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The hand that feeds… Meet Vaishnavee Balaji

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As a young girl she used to visit Anbu Illam – an orphanage and spend time with the kids, there was a learning, she found out that you don’t need money to help people, at times spending useful time and effort will be worth it.

She and her friends made it a habit to go, teach the kids some elementary math and sometimes English to the wards of the orphanage. Years later, the same girl would continue to take efforts to make people happy with a pack of food, and yes all she has is the effort and the time that goes into the act of charity. Probably why we often hear people saying Time is money and this story is a testimony to that fact.

Subramania Bharathi said “Oruvanuku unavillaiyenil jagathinai azhithiduvom” translates to Destroy the world if even a single person doesn’t have food. The man was far ahead in his vision, unfortunately he didn’t live to see India free. Its altogether another scenario if he was alive and saw what the country has come to.

I personally believe that the country is great inspite of the news that surrounds you on the media everyday. In this series of meeting inspiring people today we have a special person who is a social entrepreneur sans any account books, or a P/L statement, and you will know why as you read along.

A teacher changed tracks and for once it is not without reason. Vivekananda said “So long as the millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold every person a traitor who, having been educated at their expense, pays not the least heed to them!”

Meet Vaishnavee Balaji, the face of Food Bank in Coimbatore. In under a year and over 100 Food drives, she and her team of volunteers have been blazing a trail in their own way impacting lives and making it happen for those underprivileged with atleast one meal a day.

December 18th was a red lettered day for Food Bank Coimbatore, not that it would have mattered but yes doing the 100th drive is phenomenal in a way and in a short span of time.

So there are almost 80 people in there at the venue the VOC park, all set to cook their way to feed the hungry in different parts of the city.
Vaishnavee Balaji is in full swing, all her volunteer turned friends of this drive are connections from Facebook and social media, and this is one occasion they get to meet offline and make a change.

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That day marks a milestone, and everyone in the team is happy and they are all looking forward to the next mega drive which will happen shortly…

I catch up with Vaishnavee to know what keeps her going and how it all came about. As much as her team of volunteers, I got to first touch base with her on Facebook. Social Media perhaps has a point to make. This is a story on social entrepreneurship in a way… So lets listen in!

On her starting Food Bank Coimbatore and the first drive…

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I came to know about the Chennai Food Bank and earlier I used to work on my own way like in my childhood, visit the orphanage or help needy people with whatever I could. I thought this is one nice way to do it better. Even during my teaching stint, we had helped some people with our resources. I always thought giving people the time would matter more.

I remember the the first drive of Food Bank was on the Marudhamalai Road from Lawley Road to Marudhamalai. We were five – me, my friend, my mom and friends mom and another person who joined us, we had home cooked food and then we went on our way in search of people who we thought should be given food. We went all the way to Marudhamalai and finished those 20 food packets that we had.

Your Inspiration…

Even before I started being a part of Food Bank I have always been inspired by my father, I have never seen him work only for his family or only for his own, you get what I mean it was a big family for him. I have seen him go the extra mile to help everyone in his circle, both friends and extended family of relatives. That meant a lot to me and I imbibed that to the core. So earlier days I used to got to Anbu Illam and teach kids, its about our way of looking at it. It’s not necessary that we should help only with money, quite a lot of times effort on our part may be more valuable than money.

I have always been unhappy seeing people on the road, the sights of beggars and sometime even the begging kids have made the most impact on me. Once I saw a kid looking very tired with a woman and I wanted to help the kid out, so I called 1098.

It’s sad that the lines don’t go through the way you want or why they are in the first place. I had tried over 50 times to get through and all the time someone took it said hello and kept the phone down! Hope this is working fine now. Then I took the help of my friend whose husband was in the police and that’s how we tried to do something. But before the police could arrive the woman and the child disappeared. You can see the issue on my FB wall.

The initial days for Food Bank Coimbatore,

Ok, initially it took sometime to get on the ground, my friend who was with me left of Chennai, and then I worked on the social media and that’s how I have so many people involved.

Till date whoever we have come across are all people who we got to know via FB or a WhatsApp group. Its also not that whoever have come in have stayed but we did persevere in the sense we didn’t not give up and it materialised that way.

Identifying the needy…

So we have this un-written rule: we can’t make people lazy, our target was only those who are mentally challenged, specially abled, elderly people. In case we don’t meet such people on a drive we will continue going over 10 kms to find that one person and deliver that one packet of food. Now that we have done over 100 drives like that, we have the whole list of activities on our Facebook page. It gives you an understanding of where people are in a way and who will need our support.

