Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Social Service

Social service, volunteering, NGO....these are all ways of giving back to the society we live in. We all take from the society, so in our life, we should also give back.

Until 15 years ago, this was a novel concept for me. The only volunteering I had done was in Ethiopia for a short period of time, when I used to read for about one hour a week to the blind. And I thought I was doing that because I had time on my hands and had nothing else to do.  But now I know how valuable that reading must have been for the blind who were listening to me. I wish I had done more.

Depending on what one feels comfortable with, one can do personal service, i.e. give time and skills to a cause; or give money to a cause. Whatever is suitable.

I have done both - time and money so I have experience with both. It is a personal decision for anyone when they are ready for social service. This is something cannot be compelled, it is something that comes from within oneself.

I sometimes wonder if I would be doing so much of it if I had a family. I would be busy with them and not have time to give. But in America I see that volunteering is a sometimes a family affair. Volunteering is part of the school education. Kids learn it at a young age. How neat!! I will say that I have never met any Indian during any of my volunteering events - never! Maybe they and I go to different events.....Although in India there are thousands of NGOs (don't know how many are authentic); but in US, there are hardly any NGOs by Indians.  Nothing good or bad about this...just an observation.

I am writing two blogs on my experiences. I am not done with volunteering or donating money. It is an ongoing process.  Part 1 is on Time Donation and Part 2 is on Money Donation

Social Service (Monetary) - Part 2

Ten years ago, I went to India on a touring trip during my sabbatical. I wanted to go to an Ashram in Rishikesh to relax on the banks of Ganges.  It so happened that the Ashram was hosting a Geeta camp, which I then attended. Amazing camp! I learned so much. At the camp, I met a lady who was running an orphanage for girls of all ages in Dehra Dun.  These girls either were discarded by their families, or ran away from home due to some abuse or other. The lady asked me to contribute to the orphanage to sustain one 12 or 13 year old girl through her education, up to her marriage – so a financial commitment of about 5-7 years.

It was against my philosophy to help out with money, especially if I don’t know where the money is going. But the lady was convincing and she was a friend of a family friend. So I agreed to sponsor two girls (the money was not that much when converting dollars to rupees). I supported them over four years. My experience was mixed: I felt good that I could support some girls’ education and maybe give her a good future; on the other hand, I never knew who I was supporting and what the progress of the girl was.  Over time, I would call the lady but never got a satisfactory answer. Through the family friend, I knew that my money was spent well. It may not have gone directly to the girl, but it did help out in the orphanage.

And that is where my problem is – I need to know exactly where my money is being used.  It could be because my salary is not much and so whatever little I give should have some visible impact. I did not go back to India for the next 5-6 years, so that story came to an end. The sad thing is when I stopped sending the money, the lady never even asked me why I stopped sending the money.

I had a similar problem in Brazil. When I was in Brazil, I had worked with a young couple, who were our translators during our visit. The first time I went there, I was so impressed by their hard work and dedication that I wanted to do something. The man who arranged everything suggested that I pay the couple’s salary since he is not able to pay them too much. I thought – sure I can do that for one year! So I made three payments to him over one year. Two years later, I went back to Brazil for a second service trip. I chatted with the couple to find out if they were getting their salary without revealing any other details. It turned out that the man paid them only half of what I had given for them. Ugh!! When I asked him about it, he said, he needed the money elsewhere in the organization. There was really nothing I could do about it!!

So there….my point seemed to be made again and again.  Money given to organizations like this are never quite used for what you intend them to be used for.

Now I knew for sure that giving money was out of question. But old habits die hard!!

When I went to India recently, I met a young woman, very sweet, very hard working and of very caring nature. Despite the fact that she was poor and struggling in so many aspects of her life, she would always have a smile on her face. I was taken by her honesty and hard-working nature. She would tell me about her life and I could feel her pain!! I could not help myself… I decided to support her - financially. Now I talk to her periodically and see how she is doing – I don’t need a full accounting of my money, but I can tell she is not misusing the money. I have met her three times now and finally I feel comfortable in my financial contribution.

One incident regarding this woman will always stay on my mind. I was talking to her one day and she told me about some health issues she was having and that she needed to get some tests done. I knew she was not going to work and therefore she was losing money. I asked her if she needed more money for the tests, and very cheerfully she replied, “I have lots of money!” I was so amused! I did not send her any money for the tests. And that is the attitude that makes her so special to me.

Will I keep giving money in future? I don't know. I will not like to support this young woman all her life. At one point, her sons should take over and take care of her. So I will stop at that stage.

And then what? I don't know....

My determination is still not to give money to organizations. I have been asked by one or two NGOs to donate money, but I will not give - I need to work with them in order to see how they work. So at this time....they will get only my time!!

