By Himani Bhave and Inchara Kumar
The COVID-19 situation has turned the tables for many citizens across the US. The rise in unemployment has led to an increased demand for food from food banks and created an imbalance in society. “Food banks have been reporting a 40% increase in demand on average”, said Katie Fitzgerald, chief operating office at Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs nationwide. Walmart, Target, and other supermarkets are trying to help during this pandemic, but there is still a shortage of food to people in need. Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh volunteers led by Mahesh Chamaria from Dallas, Texas, have leaped into action and are trying to help alleviate the situation on a smaller scale.
Serving Doctors and Nurses:
In the early morning at Southwestern hospital in UT, when the doctors and nurses sat tired at the end of another long shift, a representative of HSS served 100 hot meals to the hospital staff. The doctors and nurses were grateful for this pleasant surprise and were happy to take a short break from their tiring and monotonous schedule to enjoy the food. A lot of hard work and planning went in to help organize, including packing various groceries into compact boxes that included a full meal and dairy products. HSS had taken it upon themselves to help hospitals across their community for lunch and dinner once a month.
“We were not there to have the direct experience of serving lunch and dinner to the hospitals, but all of us worked hard to show the doctors and nurses the community’s gratitude towards their effort through this hot lunch,” commented Mahesh Chamaria, an active HSS Swayamsevak who is heavily involved with the project. Southwestern hospital displayed their gratitude in emails of acknowledgment and appreciation for all the work HSS is doing to their community. The volunteers believe that during these difficult times, supporting the community will lift people’s spirits and help get past this pandemic.
Senior citizens bereft of help:
Senior citizens are one of the most vulnerable parts of our society; “8 out of 10 deaths from COVID-19 have been from those age 65 or older,” says Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, a family physician in Phoenix, Arizona. This community is susceptible to believing inaccurate information about COVID-19 through the internet and social media. Many have little financial and emotional support and are prone to stress due to the current pandemic. HSS has come up with an effective way to serve senior citizens in all aspects.
“When we thought about helping people through our food donation and distribution on a second level, we immediately thought about the senior citizens and together began to think of ways to help them.” Mahesh Chamaria says. The HSS volunteers identified various senior citizens communities within the state where help was needed. Next, they delivered groceries directly to senior citizens to reduce the travel necessary by them to receive support. Along with the grocery bags, they gave handmade cards with beautiful messages written by balas (children ages 9 to 12 years old). The grocery boxes last 15 to 20 days for a family. The same HSS volunteer group successfully delivered 80 cooked hot meals to senior citizens in another nearby community. “In shakha, we believe in a sense of gratitude through which we can give back to society.” Mahesh Chamaria says on behalf of all Shakha volunteers.
International College Students in need:
Due to the current COVID-19 situation, international students need a lot of help. They are unable to find a job on or off-campus. They are in dire need of money and groceries. HSS decided to take the initiative and reach out to them. “We put up a sign-up sheet in the universities so that we could reach out to the students that really needed help. The response was immediate- in just a few weeks, we managed to help deliver 40 to 50 pounds of groceries to about 200 hundred college students.” The volunteers realized that they could help so many more students through these grocery drives and scaled up their effort. They now deliver 140 large boxes weekly, including nutritious fruit and dairy products to the University of Texas Dallas and Arlington.
As time passed, deliveries began to be more frequent and widespread throughout the state of Texas. Volunteers faced many difficulties as more and more requests were coming in. “The biggest difficulty we faced during this operation was trying to get the grocery to the students on time. Once we picked the grocery from the hubs, we had to make sure they were delivered fast and effectively due to the various perishable dairy products that they contained.” Maheshji said. There was often a lack of space in cars to carry boxes, and it took 4-6 hours of driving to deliver all the groceries in one area. To overcome these difficulties, HSS Dallas coordinated with other shakas and organizations to implement an organized system to handle everyone’s needs effectively. Representatives from each shaka took care of planning the details (including the time and amount of boxes) and allocating 7-10 volunteers to different areas for the deliveries and hot meals.
Reaching out to Several Communities:
By having a more organized system, HSS volunteers were able to ‘divide and conquer’ and reach out to several needy communities in a more effective way. For example, many volunteers received information about a stranded Italian circus group in the middle of Dallas that had no access to resources nearby. HSS was able to serve 50 hot meals and donate 50 stitched masks to them. Volunteers also served hot meals to 13 families of senior citizens who were unable to leave their houses. “We feel very fortunate that we don’t have to struggle for meals, and we feel inclined to help others who don’t have any financial support or income,” says Mahesh Chamaria Ji.
Around 2000 meals have been served by HSS so far; however, the number of meals served does not account for how many meals were actually provided through food boxes and groceries. One delivery can provide 10-12 meals, and 750 food boxes can provide around 2000 meals. The numbers are expected to increase steadily as active swayamsevaks and sevikas from all shakas around Texas are working tirelessly to help those in need. Council members and hospitals displayed their gratitude in letters of acknowledgment and appreciation for all the work HSS volunteers are doing for their community.
Bringing smiles to people in their communities, the volunteers of HSS in Dallas show their dedication through their work and bring hope to frontline workers, senior citizens, students, and families struggling amidst these difficult times. The success of HSS projects continues to grow, lifting the spirits of those around them.
Nicole Spector “Coronavirus pandemic: How to help senior citizens” (https://www.nbcnews.com/better/lifestyle/coronavirus-pandemic-how-help-senior-citizens-ncna1190591)
Tami Luhby, CNN “Food banks struggle as demand explodes thanks to coronavirus layoffs” (https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/31/politics/food-banks-supplies-groceries-coronavirus/index.html)