Has anyone said no to your food…

It happened with a mentally challenged person and he used scold us with all kinds of words. Still our people continue to go and give them food because we know they are not in a position to appreciate or understand the way we want to. On the other side we have been asked to bring ‘rasam sadham’ or ‘thair sadham’ the next time.

Tell us how do you prepare for a drive

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So we have this big 200 plus members in WhatsApp group and also an active Facebook group. We decide on a common date so that more people can participate and then we decide to do the drive so we can impact the maximum people. It’s always like this, we meet at a common point and then disburse to go in our directions to distribute the food. During the 100th drive since it was a mega drive and we decided to cook we had a bigger coverage also. Otherwise normally its the food prepared from the volunteers home that is brought packed and then we go about distributing. Its not necessary that you have to bring food. You could come as a volunteer, be a part of the distribution also.

The growth of Food Bank Coimbatore

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We are very happy that we started with 3 people and have now grown to over volunteers on our FB page. We had over 83 volunteers turn up for the 100th drive. And from 20 food packets to today we have done drives delivering 2000 food packets in this short span of time.

On how is it being funded…

You would be surprised to know there is absolutely no money transaction at our end. The volunteers take the travel cost and also prepare home cooked food. We join or meet at a point and decide on how to go about the drive. This is why I am very happy about this and more importantly you don’t need funds to actually help people.

During our 100th drive, we got the gas cylinders and whatever was necessary as sponsored and there was no money involved though some may like to offer money we make it appoint to take it as a sponsor for provisions or things like that. We do tell them they can make a payment at some of our stores who we deal with for provisions at a better cost. We had a deadline for the 100th drive and we got all the things by that time. All the things vegetables, provisions and stove and vessels all were sponsored in kind by the public.

But that’s how the Food Bank has been designed. In fact that is one of the strengths of this movement. Either way you can spare your time, if possible also contribute in kind for the food drive which makes it easy.

An incident you cannot forget…

One day I was travelling to drop my kid, and I saw an old lady – a paati infact with a load on her head and waiting in front of a house. May be she was waiting for the lady in the house to come and help her or give her something.  So I got down and helped her get the load off and she was like “Paapa edhavadhu sapda venum”

I got some water and some three slices of bread from the house nearby and gave her. She had and was almost in tears and said, “Paapa I would have died if not for this”

That changed the whole way of me looking at life, if I look back I didn’t spend any money at that time to help that lady. It was the timely effort if I may call that, I am sure we can do that quite often in our lives.

On what 2017 is all about…

We have decided to do our extra bit, we are giving away a tricycle to a specially abled person. This year we want to make sure that atleast 100 people don’t go hungry forever and will do what it takes to make it happen. It could be training them or find jobs for them.

On the specially challenged and mentally challenged people we have to work on this, we just cant blame the government  all the time, the society also has to play its part. We are working on how to get things done.

We are spreading our cheers all over and this time we are targeting the second most important thing in a human life – shelter.

Youthful India is our new venture or initiative if I may call it, inspiring the younger generation on the local level, there are plans for more activities, its all plans as we speak and will wait for it to come to shape and take it to the ground. We believe the young minds should be taught about these things in life.

The recognitions that have come her way…

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There have been some wonderful recognitions that have come our way. Its actually the team that deserves it, In fact we have been lucky to go receive the award as a team whenever possible, even if I am receiving its on behalf of the team.

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The Rotary Award is pretty close to my heart because we shared the moment with some of the really great names. Then the GEM of India award, and the one from VER Foundation – the Abdul Kalam Award gave us a lot of inspiration and encouragement to go all the way, continue the work.

On how her family helps her…

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My husband is a business man and he shares the load of responsibility for the kids when am on a Food Drive, this help me do what I want. I am lucky this way and they have helped me go the extra mile in helping others.

Anything you want to share to those who would like to join this effort.

Its very simple and we would love to keep it simple. We would love to impact as many lives as possible. Look out for the next drive cook and pack some lunch, thats a start. Your very presence can help us do better. And in case you want to contact us please feel free to contact via any of these numbers – 9944876331, 9790310505, 8489996990, 9994661909. You could also get in touch with us at our FB Group.

Photo Courtesy: Vaishnavee Balajee

Senthilkumar

Senthilkumar Rajappan is the Founder Blogger of YourCoimbatore.com, He is presently Head - Publisher Development and Content Strategy at InStream adtech. Loves blogging on auto, tech and books. Also runs www.rsenthilkumar.com

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