'Angels on earth': Selfless volunteers are real COVID saviours

·Contributor
·11-min read

As the world still battles with the deadly coronavirus, people stepped out from their houses to offer their selfless services for covid patients.

volunteering
volunteering

From arranging beds at the hospitals to finding oxygen concentrators to helping with crematorium, volunteers were there at every step to assist the infected people. 

We chat with a few volunteers whose selfless work has brought a difference to the lives of many around them.

1) Aishwarya Pandit (Volunteer For Khaana Chahiye)

Aishwarya Pandit is an H.R. College of Commerce and Economics graduate and Teach For India Fellow. For almost a year, she has been working with an NGO named Khaana Chahiye by offering her selfless volunteering services since the outbreak. Despite the rising tensions in the world about the pandemic, Aishwarya stepped out to make a difference by working with Khaana Chahiye Foundation.

As and when Aishwarya found that her friend was volunteering with Khaana Chahiye, she approached her mom to convince her about volunteering with the NGO. “Because we can’t just sit at home and somebody has to do it,” said Aishwarya. “My mom just freaked out and she was like “Are you mad? Are you sure you want to go there? People, they don’t even wear masks properly. Are you sure you want to do it?”, she quotes her mother. But Aishwarya was like “Theek hai, I’ll manage, I’ll go for two days and see what can be done”.

Aishwarya Pandit - Khaana Chahiye volunteer
Aishwarya Pandit - Khaana Chahiye volunteer

After Aishwarya's mother acknowledged her volunteering decision, she took all the precautions carefully like wearing a mask, full sleeves, gloves, and her full body was covered from top to bottom. “Even after that also, when I came back home, wherever I used to keep my foot, my mother used to sanitize that place, which is a very funny thing to do”, quips Aishwarya about her mother.

Currently, she’s handling the groceries operations at Khaana Chahiye foundation. She also takes care of the database verification, scheduling, and delivery part of the NGO. The organization mostly helped people by providing them with food packages.

Their first initiative started when the lockdown was announced and the migrants were going back home. “We have mostly helped people by providing them with food packages. This started when the lockdown was just announced and the migrants were going back home. We had adopted a few railway stations in Mumbai, where we gave them fruits, cooked meals, water, masks, etc.” said Aishwarya

Speaking about Aishwaya’s volunteering experience, she said, “The only money we spent was for petrol. Otherwise, it was all covered by Khaana Chahiye Foundation. I would say, I haven’t spent anything from my pocket. And volunteering experience has really been great. I got to work with people from different industries. We have people from the film industry, business, etc. It’s a diverse group. Also, as volunteers, the work that we do here is a very challenging job I would say.

Khaana Chahiye volunteers are distributing snacks to the needy
Khaana Chahiye volunteers are distributing snacks to the needy

Considering the physical distance in place, when asked how she managed to distribute the cooked-meals and ration kits, she said, “Although I was taking all necessary precautions. But still, it was definitely scary, because people used to come close to you and ask for food. And then you have to make sure that they are following all the rules and regulations because you have to actually go and talk to them really closely.

She further added “When you start giving food, they recognize your food cases. And when they see you for 2-3 days, and when you go on a vehicle there, they start crowding you, and gather around. There’s absolutely nothing you can do when all the people come and start asking for “khaana dedo, khaana dedo”. It becomes very difficult. Sometimes, it’s disheartening to see people walking away without food for the day. But, we also have OUR limitations, where I can only carry 20 packets on my scooty. So, that was something very sad.

Well, there were certain challenges that Aishwarya had to overcome during her volunteering as well. As crowding is completely a no-no during these unfortunate times, people still used to gather around her for food. She used to manage them by saying, “aap lelo aap wapas mat aao.” But they still used to come and it turned challenging for her to deal with.

Aishwarya distributing food bag to a woman
Aishwarya distributing food bag to a woman

At times, when she goes on a scooty for the distribution, she used to tell the people “if you gather like this, I will not give you food.” We had to be very blunt and straightforward with them “eise aap karoge toh aapko food nahi milega”. So that’s when we realize that it’s difficult for them as well.”

