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Giving The Gift Of Health In Seattle

Kesini Sunil

I come from a very service-oriented family on my mom’s side. Ever since I was little, my family has always made sure that I am exposed to a world outside of the bubble we live in, and that I’m always aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world, especially in vulnerable areas. When I was in third grade, I made frequent visits to a rural village in India, where my grandparents have built a school for the disadvantaged village children. My grandma  brought roads, electricity, and buses to the once completely remote village. Growing up and seeing the kind of impact she had on that village made me realize that this is what I want to end up doing as well. No matter how far I go in my education or my career, charity and service work is something that I have always wanted to be a part of, because I want to be able to make an impact and help those who need it regardless of how small or big that impact is.  I’ve been visiting our school for the last four years and organizing camps where I teach activities, arts, crafts, and alphabets to the kids there. I wanted to do more, learn more and perhaps make new friends in the process, experience new situations, and gain knowledge. With this in mind, I began volunteering with the Sankara Healthcare Foundation Inc. (https://www.GiftOfHealth.us)

The Seattle Chapter of SHF  (https://www.giftofhealth.us) was started in March of 2019. The foundation’s mission is to bring health and wellness to everyone through two focuses: bridging healthcare gaps by providing education and care (including cancer screening and treatments), prosthetics, diabetes screening, eye surgeries to eradicate preventable blindness, cardiac surgeries and dialysis treatments to name a few, to the needy parts of the population. At the same time, SHF promotes wellness and health by emphasizing plant-based diet and nutrition to all parts of society through the Healthy Eating and Living (HEAL) program. This year, I’ve been involved with the program through being a part of organizing and executing fundraising events. I helped execute a 5k run/walk, a Deepavali celebration, and a drama/Indian history camp for kids. Together, these events raised around $23,000 for Sankara – I’m glad to know these endeavors will be making a difference in the lives of the vulnerable and poor by providing treatments and prosthetic limbs to those who can’t afford it. I am glad that Sankara Healthcare Foundation gives me and my friends the opportunity to experience the joy of giving back in our own small way.

The most recent event I’ve been a part of is the launch of the HEAL (http://heal.giftofhealth.us) program in Seattle. The HEAL program’s goal is to emphasize a healthy and sustainable lifestyle that involves consuming only plant-based food. As part of HEAL, Sankara started a program to help the vulnerable that serves healthy, plant-based meals to the disadvantaged and homeless population in Boston through which they have quietly, and without fanfare, served over 3500 meals since the program’s inception in June 2018. Naturally, we wanted to start that program in my city as well. This launch was mainly directed by my mom, who is a big part of these Sankara events. I helped her gather multiple volunteers, and coordinate with a local Women’s Shelter whose nightly meals and a place to sleep were organized by the St. Peter’s Church. Since we wanted to serve a quality, balanced meal, we procured a menu which had adequate protein, vegetables, and carbohydrates for a healthy, diverse dinner. We then assigned each ingredient and meal to a volunteer. The ending food result was so captivating, my friend and I’s mouths were watering as we drove to the shelter with all the food in the back. The menu consisted of baked tofu, four variations of vegetable salads with tomatoes and corn, and two types of pastas, one made of wheat flour and one made out of chickpea flour, heavily seasoned and organically sauced. Desert was a colorful fruit salad, and dairy-free vanilla pea milks which were delicious and (surprisingly) very popular among the guests!

The ingredients were donated and the food was cooked by our dedicated volunteers. When we got to the shelter, some of the church’s volunteers were unloading the mattresses into the shelter for the women to sleep that night. My friend Shiksha, my brother Raghav, and I helped them unload as we began to understand the concept of these women coming here every night for dinner and a place to sleep. I was surprised that there was always someone to donate food everyday. One of the Shelter’s volunteers told me that the dinners are very rarely as elaborate as the ones we had brought that night. It was usually canned food that was donated, so they were happy to see such a fulfilling meal. It occurred to me that what was a usual dinner for us was something special for these women.

Many memorable encounters occurred throughout the evening. One of the volunteers of the church who helped us set up reminded us to act natural in front of the women, be friendly and not stare at them as some of them may look different . We understood perfectly; we wouldn’t want to be treated any differently in their situation. After I made a joke about not being related to my brother, she  talked to us about having gratitude for the family we have, and how anyone can be homeless in the blink of an eye. It made me think about events that could happen unexpectedly, like fires and earthquakes and recessions, and how I need to appreciate my family more. I won’t stop making the brother jokes though…

Sankara’s volunteers finished setting up and prepared to serve. I was worried that the people coming in wouldn’t appreciate the concept of vegetarian food and might want something with meat. However, we were met with surprise when most of the people were super excited to be eating such a balanced and healthy meal with so many flavors and colors. A couple of the women were actually asking about any vegan options – when we told them the whole menu was vegan, their eyes lit up in delight and surprise! We also pulled out all our salad dressing options, which were all-natural options such as zesty Italian dressing; one woman was so happy about all the dressing options and mentioned that all they usually get is ranch. Many compliments were received on the food, and many came for seconds. AN Asian woman said that I looked happy and young, and that she used to be like that and had a boyfriend at my age, but then her parents forced her to become a nun. She told me to appreciate how free, happy and safe I’m able to be. She also gave me a fair warning that any boyfriends and relationships will only lead to suffering… but that’s another story!

As we packed up and began to leave, I had the biggest surprise yet. The woman who I had assumed was just another volunteer like us, pulled my mom aside and told her that she herself was homeless and asked  if we knew of any rooms with showers she could rent  This touched me a lot – this woman was homeless and alone, and yet volunteered every single night at the shelter, organizing meals and beds for others like herself. It taught me a lot about having gratitude and how important it is to give back to society.

When we left, the women had begun settling down on their mattresses for the night. With the knowledge that their bellies were full of whole, clean and healthy food, I went home happy. I hope that eventually those women can eat like this on a more regular basis. I’m also glad that I’m taking the steps needed to come closer to my goal of always giving back to society and making an impact no matter where my life takes me. I’m grateful to SHF for the opportunity to serve, learn and make a difference.

If you are thinking about making a difference in your town, you should consider starting a Sankara chapter and establishing a HEAL meal project there!

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