Operation Smiley :)
In an unprecedented era marked by the invisible force of the Covid-19 pandemic, humanity faced a common adversary that left an indelible mark on every individual's life. While the impact was widespread, it was particularly harsh for the residents of a slum situated near Belandur, a low-lying area in the bustling city of Bengaluru.
For the daily wage workers inhabiting the slum, the pandemic disrupted their already precarious lives. Thousands of individuals, who struggled to make ends meet during ordinary days, found themselves confined to makeshift tents—their humble abodes. This situation forced families, including young children, to endure days without food, with some relying solely on glucose biscuits and water for sustenance.
The slum, housing approximately 3,500 residents who had transformed tents into homes, presented a heart-wrenching spectacle of people deprived of life's basic necessities. Women and children, in particular, grappled with issues of hygiene, as the unhygienic living conditions contributed to deteriorating health. They were cleaning up the garbage in the entire city and segregating it but themselves were in such terrible living conditions.
The dire circumstances extended to education, with almost all children undernourished and only a few having access to learning opportunities. Upon learning of the plight of these families, we obtained the necessary government permissions and embarked on a personal visit to the slum. Conducting a thorough reconnaissance, we visited each tent, engaging with the residents to understand their living conditions, the number of occupants in each tent, and the challenges they faced.
Like "Love at first sight," for our team, it was an immediate recognition of a Seva (service) opportunity at first sight This propelled us to undertake the monumental task of serving 3,500 people daily and, most importantly, bringing smiles to their faces. Thus, we aptly named this initiative "Operation Smiley," as a testament to our commitment to spreading joy and making a positive impact in the lives of those facing unprecedented hardships
The Seva Done
Each day started with a poignant moment of reflection, as the volunteers and the people in silent prayer for a minute, paid tribute to the unsung heroes of the pandemic—the Covid Warriors. These included doctors, nurses, the army, policemen, corporation workers, and countless others whose selfless efforts were integral to serving humanity. The prayer also extended to providing strength to the families who had lost loved ones to Covid.
The volunteers, having gathered at Sai Aashraya's HQ in East Bengaluru, kicked off their day by serving milk to 400 children in the morning, followed by lunch for approximately 2500-3000 people. Special provisions were made for families with elderly members, ensuring that extra food was provided to meet their unique needs.
After a hearty breakfast Seva, the volunteers proceeded to a rented kitchen, where they efficiently loaded the food truck with large vessels of freshly cooked meals. By 1245 Hrs, they embarked on a swift journey to the slum, benefiting from minimal traffic, and within 30 minutes, they were ready to initiate the Seva. Splitting into four groups, they set up distribution tables, designating one per lane.
Recognizing the diverse needs of the community, a separate lane was dedicated to ladies and children. The volunteers took the time to engage with the women, understanding their challenges and needs. Post-distribution, the volunteers didn't just stop at delivering meals—they visited each tent, making connections with the residents. The interaction wasn't just about providing physical nourishment; it was an exchange of stories, experiences, and shared humanity.
After the Seva, the volunteers gathered for an insightful session, reflecting on their encounters, the families' needs, and ways to enhance their service with even more love and compassion the next day. Within a week, a heart-warming transformation occurred—the slum residents, initially guarded, began to open up to the volunteers. Continuous conversations helped dispel myths and fears surrounding the coronavirus, leading to residents conscientiously wearing masks made from towels, handkerchiefs, and other household items during food collection.
As the days passed, the depth of the community's sincerity and love became apparent. Children, some as young as three years old, exhibited remarkable discipline during the Seva. Few days into the service, a few slum kids came running with so much enthusiasm, and started sharing, “Didi, Didi, Hum ne banaaya hain.” (Sister, Sister, we ourselves did these) showing the cement circles on the ground!
Their enthusiasm and self-initiated efforts, such as drawing designated circles with cement powder for maintaining social distancing, shows not only their understanding of the situation but also their commitment to ensuring the safety and well-being of their community. The sincerity and love emanating from the people was profound and beyond words.
A Few Powerful Experiences
Children here did not have access to basic needs like education, food, activities or toys any regular child would have. When interacting with the children, we came to know that one of the kids had created his own spinning top by piecing together trashed items. The creativity of the child was one to be applauded, for the top was made out of a broken plastic bottle, Coca-Cola cap, broken pen, all put together with a thread. When we asked the boy if he could do the same for the volunteer’s kids also, he seemed full of energy and replied saying, “Bhaiya (Brother), I just need some tape and a thread. If you give me some paint, I can even paint it and make it look good!”. It was heart-warming to notice how these kids saw the usefulness in each and every thing. These are clearly the traits of bright minds for they find joy in smaller things and they are ever ready to help out and share even when they don’t have anything.
