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In Conversation With Nalini Sharma And Reema Chandra

Nirmala Garimella

AIF or the American India Foundation, founded in 2001 at the initiatives of President Bill Clinton, is dedicated to the mission of accelerating social and economic changes in India.  It works with the vision of contributing to building an India where all people can gain access to education, health care, and livelihoods opportunities. In December 2007, the leadership council of AIF in Boston put together the 1st major fund raising effort for AIF. The Gala event was attended by more than 300 people in the Boston area and raised an impressive amount of $300,000. Soon after the event, an invitation to join a Leadership Site Visit trip to India was organized by AIF and in January 2008, Nalini Sharma and Reema Chandra, long time residents of Boston and ardent AIF supporters arrived in Mumbai and were joined with a group of about 20 others, all with strong ties to AIF.
The two made a trip to Patna, Guwahati and Bhubhaneswar to meet with beneficiaries of AIF programs.  In addition to these three cities, they also kicked off the first fundraising efforts in India at a dinner hosted by Sanjay Nayar, CEO, Citibank India and co-chair of the AIF Advisory Council in India.

Nalini and Reema share the account of their trip first hand:

Give us a brief background and your involvement with AIF

Nalini Sharma: I'm a resident here in the Boston area for the past 26 years.  My husband Raj and I have been involved with several causes and philanthropies during this time. In looking for a conduit to extend that philanthropy to India, we came upon AIF a few years ago.  We've been involved with AIF events in the Boston area since 2002 and in 2004, we organized a fund raiser/awareness event at our home where we raised $25,000. In Dec of 2007, along with several other involved supporters, we organized the 1st Boston Gala Fundraiser, which raised over $300,000.

 Reema Chandra : I have been in the United States for over 15 years now.  I live in Sharon, Massachusetts with my husband Amitabh Chandra and children Neil and Aeshna. While growing up in India, I was part of a generation that believed in bringing about socio-economic equality - whether on the college campus or outside. Amitabh and I found AIF to be a most effective means of channeling our philanthropy towards India and we started our partnership with it in 2003.  We have participated in organizing fundraising for various projects including Orphans of Tsunami hit areas in India in 2005, where we raised $20,000 to fund pre-schooling for 150 children for 2 years.  Amitabh and I are in the leadership council of Boston chapter of AIF which hosted its first Boston Gala in the December of 2007 raising over $300,000.

 During your hectic tour to these places what did you experience first hand?

Reema Chandra:
The issue that shook me the most was lack of primary health care in those segments of the society that has somehow not been a participant in the torrid GDP growth rate that rest of India has been seeing.AIF programs in the public health address issues directly linked to prevalence and eradication of HIV/AIDS.  I learnt from Dr. Sunil Mehra, (MAMTA, AIF’s partner NGO in healthcare programs), that how critical it is to have a life cycle approach to women’s health with a focus on prevention and treatment of mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS.  Rema Nanda, the Director of Public Health programs at AIF, India, updated me with invaluable information that needs timely intervention for these programs to have optimal results.  AIF and MAMTA together support programs that enables local PHCs (primary healthcare centers) to engage in providing quality pre and post-natal care and public health education programs to the underserved women. Amongst all the inspiring stories, one that particularly stuck with me was that of an illiterate woman who, at the initiatives and training of MAMTA, now runs a home grown PHC that educates and supports healthcare needs of women from the surrounding villages.

Two other livelihood programs that are supported by AIF in partnership with Nidan (Safai Mitra project) and Samman Foundation (Rickshaw Bank project), has had a similar impact on the lives of families of street sweepers and rickshaw pullers living in the slums of Patna. Sentiment of “self-respect” was rampant amongst the beneficiaries of both programs.

Similar was my experience in Bhubhaneswar where we visited two schools to witness the Digital Equalizer program where students shared with us a Powerpoint presentation that they had prepared for a project  made possible because of AIF.  Another moving experience for me was to interact with the children of LAMP program. These children get to stay in hostel and continue their education while their parents migrate to other corners far away from home to earn their livelihood. 

