In 2003, Tracy Kunichika traveled to India and started planting the seeds for what would become Operation-Shanti, an American based non-profit that seeks to provide basic health care and services for the country's poorest residents. Since that time, OS has grown to encompass a shelter, services for those suffering from HIV, and programs for the homeless. I asked Tracy—who not only founded OS but actively participates in daily operations each day in Mysore—how the work was going.
Q What's new? Are your programs being well received?
TK We think our programs are well received! Our shelter, Karunya Mane, which is almost one year old, is almost full. We've got 34 kids there now, and are targeting 40 for the next year, which will put us at full capacity.
We were just visited by some government types, and they seemed quite pleased at the quality of our Karunya Mane program. Whew.
A relatively new program of ours, Project Food and More, distributes monthly care packages to very poor kids who have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS and now live with a relative —usually a grandmother who struggles to take care of the extra mouth or mouths to feed. This program started in September 2008 with 15 kids. We are now up to 29 kids, and continually adding kids who qualify. We visit their homes and talk to the families to determine whether they qualify, and as a first-line screen, one of the local HIV clinics provides us with names of their poorest children who are patients.
Many of the mothers contracted HIV from their husbands, often unknowingly, and those husbands have since died. Some kids have lost both mom and dad. Many are shunned by relatives and receive no support. One young man that we know has own family, and now cares for his sister's two little girls because both mom and dad died. Many are scared that their neighbors or friends will find out they are positive and kick them out of the village. We are finding that the program is successful because the participants tell others about it, and word is getting around. We haven't found anything else like Project Food and More in the area.
The larger goal of this program is that we'll be able to help these kids with not just the monthly care package, but with other aspects of their lives, as they get to know us and we get to know them. The HIV clinic provides most medical services free to these kids, but for what they would not provide (such as medicines if they are admitted), we can now help in that way, and more. Since Karunya Mane is near capacity, this is another way for us to support destitute kids before we're able to expand to take in more kids (like, you know, hundreds more), or find a new facility.
Q What do you think is the biggest challenge with doing charitable work? What are 1-3 things that have happened in the past years since you started OS that's been most surprising? Most rewarding?
TK I suppose the biggest challenge to doing charitable work of any type (education, the arts, poverty, health, whatever) is keeping it charitable. The ego tempts us... and we forget that the point of doing charitable work is that it is "not about me" or "not about us." And especially working with the poor, remembering that WE aren't doing it but that we are just conduits from the big guy upstairs (or whatever you want to call God, Shiva, the Universe, Spirit...) doing his/her/its work, is I guess another way to express that same challenge.
Another challenge in India has been facing the criticisms of people who don't believe our work does any good and who don't believe that helping the poor is worthwhile. That can be disappointing, but then someone else comes along to help, restoring our faith in the good of people.
Three biggest surprises: In some ways, lots of surprises, on other ways—after reflecting on basic human motivations—no surprises.
I suppose the biggest surprise was learning that some doctors bribe their patients. Getting my head around that took a while.
Another surprise has been the lack of empathy...another has been some of the practices that go on in the culture here, like inter-family marriages where, quite often I'm told, uncles marry their nieces. Oddities like this are surprising to learn about. In some ways, many surprises... in other ways, no surprises.
By far the most rewarding is doing the work and seeing a destitute kid or mother improve his or her own life in some way, maybe in a huge way, maybe in just a small way. And, in a funny way, it is even more rewarding because we don't get anything in return — no "thank you," no acknowledgment, no salary, no bragging rights —but we get to be there to see our kids get off the street, go to school, get healthy food, get life-saving medicines, take karate lessons, laugh and play in a clean environment, and BE kids. Nothing else we could possibly "get" can replace that warm feeling that creeps into the chest when doing this work.
Q What support are you looking for now, and what do charities like OS nature need most to succeed?
TK What we really need right now is a bigger facility, and space of our own. If there's anyone out there looking to donate land and/or a building in Mysore for purely charitable work, please let us know!
Other than that, and aside from the obvious funding needs of all charities, an open mind and putting aside the "what's in it for me" when it comes to donating or volunteering. For example, we have a group of young volunteers from Infosys who are taking a proactive role in the development of our kids — education, social, everything. Something we really need as a resource. Equally important, they want to work with us instead of imposing their will on us or simply doing things their way. Teamwork, that's key.
Q What's next?
TK More of the same. We intend to leverage on the foundation we have in India and continue what we are doing. The easy yet unfortunate factor is that, in any part of India, there are hundreds of thousands of destitute kids and women needing help. The hard part is finding the neediest, and the neediest who want most to change their lives. If the opportunity arises to go elsewhere, we would definitely consider it, as long as doing so does not detract from existing programs.
Our model seems simple: providing basic needs to those (especially kids) who don't have even the basics—food, shelter, medical, education. By doing this, we have found that, over time, the rest—socialization skills, extracurricular interests, new friends, healthy bodies, independent thinking—follows, as people from the community begin to want to participate. It's that first step —getting a kid off the street or away from the slum, away from abusive parents or back on track to a healthy life — that is the toughest (because it requires the biggest change and faces the most resistance from society), and it's the step we focus on. From there, any kid can reach his or her potential in life, whatever that may be. We don't focus on only the "best and brightest" destitute, we take in the destitute who want to be with us—fat, skinny, smart, dumb, happy, sad, math geek, artist, angel, rascal — long as they make an effort. The result, we hope, is that the "untouchables," the outcasts, those stepped on and shunned by their society, get to be human beings again.
You can read more about Operation Shanti's operations on the OS Blog.
Before/after photos of children ©Tracy Kunichika