In another instance, a volunteer saw a child drawing on the sand. When asked if he knew how to draw, he mentioned that he had learnt it from his sister who used to go to school. When asked if he knew ABCD alphabets, he said that he had learnt that too from his sister and began gesturing in the air and writing on the sand. As we reflect about how the children of the slum do not have a paper or even a pencil, one cannot help but think about the striking contrast between plight of these slum dwellers and rest of our urban Bangalore population.
Yet another story that inspired us is that of a young girl who was walking with just one slipper. After a while, she went up to her father and asked, “can you find me another slipper?”. The father went to a nearby heap of garbage, found a different adult sized slipper and gave it to his daughter. The little girl took it happily and went away. Come to think of it, how long do we typically take to buy a pair of sneakers? And, how many do we own that we use and that we don’t use ? When buying a new pair, we try it out one after the other to make sure it fits us, we take so long to decide but here, the little girl was happy in no time. Isn’t it true that contentment and joy cannot be obtained from outside but it has to spring from within.
We are always very particular when it comes to the quality of food prepared and the ingredients used for the same. Spices for the rice and the recipe is also based on the resident’s advice, to suit their taste buds. We strongly believe that adherence to this kind of quality while preparing food and attention to detail directly translates into the joy that residents experience when consuming the food. During one of the post-service rounds we were making, we noticed one grandma was licking her hand and the plate was completely clean. She was enjoying every mouth of food saying that the food tasted exactly like how she had eaten it in her hometown. At the end of her meal, she reflected, “Aur kyaa chahiye?” meaning, “What else do I need?”. She further added, “I have great food and I have a place to stay and there is nothing else I need. How many people don’t even have this much food”. Can you imagine a homeless old lady with idea where her next meal will come from and who has no possessions saying these prophetic words of wisdom “Aur kyaa chahiye?”. Many of these interactions instilled a sense of gratitude in us.
It is said “Family that eats together, stays together”. We made sure that all of us ate lunch with the residents from the slum in their tents. This makes them happy and feel part of the Sai Aashraya family. Some say, “Hamein bhi ek badge de do naa” (i.e.) can you also give me the badge, referring to the Sai Aashraya badge that all volunteers wear. We believe in the power of having a personal connection with those that we are fortunate to serve
The residents of this place today are in a much better state than before. The pandemic was the hardest time for us and them. Together we go through the tough phase. Us through carrying out Seva and them through being resilient. Our efforts to uplift them through the first year of the pandemic through Food & Nutrition and subsequently through assisting with getting them medical treatment was highly impactful. With them being able to manage on their own with regard to food we gradually tapered off the Food Seva. For close to one year, our volunteers spent time carrying our relentless Seva here while facing multiple challenges too.
The overall health and well-being of the people improved and with time, they all got back to regular work. Predominantly, they are into Waste Management, Housekeeping etc. and once the restrictions due to the pandemic eased out they got back to work. Our timely support helped them get through the tough phase.
All the new born got their initial vaccinations in the slum itself. Sai Aashraya’s Volunteers worked tirelessly to ensure this happened and with help from the local health authorities, this was made possible.
As on today, we continue to assist the people of the place in various ways such as medical treatment through telemedicine, pursuing employment opportunities through matching skill sets etc. Our Volunteers maintain regular contact with the people and are available to help whenever an opportunity presents itself.
The residents of this community find themselves in a significantly improved state compared to the challenging times brought about by the pandemic. The collaboration between our team and the resilient individuals of this slum has facilitated a remarkable transformation in their lives. Throughout the initial year of the pandemic, our unwavering commitment to Seva focused on providing essential Food & Nutrition support. Subsequently, as the community gained stability, we transitioned our efforts to assist in securing medical treatment, resulting in a profound and lasting impact.
The effectiveness of our initiatives is evident in the positive shift in the overall health and well-being of the residents. Our dedicated volunteers persevered through numerous challenges, dedicating nearly a year to relentless Seva in this community. With their improved health and our support, the residents gradually regained their ability to manage their own food requirements, allowing us to gradually phase out the Food Seva.
The resilience of the community members, predominantly engaged in occupations such as Waste Management and Housekeeping, became even more apparent as they resumed their regular work once pandemic-related restrictions eased. Our timely assistance played a pivotal role in helping them navigate through the tough phase and regain a sense of normalcy.
In addition to addressing immediate needs, our volunteers took a proactive role in ensuring the well-being of the community's youngest members. Newborns in the slum received their initial vaccinations on-site, thanks to the tireless efforts of Sai Aashraya's volunteers and the collaboration with local health authorities.
Even today, our commitment to the people of this community remains unwavering. We continue to offer support in various forms, including facilitating medical treatment through telemedicine, connecting residents with employment opportunities that align with their skill sets, and maintaining regular contact to address emerging needs. The bond forged during the challenging times of the pandemic persists, and our volunteers stand ready to assist whenever an opportunity arises, embodying the spirit of Seva in its truest sense.