Social Service - Part 1

These words, social service, were alien to me until I started working at Park University. At my university, service was part of the professional development portfolio, which means one of the criteria by which my promotion etc. would be determined.  So I had to ask my mentor about what is “service”, and he said to me, it’s when you volunteer and work in the community. So of course I had no idea what I was going to do.  My first logical choice was to look in my professional society, American Chemical Society.  They had a local chapter in Kansas City and so I started getting involved in its activities. It was perfect for me as I am a chemist and an educator, so the activities I was participating in fit right in with my profession.

Within a year or two I caught on this bug of service. I started enjoying it. It was a great way to meet new people, see new places and all the while contribute to the community in some way. I did a lot of volunteering with science mentoring of young scientists as well as being a mentor to “women in science” – both very rewarding for me. I volunteered at events where they needed people to monitor activities. I was active in my professional society and also other women’s groups.  Eventually I started taking leadership roles and wrote grants and organized events. I learned a lot about team work during this time.

I had vowed to myself that I would never give money for charity. I would give my time and services, but not money. I could never be sure how this money was being used, and my money is not lottery money – it’s my hard earned money that I had frugally saved. It was not going to support administrative staff of any association. I wanted my money to be used to help people who really needed it.

My first service trip abroad was in Brazil. Here I saw how a lady had created a safe haven for kids to come after school and learn crafts or hang out in a clean, safe environment. The organization I went with took 10-12 people and built an open air classroom for the kids – all in one week.  It was really quite amazing for me to see how quickly a dream can be realized. (Of course the procuring and transporting of the materials for building the classroom was about a year long process and all this was done by one person who was dedicated to helping this community).

My next service trip was Hawaii. One would why Hawaii, such a tourist destination, would need help, but help is needed everywhere, even in the richest of the societies.  I saw a part of Hawaii that tourists don’t see. The problems there were many but we could do very little in the ten days we were there.

And then I thought I should go to India, my own country and see what I can do there. That was my motivation of going to Shanti Kunj. But now I realize that maybe it will not be a good fit for me as their activities are not done the way I am accustomed to. They also don’t advertise the activities in advance, so timing is an issue. So I just ended up going to DSVV and giving my time there. I feel like my talents were not completely utilized there the first time, but maybe it was because they did not know me. But even during my 2nd and 3rd trip, I felt a little under-utilized.  I will not presume to say why my services were not used to the max, but I know that I could have done a lot more.

I continue to do service as much as I can – locally. I believe in the saying “Think globally, act locally”. I have my limitations on what I can do, but I do what I can to know that I am making some difference.

And then someone asked me for money......(see Monetary Service)

Monday, August 25, 2014


Having crossed the mid-point of my life there are a number of things I have taken stock of. Of course life does not end after mid-life – for some it becomes better. I don’t know what it is becoming for me….

I have always thought of myself as worldly, experienced, comfortable in dealing with diversity and most of all - fairly mature in my thinking. Through my years of education (through PhD) and now working for a number of years, I think I have seen and been through a lot things/events. My personal life has been always be series of turmoil. Just when I think I can breathe now, a storm comes and everything is back to chaos.

I want to believe there is higher power somewhere who is doing all this. I have always believed in destiny, because no matter how hard I try to prevent something from happening or want something to happen, it will not happen that way. For some reason, this higher power has decided that I don't ask for anything meaningful. Or that my life should go smoothly. Nope! All these ups and downs of my life are giving me nausea.

I also think there is a time and age for events to happen otherwise they don’t have the same meaning. Timing is everything in life.  At this point in time in my life, I have to learn to accept a number of things that I have and somethings that I will never have.  There are also human behavior that I have to come to terms with. So many people have come in my life and taught me so many different lessons; sadly most lessons are through negative experiences.  My life has not gone in any way that I had thought it would go; nor do I have the relationships that most people have.

In one of the most positive events: I had never imagined I would ever own a house! Fifteen years ago I was happy to own a car, and now this house - MY house - who knew??

Through all the positive and negative events – I have come to accept that:
  •  People will lie – they will cheat. No matter which country I go to and however many new people I meet, there will always be liars in this world.
  • People are selfish, they are all motivated by their own self-interest.
  • I really cannot trust anyone. I have learned this the hard way. And I still keep learning this, because deep down I want to believe that people are good – but most times they just are not. 
  • No matter where I work I will always have a nemesis. 
  • I have always found one or two truly good friends wherever I have lived. They may not love me, but they will not do anything to hurt me either.
  • The kindness of strangers is always there for me. I have found help in the darkest of my times from some really close friends and sometimes even strangers.  I really feel these are angels sent just to help me.
  • I will never know some relationships….the time has gone…
  • Life will go on, no matter how I feel today. It is up to me to get up and get going.  I am Arjun and I am Krishna – all in one.
I am reminded of a blog I wrote a while back on Anhinga - the beautiful bird of Florida. So yet again I am reminded that its all me.....I have everything in me - I just have to find it (that's the tough part!!) and accept it (also hard to do!)