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Lokvani Talks To Sankara Health Foundation

Ranjani Saigal

An engineer by training, Shri Rajesh is one of the founders of, and President of Sankara Healthcare Foundation (www.giftofhealth.us) whose goal is to bring health and wellness to everyone, here and in India. Shri Rajesh is also a volunteer for Kanchi Kamakoti Seva Foundation and is involved in various activities as directed by His Holiness Jagadguru Sri Sri Sankara Vijayendra Sarasvati Mahaswami of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam. 

Smt. Deepa Rajesh is a Business Analyst by profession and also a founder and treasurer of Sankara Healthcare Foundation. She is involved in various dharmic community activities including teaching the Gita and slokams to students, both children and adults, in the Boston area. She has founded a new initiative called Medha to help integrate special needs children into the mainstream. She is Sankara's main coordinator in the Boston area working with the different volunteer groups to coordinate our service deliveries to the beneficiaries. Check out the video interview.

Could you tell us a little about Sankara Healthcare Foundation(SHF) and what motivated you to start it? 

Thank you Ranjani and Anil and the Lokvani team for taking the time to talk to us.

SHF was the result of the blessings of His Holiness Sri Jayendra Sarasvatii Svamigal of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam. In 2010, he gave me the task of helping with Women’s health in south India and encouraged me in 2011 to start a foundation in the USA to fulfill this mission. 

It was started as Sankara Cancer Foundation(SCF). Our original goal was to focus on urban and rural women’s cancer screenings only and focus on the Trichy region of Tamil Nadu.

What is the main charter of SHF?

When SCF was started in 2012, breast and cervical cancer was on the rise in India. The mandate was to help with cancer screening for the underprivileged women in rural south India. 

In 2015, His Holiness Sri Sankara Vijayendra Sarasvati Svamigal of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam blessed the organization with new name Sankara HEALTHCARE Foundation and also expanded our scope to serve many more hospitals in India, and more importantly also serve the needy in the United States.

While the original mandate was still cancer screening and treatment, the scope was expanded to include other health areas such as Prosthetics, Cardiac Care, Eye Care, Dialysis, Diabetes care, nutrition, etc..

The flagship project which we have been actively fundraising for, is called WOW (Wellness on Wheels). This is building up a mobile health unit equipped with a digital mammogram, facilities for cervical exam as well as for general health checkups. The plan is for this bus to travel to rural villages to help screen for these diseases and then prescribe follow up treatment. This is currently being implemented in a small scale using a rented Mammobus once a month, but unable to scale.

It has been a long journey fundraising for this and by God’s grace, in 2019, we raised enough to start the implementation of this project. However, with COVID, this has been delayed. Hope to continue the implementation once the economy starts up again.

You started Project HEAL with a focus on Plant based foods . Why the focus on plant based foods?  Can they provide complete nutrition? Our scriptures place a lot of value on milk, yogurt and butter. Are they wrong?

I would suggest that everyone watch “Forks over Knives”. It is a wonderful, scientific and fact based documentary around the lives and work of two physicians, who incidentally grew up in animal farms in the Northeast.

The simple fact is that - the dairy industry, and the industrialized dairy today cause more harm to our health, let alone the blatant cruelty to the animals they exploit. What we drink today as milk has no resemblance to the dairy we consumed as children. So, no - when the scriptures talk about dairy, it is definitely not this dairy that they talk about. So, we will be fooling ourselves into creating that equivalence at our own peril. I would say - you don’t have to take my word for it. Read about the allergy and health issues with dairy, and more importantly, give a plant-based diet a sincere try. After all, who can advocate for your health better than you?

Our pujas in temples in India start with Go-puja (worshipping of the cow). Srimad Bhagavad Gita has numerous references to pancha maha yagnas (fivefold path of service) where bhoota yagna (caring for other non-human life forms) is considered as mandatory. Given all this, how can we, with a clear conscience, serve this type of dairy in the name of anna daanam (food donation) which is the highest of all daanams (forms of charity)?

And, to the point of protein. It is the most commonly asked question. Dr. Esselstyn or Dr. Campbell, I’m not sure which one of them says that in the documentary - the source of all protein is plants. Animals just transform and process the protein. There is no reason to not go directly to the source.

Another resource that I would like to point people to is pcrm.org. They have done a really good set of studies on this topic and have a 21 day challenge and resources for those who are considering changes to their diet.

Why Project HEAL for homeless shelters?

Our goal was simple. We wanted to serve in the US, where we live, work, earn and form a community. And as a healthcare organization, there is really not a lot of work a small org like ours can do to improve people’s lives in the health side. It is also a well-known fact that homelessness is a real problem.

After speaking with physicians and others in the community, we picked helping improve health outcomes for the homeless as a worthwhile project. There are many reasons people become homeless, but one important reason they tend to stay there (or cycle in and out of homelessness) is just bad health - and not getting good nutrition. We wanted to solve that in our own unique way.

How has COVID impacted your work?

As far as the main mandate goes, for 2020, we had planned to start the build out of the mammobus or WOW. However, that is going to be delayed because of COVID. We have to see if we can start this by the end of the year

As for HEAL, we have expanded our reach in BOSTON and Seattle as well as started up in the Bay Area, CA and St. Louis, MO. We have been getting some interest from people in other cities to start HEAL there. With His blessings, hope we can do that soon.

We have crossed 10,000 meal donations from Project HEAL in April. Our giving was significantly accelerated by COVID.
In all these cities, we have worked with restaurants to provide vegan meals to front liners in hospitals, rehab centers, nursing homes, as well shelters. This way, we have been able to help quite a few restaurants as well

Generous donations from donors have helped us serve restaurant cooked meals in all these places, given places were not open to home cooked food.

Seattle has traditionally (pre-covid) been home cooked meals for shelters provided aby wonderful volunteers, co-ordinated by our lead volunteer Archana Sunil

Now, slowly, a few shelters in Boston are opening up to home cooked food and we are slowly adopting the Seattle model, where applicable. We have, over the last few weeks, formed about 12-15 groups of wonderful volunteers from all parts of MA and even RI to help cook once/month for a shelter. We have 3 shelters that are open to taking home cooked food, and thanks to each of these groups, we are able to provide them with a healthy well balanced meal every weekend.

More people are looking to help, and as more shelters open up for home cooked food, we hope we can create more groups. 

Would like to give a big shout out to our different coordinators and all our wonderful volunteers. The one positive thing that came out of COVID is that we were able to form a wonderful community of amazing volunteers in various cities. They are all successful professionals, with families, still making time to serve our communities. If you want to serve, please reach out to us at heal@giftofhealth.us and we can put you in touch with one of our coordinators in these areas.

Archana Sunil - Seattle
Srividhya Ramesh - St. Louis
Vijay Shankar - CA
Deepa Subramanian - Boston

If you would like to start helping us in a new region, we would love that as well. Please reach out.

If you would like to donate, please go to www.giftofhealth.us

Thank you Ranjani, Anil and the Lokvani team for taking the time to talk to us.

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