Aishwarya also does other major works at Khaana Chahiye like collecting the data from the point of contact from on ground volunteers, where she assigns it to other volunteers to verify the data by calling them and see if they actually need food or not. She also speaks to POCs, vendors, and ensures the kits are available. Finally, she coordinates with the distribution as well.

From her volunteering experience, she shared one of the heart-touching incidents. The Khaana Chahiye have something called the SOS drives, where if you report hunger from their website or call them, the respective requested person will get the kit in 2 days.

So, there’s this maid who works in Aishwarya’s building. “I have no idea that she’s going through all these. So, I gave her the kit, because I was like “theek hai maid hai lelo”. She started crying then and there and said that “today we will go with full stomach”.That was the point I realized that she was here for so long and I didn’t know that she’s facing so many problems”, said Aishwarya.

When asked what kept her going, she swiftly replied: “we giving one kit to someone is going to give them food for the next 15 -20 days, which is something that keeps me going and even at times if it takes me it becomes 1 or 2 at night, I still haven’t finished verifying the data, I still sit and do it by saying it myself that ok someone out there needs a kit tomorrow and I cannot push it to the next date” That’s what keeps me going.

She concluded with a message shared by one of the beneficiaries from Dharavi, Mumbai. As they cannot text or type, this lady left a voice note saying: “Thank you Aishwarya ma’am for sending these kits. We are really grateful. So many people have promised us that we will give you food, we will give you that, but none of them showed up. May you be blessed with a long life.

2) Chhitra Subramaniam (Co-Founder & Volunteer Of Pad Squad)

Chhitra Subramaniam is a film producer and Senior Vice President Creative & Production of Kross Pictures, a South Korean Production house. Besides her professional work, she’s deeply involved with the social sector. During the pandemic, she co-founded Pad Squad along with Surya Balakrishnan and a few other incredible people. The organization’s rudimentary idea is to promote and create awareness about menstrual health and at the same time render solutions to underprivileged women by keeping their self-esteem intact.

Chhitra distributing pads, biscuits, snacks, and water on the streets. This is in Juhu in the peak of the lock down.
Chhitra distributing pads, biscuits, snacks, and water on the streets. This is in Juhu in the peak of the lock down.

Being a co-founder herself, and also one among many volunteers in the world who came out and offered selfless services with a stout-heart, she shared with us the experience she had during the pandemic hour. “Covid as we all know has been brutal to all. Volunteering has been the single most fulfilling experience. The times have been devastating, exhilarating, purpose filled and most importantly it has changed me. We are all just volunteers taking social responsibility to address the menstrual hygiene needs of girls and women”, said Chhitra with a smile.

This amazing film producer has turned this voluntary people’s movement into an empowering mission that society should have addressed this challenge way back, as menstrual hygiene is as basic as food problems in the world. Amid 2020 lockdown, much before Pad Squad happened, she also volunteered for India Welfare Trust too. “At that time, I was making excel sheets. The next thing I did was to get 16 vanity vans put for the Police force of Mumbai. Then I started fundraising and volunteering for Helping Hands Charitable Trust- supporting community kitchens that were feeding 10000 people, and also co-founded HOPE in 2021 with Surya Balakrishnan”, shares Chhitra.

Chhitra got the idea of vanity vans from her friend Neil Sadwelkar’s Facebook post, who’s an Indian Film Editor. She was moved by the fact that the police were working round the clock without taking any rest. “Some were doing 24 hour duty with a few hours of rest in between and some were doing 12 hour duty. The women police force had nowhere to go to take a leak. Plus the heat, and the lockdown was so severe , that they had to be really present and sharp on their duty. So that led to the vanity vans along with Ketan Rawal (the owner of the Vanity Vans), Project Mumbai & Producers Guild of India”, remarks the film producer.

Besides all the volunteering and fundraising works, Chhitra also helped setting up a helpline called “Need Help Can Help & run on ground distribution of medicines & ration for that.” With a kind-heart, she made monetary contributions to several causes and cases as well. Now that we know volunteers are the backbone for any organization, it’s vital to take care of their safety too.

