Written By: Shrivatsa Kulkarni and Akshat Maheshwari
The current COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed many lives. Even the smallest aspects of our lives, things that we took for granted, such as the way we shop, use public transportation, and meet with our family and friends, have been completely altered. On a more financial level, many individuals have suffered from unemployment and, as a result, are unable to access necessities like housing and food. Various groups have taken a stand by contributing to their community in this time of crisis. In the Indianapolis and Northern Kentucky region, Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) and Sewa International are working together to provide support to their community during the ongoing COVID pandemic.
The Chetak Vibhag, including the Indianapolis and Northern Kentucky HSS region, is part of a diverse interfaith alliance in Carmel, Indiana. Together, the interfaith group raised over $21,000 for struggling families in the Carmel Clay School District. J.R. Sandadi, an active member of HSS in Carmel, commented on behalf of locals, “We did not even realize the extent of its [COVID] impact on Carmel families. Many assumed that in an affluent suburb like ours, families were not struggling”. It has now come to the attention of locals that many students receive subsidized lunches because of their families’ low annual/monthly income. However, when schools were closed on March 13th due to the pandemic, these students were left without access to food; their families could not afford the extra groceries. With changing views and an exponentially growing support for the cause, in this time of darkness, the interfaith group was able to bring light to the situation. They strived to identify specific issues that plagued their community and its respective residents. This established unity between the diverse interfaith groups, allowing them to quickly raise a significant amount of money within just ten days. These efforts helped provide meals to students from the beginning of April till the very last day of school in May.
J.R. Sandadi recounts his time in the interfaith coalition: “It was difficult at first to assign tasks and roles to each organization during the first two weeks, figuring out how much to raise, and how we would go about it. After we determined that, this entire process was smooth sailing, and there were no other hurdles to overcome.”
The Chetak Vibhag went above and beyond in their quest to provide aid amid a pandemic. Raising $21,000 to feed low-income students who no longer had access to subsidized lunches was only one of the many impactful projects initiated by the Chetak Vibhag. They partnered with other Hindu dharmic organizations to also deliver weekly Indian gourmet meals to 7 metro Indianapolis area hospital healthcare workers in hopes of providing hardworking COVID-19 warriors with a helping of fresh, hot food. In total, they provided around 900 meals in 2.5 months and delivered handmade thank you letters. Out of those 900 meals, J.R. Sandadi personally went to deliver 400 of them to the healthcare workers.
J.R. Sandadi explained the process of this fundraiser: “Because of COVID, many of the restaurants in our communities closed their dining services, primarily Indian restaurants, and they were losing a lot of business. We thought that it would be a win-win situation for both the restaurants and the hospital healthcare workers. First, we found donors who would donate the money. Then, we would take that money and give it to restaurants, who would then prepare the meals. Finally, we would deliver them to the hospitals.”
Similarly, the Chetak Vibhag, on behalf of HSS, gave a small token of appreciation to the North American Logistics Operations (NALO) division of Eli Lilly and Company by delivering 60 lunch boxes. J.R. Sandadi states that “We know that pharmaceutical companies play a big role to combat the pandemic, whether it is distributing test kits or developing vaccines and therapeutic drugs. In the Indianapolis region, the biggest pharmaceutical company is Eli Lilly, and we just wanted to show our gratitude and appreciation for them.”
With the continuous shortage of masks in our communities, 20 volunteers from the Hindu community of Indianapolis started sewing handmade masks. In total, they created around 1500 masks, most of which were donated to senior citizens and first responders. Additionally, they also delivered 100 of these masks and 50 lunch boxes to the firefighters and EMS staff in the city of Carmel to thank them for their hard work and positive impact in their communities.
Furthermore, Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh contacted the Nepali community in Louisville, Kentucky to offer a helping hand in this time of crisis. The majority of the Nepalese community work in blue-collar jobs, and due to the pandemic, they lost their jobs and were not able to provide for their families. As a result, the Chetak Vibhag raised $1500 within their own shakha families and went to Patel Brothers to buy packs of rice, atta, daal, and vegetables for 15 local Nepali families. Moreover, a donation of $1500 was contributed towards the Louisville Mayor COVID-19 relief funds.
In Indiana alone, 1 million people, including 1 in 5 children, desperately struggle to find their next meal. This year, due to the global pandemic, food banks and pantries are dramatically increasing their meal requests. Furthermore, the food banks and pantries have canceled their large packing events to prevent the spread of the virus, causing them to have lower supplies of food than usual. For the past four years, the Chetak Vibhag has partnered with the Million Meal Movement to help package and distribute meals to families who need them. In June, with the help of 30 volunteers, they packed a total of 9196 meals in 2 hours. Each meal contained rice, dry vegetables, and protein powder.
J.R. Sandadi explains the entire procedure: “It was very interesting. It was similar to an assembly line: The first person put the rice, the second person put the vegetables, the third person put the protein powder, the fourth person vacuum sealed it, and the fifth person packed it into a box. Then, the Million Meal Movement distributed these packages to inner cities in Indianapolis. All the families have to do is boil the contents of the package in water, and they have one self-contained meal. It has the starch, carbohydrates, vegetables, and protein – all in one package.”
The Chetak Vibhag has also delivered groceries to stranded university students at IUPUI (Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis). With the closure of the university, many international students were financially struggling to find housing and food. The help from HSS volunteers allowed these students to worry about one less thing in this entire situation.
There were many additional efforts taken by the Hindu community in Indianapolis. Shivray Shakha, part of the Chetak Vibhag, organized a fundraising campaign through Sewa International to fund meals for students at Columbus East High School who rely on the school’s provided food program during the summer. They also helped healthcare workers and their families at Hospice of South Central Indiana by providing care packages. Despite the many tangible goods, monetary donations were also made to Hamilton County Harvest Food Bank and Family Promise of Greater Indianapolis. Finally, in collaboration with the other interfaith groups in Carmel, HSS volunteers furnished an apartment, greatly helping those under financial burden.
After helping out with numerous causes, J.R. Sandadi states that “It was really amazing to see how much impact a small meal or donation can have. It truly goes a long way for them.” Despite having to overcome great financial upheavals in providing for first responders and those who were in need, the end result was truly gratifying for both parties. In struggling times, past, present, or future, it is imperative that we come together as one unified congregation. It is generous and kind people like these who bind together and support society to their best extent, thereby allowing the world to be altered in remarkable ways.
The Carmel Interfaith Alliance includes the following organizations:
Orchard Park Presbyterian Church, St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Merciful Help Center, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church and School, Carmel Youth Assistance Program, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Philoptochos, Knights of Columbus, Congregation Beth-El-Zedeck, Carmel Church, Carmel Christian Church, St. Peter’s Unified Church of Christ, Cornerstone Lutheran Church, Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, Al-Azhar Foundation, New Joy, Al-Salam Foundation, Carmel Cares, and God is Love.
Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh partnered with the following organizations to deliver weekly meals to the hospitals in Indianapolis: Hindu Temple of Central India, BAPS Mandir, Ekal Vidyalaya, Art of Living, Sewa International – Indianapolis Chapter, Greater Indianapolis Telugu Association, Maharashtra Sneha Mandal Indiana, and Mallige Kannada Koota.