Written By: Rakshaa Venkatraman (Grade 11) and Shruti Pathak (Grade 12)
While COVID-19 has wreaked havoc around the world and led to unpredictable change, the pandemic has also brought out people’s generosity and kindness. Around the country, communities and organizations are coming together to serve people affected by COVID-19. The efforts seen in the Washington DC metro area, which includes Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland, are no different.
When the pandemic hit in March, the DC chapter of Sewa International (Sewa DC), together with Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh and other local community organizations, initiated a collective attempt to serve the community during these unprecedented times. Sewa DC engaged over 300 volunteers in several projects, ranging from supplying necessities, such as food and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), to providing temporary housing for stranded international students.
Sewa is a Sanskrit word that means selfless service, according to Sewa DC coordinator Atul Kulkarni.
“Many people are affected and need help during this pandemic, and it is our responsibility to help them,” Kulkarni said. “The basic motto of Sewa is to help any community member who needs it. In whatever possible way we can help, we will.”
“Meals and Groceries” Program – The Start of Sewa DC’s COVID-19 Relief Efforts
Sewa DC had been working in the DC metro area well before the pandemic hit. They had an established meal delivery program, called Meals and Groceries, where volunteers served hot meals to the homeless at multiple shelters every week. However, the crisis dramatically increased the community’s needs, and volunteers tailored the existing Meals and Groceries project to meet the new demands.
For instance, many essential workers lacked access to PPE, some lost jobs, and others did not have access to necessities like food, water, and shelter. The situation was especially tough for many international students who suddenly found themselves without shelter when universities closed their dormitories, and international flights were canceled.
Since COVID-19 hit, homelessness increased by 40 to 45% nationwide, resulting in a total of 800,000+ homeless Americans, as explained by Dr. Brendan O’Flaherty, a professor of economics at Columbia University. The rise in homelessness may be a result of the steep spike in unemployment and economic recession. Community Solutions, a non-profit organization aiming to end homelessness, explains that the homeless are at a much higher risk of suffering from COVID-19. Encampments and shelters are common living situations for the homeless. These places are generally crowded and lack adequate sanitary resources. Unfortunately, the dangers of this are drastic, and the lack of safe conditions leads to a higher rate of COVID-19 contraction and transmission. Many within the homeless population also have underlying medical conditions, heightening the risk of death due to the virus.
Troubles were increasing, and the Sewa DC community saw this as a reason to expand their food delivery program to assist more people, along with added programs for job support, counseling, PPE donation, and more. Since March, the volunteers increased their meal delivery services from two homeless shelters to over 30. Meal provision was desperately needed, and Sewa DC quickly responded; volunteers provided over 80 meals each week.
“The COVID situation provided us a unique opportunity to use our social work experience to expand and serve more people.” – Atul Kulkarni (Sewa DC Coordinator)
The work of the Sewa DC community is monumental in providing food for homeless shelters. Volunteers contact and take requests from various homeless shelters in DC and the surrounding areas of Maryland and Virginia, and then either provide the food themselves or coordinate with local restaurants to deliver food. The meals themselves vary according to the shelters’ requests but include protein and healthy carbohydrate components. Some examples of food donated include sandwiches, pizza, home-cooked meals, Indian food, and more. From March through May, a group of nearly 70 Sewa DC volunteers (specific to Meals and Groceries) worked with over 20 organizations and 16 individual families to deliver over 1000 hot meals.
From March through May, Sewa DC volunteers delivered over 1,000 hot meals to homeless shelters in the DC metro area during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to delivering hot meals to shelters, the volunteers also donated groceries. This service was not only for homeless shelters but also to individual families and neighborhoods affected by the COVID-induced recession. Before the pandemic hit, Sewa DC organized an annual food drive around Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. As part of this Diwali Food Drive, volunteers collected and donated over 10,000 pounds of rice each year. This year, they decided to expand the drive to give canned goods and groceries, in addition to rice. Volunteers donated groceries to many shelters as well as individual families in need. In total, Sewa DC donated 1,200 pounds of groceries.