Team Pad Squad distributed almost 1500 pads to roadside potters who had recently lost their little huts to the Noida authorities demolition
Team Pad Squad distributed almost 1500 pads to roadside potters who had recently lost their little huts to the Noida authorities demolition

So on that note we asked her “Aren’t you scared of going out in a scary situation like this?” She gave a swift reply saying: “The urge to be present, in person, doing whatever I can has ensured that there is no fear at all. We have seen that so many people have got covid even though they never stepped out of their homes. Some call it the helper’s high Could be that too, that keeps away any negative thoughts. I believe that what we fear, almost always manifests. And if covid has to happen, it will, but until then I want to do whatever I can.

Despite having a full-time job in hand, the work from home culture saved her the trouble of constant moving. While most of us use this time to their advantage by tuning in to OTTs, Chhitra did otherwise. She devoted more hours on the ground aiding people, and offering them the necessary support in the best possible way she can.

Chhitra and Surya after a menstrual cup training in a village in Maharashtra.
Chhitra and Surya after a menstrual cup training in a village in Maharashtra.

She further commented, “If we love something and really want to do it, then we make time for it. I used all those hours in volunteering, worked more hours and gave up watching shows & movies/OTT. It was a lot of work, but since I love doing it, it never felt like a burden. I am an early riser as well, so a lot gets done in the morning, before the day starts with meetings, calls etc. All human beings have 24 hours a day, and much can be done in that time. If time is managed well, with focus, devotion to a cause / dream, then everything is possible.

Chhitra Subramaniam has received several accolades and awards for her brill support during the pandemic. Case-in-point, she won the first Covid Soldier award from 'The Better India' & ATE Chandra Foundation, the Covid Hero Award from Municipal Commission of Great Mumbai, The DBS Bank (Development Bank of Singapore) "People with Purpose Award" from The DBS Bank (Development Bank of Singapore) and The Excellence Award from the "Giving Economy Change Makers (GEC).

Finally, she ended with an altruistic message saying, “We are all part of society and I believe that we must all do all that we can for society, for people , animals , and the environment. And Volunteering is the way to contribute to this planet and give back what we continuously take from it.”

3) Surya Balakrishnan (Co-Founder & Volunteer Of HOPE)

Surya Balakrishnan is an ad film director and runs her production house called Footloose films. She’s one among many who came out to volunteer in the time of the pandemic crisis.

Volunteering has been a part of life since I can remember. From little things like being a part of Bombay Natural History Society in school to NGOs that I have worked at/made films/design collateral for during college. I have been lucky to learn from and be associated with NGOs like Nalandaway, Magic Bus, Ashoka and many more. And then there is the “Pandemic Volunteering'' (which hasn’t stopped :p)”, shares Surya on how she has been involved in volunteer activities for quite a long time.

Surya in Govandi- her favourite community, Shivaji Nagar during the daily nutrition program happenings.
Surya in Govandi- her favourite community, Shivaji Nagar during the daily nutrition program happenings.

As and when the pandemic stormed into this world, people became messiahs of mankind. It felt like every next person sitting beside us is somehow indirectly concerned for our health and well-being. For Surya Balakrishnan, it started with Makers Asylum, where she and her team made more than a million face shields for front like workers. Later, she organised some fun fundraisers for Nabahangan Foundation, run by her dear friend. She also worked with Doctors Without Borders, as she mentioned that, “I have been wanting to work with them for many years- it was a dream come true.

And last year, amid the pandemic, she, along with a bunch of friends and strangers working on various causes, came together to form Pad Squad. “Our movement now consists of over 75 people in 30 cities and we have reached out to thousands of women and helped them with their menstrual needs”, said Surya. As she continues to work with Pad Squad, her best-relief-friend Chhitra Subramaniam and Suyra formed HOPE. This young organization’s primary focus is on “Hunger”, which is really the bigger pandemic than the virus itself.

In the last 10 weeks, HOPE has helped reach out to 3500+ people with ration kits and 1500 children, as a part of their nutrition program. Apart from this, they helped 17000+ prison inmates with masks, 5 students with school fees for this year, PPE kits for 150 crematorium workers, Oxygen concentrators and cylinders for hospitals in Mumbai and Nasik, 2800 biodegradable pads for women, laptops and tablets for 10 kids in a tribal school in Kerala, and so much more.

