Operation Smiley :)
For the first time in recent history, there is an invisible force (Corona Virus) that is attacking the entire human race leaving behind it’s footprint in every individual’s life. While the impact has been immense for everyone, this has been the most difficult in particular for slum dwellers. The lives of the daily wage workers residing in a slum near Belandur in the thriving city of Bengaluru, has too been interrupted by the same. Thousands of workers who hardly make ends meet during regular days, have now been forced to stay put in the tents (their home) in the slum. This has left the families including young children go without food, sometimes even up to 4 days.
The slum houses about 2,500 residents who have made mere tents as their home. It is heartbreaking to see people deprived of basic necessities of life. Women and Children face problems related to hygiene, unhygienic state of living have led to deteriorating health conditions. Almost all children are malnourished, none of the them have access to any form of education. When we heard of the suffering of these families in this slum, we decided to visit in person after taking the needed government permissions. We conducted a full week survey of the place, visiting each and every tent in that area, getting to know the number of people that lived in each tent in the slum, the number of adults, children and seniors. We inquired about the type of food the residents typically ate, the ingredients they used including how they prepared their food.
We say “Love at first sight” but for team us, “It was need for impact at first sight” which made us take this humongous task immediately out of love and compassion for the neglected and downtrodden. To put a smile on their face, we decided to call this project as “Operation Smiley”.
Why we do
What we do
We have obtained special permissions for 15 volunteers who are involved in serving during these challenging times. We commenced our service by serving milk to 400 children in the morning and lunch for around 2500 people. Extra food is also provided to families having elderly people. Seva starts every day with a silent prayer for a minute that gives much needed energy and calmness within them.
Since the commencement of the service, the volunteers assemble every day at 11:30am in Sai Aashraya’s location in East Bengaluru, post the breakfast seva. By noon, they arrive at the kitchen and start loading our food truck with all the huge containers of cooked food. By 12:45 pm they leave and arrive at the slum within 30 mins due to no traffic. They split into 4 groups and set up a distribution table one per lane.
Ladies and children have a separate lane for themselves as their needs are different and we make sure to take time to talk to the ladies to understand their challenges, their needs. Post the distribution, the volunteers go to each and every tent in the slum and meet the people. Almost every day after the seva, the volunteers assemble together for an hour of insight session. Every volunteer shares their learning about the families they met, their needs, their experiences and identify what they can do differently and more lovingly the next day. After a week since the service began, the slum people started to warm up to our team. Having repeated conversations with our volunteers, they now understand the Corona virus situation. The residents make sure to cover their face with masks/cloth while collecting the food. These are homemade masks with towels and kerchiefs.
Few days into the service, a few slum kids came running with so much enthusiasm, and started sharing, “Didi, Didi, Hum ne banaya hai..” (Sister.. sister.. we ourselves did these) showing the cement circles on the ground! The volunteer was inspired to notice that they had indeed set up a process on their own to social distancing while collecting the food. They had drawn up the circles with cement powder to indicate the position for people to stand. One hundred of them line up at a time in each lane so they don’t overcrowd. Once the first 100 are served, the next batch lines up similarly. Even during milk seva, kids as young as 3 year old lineup in batches, in a disciplined manner which shows their maturity. The sincerity and love of the people is something that cannot be expressed in words.
Children do not have access to basic needs like education, food, activities or toys any regular child will 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 heartwarming 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 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 recipe, 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 lady 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 kya chahiye?” meaning, “What else do I need?”. She further added, “I have tasty 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 kya chahiye?”. Many of these interactions instill a sense of gratitude in us.
It is said “Family that eats together, stays together”. We make sure that all of us eat lunch with the slum residents. 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. Most people that serve food, will just drop off their food packets and go away. However, we believe in having a personal connection with those that we serve.
It is every citizen’s responsibility to ensure that we build a healthy and harmonious society, a society that is devoid of hatred, crime, poverty and selfishness. When there is hunger in children we cannot provide good medical health. Only after providing good health we can provide education to children which is the foundation for a responsible and loving society. It all starts with abolishing the source of all problems ~ Hunger . “Operation Smiley” may begin with providing initial nutrition and putting a smile on everyone’s faces but eventually the goal is make them stable and empower them through various services made available to them for free of charge by collaborating with various organizations and government support.
We have taken it upon ourselves to spend time with the children, guide and mentor them as these children do not have anyone to look up to for advice. Besides needing emotional & educational support, these children also need medical assistance. None of the children here have been vaccinated post what they received the first few days right after birth. We are trying to tap into existing government schemes to provide periodic vaccines to these children along with much needed medical help with the assistance of qualified medical professionals that volunteer for the organization.
Sanitization efforts for the slum have also commenced. Not to forget, there is a huge challenge of getting clean drinking water in the slum so we are also planning to install a RO plant which will make the water drinkable and hygienic. Included in the list of future term plan for the slum are ongoing vocational training for the youth, ice cream for children in summer, Medicare support.