Relief Efforts Continued with Supporting Stranded International Students, Immigrants, and Essential Workers
International students were particularly affected by the pandemic, as they did not have places to stay due to the closure of their dorms and could not return to their homes due to flight closures. Sewa DC assisted dozens of international students and 19 international travelers in need of meals, prescriptions, and groceries. To help these students and travelers, Sewa DC organized their stay in a hotel for ten weeks and provided meals and groceries. They did this with the help of nearby volunteers from various community organizations. Several local hotel owners generously provided free rooms for students in need.
“The smiles on the faces of those children when I delivered the food was enough motivation to keep going … we knew we were making an impact” -Vimla Rangwani (Sewa DC volunteer)
Furthermore, the volunteers came to know of a Bhutanese immigrant community consisting of about 40 families, many who had lost their jobs during the pandemic. Sewa DC volunteers provided these families 600 pounds of groceries in May and will continue to receive them as needed. Additionally, 47 volunteers provided tutoring for 105 students from the Bhutanese immigrant community. Apart from this, they also arranged four webinars on health, finance, and career advice, specifically targeting immigrant communities.
The volunteers also showed their support and gratitude towards first responders such as medical professionals and firefighters. They arranged meals on specific days for these people, and in one hospital, they organized a nine-week meal service program. The volunteers donated over 1,900 masks and face shields to local hospitals as of May; such protective equipment is crucial to protecting medical professionals from the virus. Adults, as well as many middle and high school students, made these masks together. Vimla Rangwani said that she initially became involved with Sewa DC to encourage her children to volunteer; her family volunteered together for these projects, showing how these volunteer efforts unified people of all ages towards service.
Sewa’s COVID-19 Helpline: A Bridge Between Volunteers and Those in Need
An initiative that started as a small group of 15 volunteers eventually grew into a community of more than 45 organizations and over 300 volunteers. This success begs the question as to how such a large project was organized. One of the main ways that the volunteers learned about where help was needed was through a COVID-19 helpline. This helpline, managed by trained adults, high school students, and college students, provided emotional support, medical advice, legal support, and responded to requests for help. The helpline helped over 50 people in May alone. Essentially, the helpline allowed people to call in and seek advice or support for any difficult situation. For example, uninsured people could call the helpline and receive medical advice from a team of physicians. The helpline also acted as a bridge to the multitude of other resources Sewa DC and other local community organizations offered.
What’s Next for Sewa DC
This relief effort was by no means a simple feat, and there were many challenges, such as a lack of sufficient resources, volunteers, and miscommunications. Although the volunteers provide meals to around 30 homeless shelters, there are at least 50 in their area, and supporting all of them would require more resources and volunteers. Keeping up the motivation and execution of plans has always been a challenge, especially as there are still many communities the volunteers feel they cannot reach yet, such as the uninsured and indigent. Nevertheless, volunteers’ enthusiasm remains high. Kulkarni said that the best way to overcome these challenges is by viewing them as opportunities. Sewa DC volunteers continue to work hard, aiming to create a common platform that holistically serves people in need.
Indeed, by working collectively on multiple service projects, the Hindu community of the Washington DC metro tackled numerous aspects of the crisis and maximized the community’s relief effort. A single person or entity could not have accomplished this alone. The value of cooperation can is evident in difficult times like these when people work hand in hand to keep the community afloat. By understanding the needs of our communities, we can solve numerous problems and create change together.
“There is always something more we can do.” – Atul Kulkarni (Sewa DC Coordinator)
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“US Job Losses Due to COVID-19 Highest since Great Depression.” CIDRAP, 8 May 2020, www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2020/05/us-job-losses-due-covid-19-highest-great-depression.
Kellogg, Kristin. “Analysis on Unemployment Projects 40-45% Increase in Homelessness This Year.” Community Solutions, 2 July 2020, community.solutions/analysis-on-unemployment-projects-40-45-increase-in-homelessness-this-year.“COVID-19 and Homelessness.” Community Solutions, 22 June 2020, community.solutions/covid-19-and-homelessness.