feeling that we need to set our priorities right.


Friday, September 23, 2011

Able and Willing.. Part 1

Community Service to many of us is a farce. An event where we get a paid day off.
While many who volunteer their time think they are doing a favor to those who are underprivileged, I think it's the other way round. They are doing us a favor by letting us be a part of their special life.


The ThomsonReuters Foundation, tied up with 25 NGOs, each a pioneer in their field. Unprecedented in scale and involvement, we'll have 2500 employees taking part in 250 projects across 4 months.

In a series of posts, I'll attempt to pen down my experiences with the 19 projects that I will be a part of this year.

Sept 17th, 2011.
'Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day....teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime'
Unnati works on empowering those sections of the society that is underprivileged and undermined in more ways than one.
With 12 enthusiastic volunteers, we were overwhelmed at the sight of over 200 candidates at the Centre on a bright and balmy Saturday morning.
A quick briefing and a short slideshow of the program cleared any doubts that my team had.

But what really impressed many of us was how streamlined the entire process was.
Interview on such a massive scale is always a logistical nightmare. However in Unnati, fully completed applications are screened for authenticity and tagged for any one of the 12 vocations taught at the NGO.

The kind of candidates that we saw impressed us too. Guys and girls who you'd otherwise not bat an eyelid if you passed them on the street were there, wanting to learn, work and be able to stand on their own feet. Nearly all of them reached Unnati because they had friends/relatives who were taught at the NGO.
Most of them were humble and open to instruction, criticism and feedback. Some were hell bent on working in a particular vocation, even though they lacked the skills. We had to persuade them and explain to them why they would not suit a vocation.
But all of them had an amazing attitude about life, smiling even though in abject poverty.
For the 150 odd candidates that did crack the interview, Sept 19th is just the beginning.
The team at Unnati that made a difference!

Towards the end of the day, we all had a wonderful time. Many of us saw ourselves in the candidates we interviewed.
And on our way back, we promised ourselves that we would want to be there when the 70 day course at Unnati finishes on the 3rd of December.

Karunashraya - Hospice
Sept 18th, 2011.
'All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.'
The hospice for patients with cancer in it's advanced stages struck a very personal chord with me.
Having seen what cancer can do with a person and his/her family, the work that Karunashraya made me pause and ponder. Pain is an incredible thing. Something that you need to experience to know how much it pains, cancer is a painful death sentence.
Having seen my dad and his sisters loose their battles of cancer was painful. Scary even.
At Karunashreya, I saw death. Apparently the mortality rate at the hospice is as high as two deaths a day.

The history of the NGO is inspiring. Having gone through a corrupt bureaucracy, the NGO does manage to strike a delicate balance between altruism and sound policies.
We got to learn how the hospice functioned. What I noticed was how almost everything in the hospice was designed and done in such a way that death looses it's sting. 
Each of the 'guest' is allowed to wear their own clothes provided it is comfortable and easy to wear/remove, every guest is allowed to walk freely around the facility, every guest is given their choice of meal three times a day. And when the time comes that the guest has to 'depart', he/she is given a dignified way through doors that open directly into the veranda and wheeled to the 'Prayer room' where the relatives can accept the mortal remains.
All this is done so to make sure that none of the inmates see the bodies going out, even though all of them are quite sure that their turn to leave is not too far away.

Our project was to provide succor to the staff and nurses and relief even if it was just a day, from the gory reality of death around them.
Ranging from ages 18 to 25, you'd hardly notice anything different about the staff here and any other hospital. Dig deeper and you'll find that they all have a passion for selflessness. Polite yet steely resolved, working with terminally ill people require nerves of steel.
Would I want to work with Karunashraya again? Definitely Yes.

Sept 21st, 2011.
"For me, inclusion is about a community where everyone is recognized for their differences and everyone is recognized as belonging – not only in our schools, but in our communities."
As part of my third project, we had to plan and execute a gathering of 25 different NGOs that work for differently abled individuals. 
The first picture that comes to our minds when we talk about social service are images of individuals who are anemic, unintelligible and unscrupulous.
Having met 25 different NGOs involved in healthcare, employment and among specially abled individuals, my perception has improved. 
With over 2000 registered NGOs in the city of Bangalore alone, it is anybody's guess on why we need to pool in our collective resources. The need is certainly there. Being 'challenged' (or the more politically incorrect term 'disabled') does no longer mean that you should be begging for your living. With the wealth of resources that many of these NGOs have, getting a good job/living a respectable life is only a matter of connecting to the right organization.


With the NGOs promising to network and connect in a better way in the future, I believe we were able to hit all the right notes with our project.

Next Stop:
The Freedom Foundation


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Changing Lives.. Making a Difference

As a leader of yet another community service project, I visited an NGO that does some amazing service among the less privileged among us.

The Freedom Foundation, founded in the early '90s was born out of a need that two philanthropists, a Doctor and a De-addiction Therapist, knew existed.
Starting in a location that was way out of town at that time, the center initially treated (alcohol/drug) addicts who needed help. However, Dr Ashok Rau and Late Karl Sequeira soon realized the need for a center that would care for children who are HIV -infected.
Thus began, the current facility at Geddalahalli, roughly four kilometers from the Hennur main road.