 Nalini Sharma: What we had over the next five days was simply an amazing experience. We made field visits to several AIF partners in the Livelihood, Education,Public Health and Digital equalizer programs in Patna, Guwahati and Bhubhaneswar. In Patna, the NGOs we met with were Nidan which was involved with Livelihood programs and Mamta which was involved with Public Health.  In Guwahati, we visited with beneficiaries of another Livelihood program Grant Recipient - Center for Rural Development which operated a Rickshaw Bank and micro financing program through which the rickshaw pullers were awarded loans for a rent-to-own rickshaw program. In Bhubaneshwar, we visited 2 government run schools where the Digital Equalizer program was implemented. This is an AIF run program where computers, digital technology and training to utilize these are provided to children who attend these schools, typically economically disadvantaged children who would otherwise have no access to such facilities.We also met with children of migrant workers who are left in the care of hostels set up by  a local NGO as part of the LAMP  - Learning and Migration Program.  While the parents of these children are off seeking employment in distant places, the children are taken care of for 6 to 9 months in the hostels and are provided an education which otherwise would be interrupted.

 What did you carry back with you on your return.( impressions)

 Nalini Sharma: The dedication and passion and hard work of the partner NGOs is truly inspiring. Meeting with the men women and children whose lives AIF is touching was a moving experience. In talking with them, it was heartwarming to see and be assured that we are making a difference in a positive way. Watching the AIF executives and their teams- both the US based and the Indian counterpart, in action was truly inspiring. Their leadership, dedication and passion for the cause was so evident every moment. We got to witness first hand, how and why AIF is the stellar organization that it is and we are so proud and honored to be associated with it.Reema and I have come back with hundreds of pictures, hours of video tape and immeasurable memories of the Leadership visit. We hope to share these and spread the word. The experience may have been brief, but the impact, I am certain, will be long lasting.

 Reema Chandra: While on the leadership trip, I was equally impressed with Brian, a Service Corp. fellow (young college graduates volunteer their time for a year working in AIF’s Service Corp Fellowship program) when I discovered that, instead of having a cushy life at home in Wisconsin, he had chosen to teach children of a very poor village in an eastern state of India. His commitment to contribute to AIF’s work in this manner moved me tremendously.   After meeting with each of these men, women and children on this journey, I came back home humbled, hopeful, pleased and resolute.  Humbled because of their honesty, happiness and great self-respect at whatever little resources they have.  I am hopeful because there is a sincere desire in the minds of both parties (AIF and the beneficiaries) to work towards a better life. Pleased because I had the privilege to experience firsthand the dedication of other leaders in the group, commitment of AIF and partner NGO officials who accompanied us on this trip and to see a gradual fulfillment of AIF’s mission in each of these sites. I felt resolute in my beliefs that comprehensive efforts of AIF, NGOs and people like us, can make a great difference in their lives.   

 What do you hope to do next to carry on AIF’s work here in Boston?

Reema Chandra: Since my return, it has been difficult for me to take my mind off of those hopeful smiles that I had seen on the faces of children in Patna, Guwahati and Bhubneshwar. Being on the leadership council of Boston chapter of AIF, I hope to share this story with people in Boston who are interested in working towards growth and progress for all Indians.Just last week Nalini and I were invited to talk about women empowerment at the Harvard University.  It was quite impressive to see those young minds taking interests in issues that are going to be closely affecting their lives in future.  We also encourage youths of today (particularly of Indian Diaspora) to draw their inspiration from such life-lessons and make an effort to get involved.

Nalini Sharma: Our hope is to develop a strong Boston Chapter and cultivate grass roots support for the organization.  We hope to have several meetings over the course of the year to discuss AIF's programs and generate ideas for future projects.  Our goal is to involve a broad cross section of Boston society - teachers students, professionals and others from all walks of life. Planning for the 2nd annual Boston Gala is underway.  We expect to hold the event in November 2008.

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