She went on saying how lucky she is to volunteer at arduous times like these, and at the same time able to manage her professional work without a hitch or snag. “I would call myself extremely lucky to have a profession that gives me the time and allows me to indulge in many hours of relief work. More so, it leaves me in a comfortable place to monetarily support other causes run by friends and people I look up to and admire for the work they do. Knowing how much work goes into fundraising, it is very important to me to support other causes in whatever capacity I can”, said the ad film director.

Kids smiling after they got their eggs at Malwani.
Kids smiling after they got their eggs at Malwani.

Although things were quite brutal during the second wave of the pandemic, especially with the inevitable death cases heard at every nook and corner of the country, Surya and her HOPE team managed to continue their benevolent almsgiving work from their homes for a couple of weeks.

Now that we know the coronavirus is nowhere near to an end, Surya and her team went an extra mile to aid the needy people. She said,“There would be days where it would be exhausting or we would just want to be home and & “chill” , but one visit to the community is enough for us to know that there is no way of taking a break, we must do all we can. In one of our ration drives an 80 year old man started weeping for his ration kit. It truly broke our hearts. We hope and pray no one needs to go hungry ever.” And then questioned “have you seen photos of the kids eating eggs? How can we stop the work we do?”.

Surya concluded by thanking her mother Dr. Geeta Balakrishnan, a retired social work professor from College of Social Work Nirmala Niketan, for always being a motivational factor in her life.

Quoting her mother, she says, “My mom has been a part of various relief projects-be it the Tsunami, plague, riots and much more but she would always come back home and always tell us, “I come back home and eat hot food so it’s not really a big deal", and that’s something that has stayed with me. We may do a lot on the ground but do we come back home to all the comfort. I guess it teaches me everyday to not take the things we have for granted. There’s a long way to go.

4) Kailash Shahani (Founder & Volunteer Of MUMBAI HELP)

Kailash Shahani is a Mumbaikar who owns an HR consulting firm. Having the love for Mumbai, he came forward to help the city people during the pandemic by establishing a community called “Mumbai Help”. Kailash started the community in April 2021 as a ground-up citizen movement to fight hunger. His mission is to spread a message of hope and compassion.

Kailash on his way to distribution with all the food boxes
Kailash on his way to distribution with all the food boxes

The community is mostly operated by Kailash itself. Thanks to various support groups who helped him with coordination to find out the problems in certain areas of Mumbai. “I started MUMBAI HELP with the clear intent of making a difference at a micro level which is why I started feeding people in smaller numbers in and around my vicinity”, said Kailash. In the beginning, he spent funds from his own pocket, but later, he received support from his close friends and family.

As we know for the last one year, things are literally challenging for people to stay in close touch. It was the same case with Kailash as he used to meet his loved ones once in a month but maintaining a distance of at least 5-6 feet.

He shared his volunteering experience with us of how it was when he stepped out in the open. “At the start, I was cautiously optimistic but I did have the motivation to make that difference considering my volunteering experience from last year working for migrant workers at Kurla terminus. I also ensured some of the precautions while distributing such as double masking, constant sanitizing of hands, and maintaining distance”, said Kailash.

Kailash distributing food boxes to the people in Mumabi
Kailash distributing food boxes to the people in Mumabi

His daily routine begins with going to Bandra, picking up food, and coming back to distribute at Sion Hospital, Wadala, and Matunga area. “I have been sharing food with people on a daily basis which has created a sense of familiarity which helps me bring about bigger impacts on a micro level”, Kailash exclaimed.

Having a job in hand, Kailash balanced his work and Mumbai Help community efficiently. “The first half would be allocated for distribution and the second half would be dedicated to my office. In the last 3 months, I have not bunked even for a day, and the reason which motivates me to do this every day is the fact that I know someone out there is waiting for me and would go hungry if I don't deliver food”, Kailash added.