What started with three students have now grown to over 25 children who live full-time at nine of its nicely furnished rooms.
Of course there are a lot of NGOs that do outstanding work in the field of HIV research and care, but what struck me about The Freedom Foundation was how bureaucracy and civic apathy can stunt even the most altruistic NGO.
Meeting with the director at the NGO, I could understand the pain - of not having donors, of not having sufficient funding, at fighting a loosing battle - and the determination. Take for instance, the case of two orphaned siblings. The three year old girl was HIV positive was forcefully separated from her seven year old brother, who was HIV negative. The government naturally believed the boy stood a better chance of a good life, gave him up for adoption. The Freedom Foundation, on the other hand believed that the siblings must not be separated, being as it is that the girl didn't have her parents and her brother was her only family remaining. After months of legal wrangling and much debate, the honorable courts did find sense in letting the brother be with his younger sister.

If being HIV positive was not a death sentence in itself, red tapism makes it even more exasperating.
Barred from receiving any foreign aid by archaic rules, I could feel the plight of survival.
To a government that believes being HIV positive is a punishment for your lifestyle choices, every victim is just another statistic.

I went around the in-patient facility, surveying and understanding the needs of the Foundation. Partly because I would be leading a team of 14 from my Company who will help 'Beautify the Centre' and make the day a little more joyful for the children and partly because I was moved by the plight of the Foundation that is visibly struggling.

As kids, they didn't choose to be branded, but as adults we can make sure they have a fair shot at education, a promising career and a family of their own. 
While many talk about equal opportunities, our schools, colleges and workplaces are not willing to walk the talk.
I was told how the warden and the Director had to pull strings to convince the institutions to admit the HIV -infected and -affected children to schools and colleges.
Isn't this another face of that prejudiced monster we call - Corruption?

While we are eager to spend thousands on wasteful birthday bashes, anniversary gifts and exotic vacations, what we forget to remember is how just $75 would take care of the costs of the ART for one child in a month. And it costs just $150 for an entire year's education for that child. Surely, we can afford this. Can't we?

If seeing is believing, the Freedom Foundation is indeed an eye-opener. I'd recommend you to visit them, even if you don't have any intention of serving their cause. I came away thinking of the many ways that we take our charmed lives for granted.

If you think you would like to contribute to a noble cause, please visit them here where you can contribute just about anything. 
Your change could make the difference we need.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Learn, Earn, Stand tall


As part of the ThomsonReuters Community Service team, I have been fortunate to be a part of several projects.


The first project for this year that I'll be a part of is organized by an well-networked NGO called Unnati (An SGBS trust initiative).
First of it's kind that I'm being a part of, Unnati enables and empowers underprivileged students in a competitive world.


Meeting the director of the NGO was a wonderful experience. Unnati identifies between 100 and 200 students who are socially and economically underprivileged. Nearly all of the students that are selected to study here are from family below the poverty level. Apart from having no knowledge of English and very limited chances of a gainful employment in a fast paced job market, these students aren't much different from you and me. 
They are ambitious (one student graduating out of the seventy day course aspired to be a Managing Director of a Hotel one day), they have the same fear of the stage, and will face the same challenges that you and I will face. But just because they live in a shanty house or in a village or slum, we are biased against them. 


The eight year old not for profit NGO, depends on 90 other NGOs and many of it's alumni for its students - from 18 to 40 year olds. Costs are met by generous donors like Google et al.


Once at the Centre, they go through a thorough screening process that separates the truly deserving from the 'just lazy'. 
There after they go through a seventy day vocational training and personality development course that is structured and tutored by professionals who volunteer their time and effort. Students are taught vocational training (like guest care, tailoring, industrial painting, security, paramedics, and retail sales and marketing) in state of the art class rooms that are donated by companies like Philips, and the Infosys Foundation..
Of course like any other organisation, Unnati goes through the pangs of attrition too.
But what surprised me is how attrition tapered off after just 10 days of class. The students apparently are convinced about the effect that Unnati has on them in a week! 
At the seventieth day we see how such a structured environment, that places emphasis on underprivileged individuals getting the right kind of vocational training that  equips them for the modern workforce, achieves when nearly all the students graduate, with a job. Many of the students earn between Rs 3000 to Rs 9000 as their first salaries!


Today, sitting among the students at their valediction ceremony, I could feel the excitement, the enthusiasm and the confidence that all of these students possess. The students performed skits on money management, etiquette and life skills. 


It's hard to imagine how any organization can transform a person from being underprivileged to being part of a highly trained modern workforce. But watching the students graduate with pride and honor, I know Unnati has done the impossible. 
From a lump of clay to a beautiful piece of art.


Amidst all the anarchy and chaos in our society, Unnati comes out as a beacon of hope. The hope that not all is wrong in the world today.


Their motto: Learn, Earn and Stand tall, rings through all their students. 
Unnati: A wonderful example to emulate


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