Case-in-point, one day, there was a logistical nightmare, and food pick up was delayed by 90 minutes. “As and when the distribution started, people were anxiously waiting for our meals and as soon as they received their food packets it was opened within a few seconds and consumed. Honestly, that's when I understood the importance of ensuring consistent distribution of food”, shares Kailash. However, he has created a few backup solutions to ensure such incidents don't happen again in the future.

All smiles after receiving food boxes from Mumbai Help team
All smiles after receiving food boxes from Mumbai Help team

For the kind of work Kailash has been doing for the last few months, he received several accolades from the people. Of which, he narrated one incident that was memorable: “On 8th July, when I was out for my food distribution, a group of 20 women came to me and said Bhaiya we have a surprise for you. It was my birthday and somehow they were aware of the same and had arranged a small cake for me which was probably the best birthday gift I could ask for. I received 2 handmade cards from kids in these communities which would be surely preserved for life. I have other instances where people have invited me to weddings, birthdays, and even naming ceremonies of their kids as they would consider me an integral part of their lives.”

If you want to create a big impact, start by working on micro solutions at the local level and create a larger impact is what the perspective and ideology of Kailash that kept him going. He concluded by thanking his friends, families, and acquaintances who have placed their trust in me to deliver as per their expectations. “Mumbai Help” is a clear testimony that when you have the right intent, you would have the support from all sections of society.

5) Sai Charan Chikkulla (Independent Volunteer)

Sai Charan Chikkulla is one of those volunteers from Hyderabad who has worked for the covid relief since April. He didn’t work particularly for any non-profit-organization, instead, he volunteered individually. His activities involved connecting the right sources for Beds, oxygen, plasma and other requirements.

So far, Charan helped more than 1500 families for ventilator beds during the second wave of the covid-19. And the count excludes other requirements like Oxygen cylinders, medicines, concentrators and plasma. “As of now, I have virtual contact with many families who received help from me and most of them are poor. In the initial stages, I have spent my savings arranging food, groceries and medicine for poor people and later some like-minded people joined with me in helping poor people out of their savings”, said Charan.

Charan provided free food to covid patients at the begining of the pandemic
Charan provided free food to covid patients at the begining of the pandemic

Charan did most of his work using social media. “People used to tag me on Twitter and call on my number for any needs and I addressed them in my limits. Most of my work happened through Twitter and phone calls and sometimes I reached hospitals to donate food where 90% of the patients are admitted through my reference and many of them are poor. I used to maintain safety precautions and I can see the happiness and confidence in their families faces when I speak to them sometime and say they'll recover very soon”, shared Charan.

When asked about his volunteering experience, he said, “Due to the load of calls and requests I received, for the whole two months, I used to sleep only for 2 hours in a day. In the peak time of May, I used to eat only once a day and my phone rang for 24 hours. Everyday I used to get 500 to 700 calls for beds, Cylinders and plasma too.

Well, the cost involved for treating a covid patient is pretty high, so, poor people used to reach Charan as their last hope to lean onto. Because of that, Charan sacrificed his time, health, and everything he can to save them, which is what drives him everyday, to do much better, and be as helpful as possible to people.

He also exclaimed, “While helping people, I used to listen to the loss of lives where I have gone beyond anything to save them and many such incidents made me break down and stop everything but the same families ask me to continue saving lives and they give me energy to not stop for losing a life but there are many more lives to save. For every case, I go beyond anything since most of them are poor. It was just like one minute is equal to one life during those days.

Felicitation by poor people in Suryapet when Charan went to donate rice for 80 families on behalf of other two donors.
Felicitation by poor people in Suryapet when Charan went to donate rice for 80 families on behalf of other two donors.

Since Charan kept his contact details public, and a call away, his volunteering activities touched the roof, as he recalls, “Many people used to reach me on call even at 3:30 am everyday. I don't remember the loads of calls I managed for 2 months excluding Twitter.” He concluded by saying that “when patients' families share their discharge stories and the happiness with tears and blessings, those were the happiest moments of my life I have ever received.

Charan continues to impress with his kindness by going an extra mile to help poor and needy people through sponsoring. Case-in-point, lately, he has sponsored a poor sports person for training purposes. He is also sponsoring education to a poor nursing student, along with another poor student for 3 years by taking the help from other four like-minded individuals like Charan.

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