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In Conversation With Meenakshi Verma

Nirmala Garimella

Meenakshi Verma is a volunteer for AVSAR, a non profit that was founded in late 2003 through the initiatives of Dr. Ashish Goyal. Inspired by the service experience he had in the slums of Mumbai in December 2002, Dr. Goyal made a bold journey back to Mumbai by taking a year off after medical school to start his own NGO in India. Through his perseverance and drive, AVSAR India was established to help community-based non-profits working to improve the healthcare of the underprivileged, especially children. In its primary programming, AVSAR brings 4-6 highly skilled students and young professionals to partner with an NGO that has identified a specific skill gap in their services. Since the launch of the program in February 2004, AVSAR has recruited over 30 volunteers who have completed over 3 years of free service work for their partner NGOs. New Englandvolunteers include Gunjan Kamdar, Alexander Kay and Anand Dholakia.

As a Program Director, Meenakshi Verma is currently in working in the slums of Mumbai. In an email to Lokvani she outlined AVSAR’s mission and her experience in working in the slums.


Could you tell us something about your background and your work at Avsar?


On summer visits to India as a child, I always felt like I was on a different planet: no sense of direction and no sense of belonging (besides family). Once I became older, I realized there were so many things I wanted to experience of this country. During the summer of my Master's in Public Health degree at University of Massachusetts, I was selected as one of the American India Foundation Fellows for June-August 2001.  I worked with an NGO in the rural earthquake affected villages of Bhuj. I was able to empower local women to share ideas on health, income generation, and more. It was a phenomenal experience and it left me wanting more. After finishing my degree, I worked for a non profit in Boston for 2 years, but started to get restless and wanted to get back to India again- this time, for more than 3 months.


I found AVSAR while looking for international health jobs on the internet. Once I got to know Ashish and his vision for the organization, I knew I wanted to be on board. I chose AVSAR because the organization is new and growing, and I wanted to be a part of that. Like many other people in their 20s, we are all upwardly mobile- and opportunities like this don't come along everyday. After much consideration, I thought, "I'm young; don't have a family or any major commitments, why not"?  Also, because I had such a great experience volunteering (I am still in touch with my NGO in Bhuj), I knew I wanted to be part of a program that helped others experience the joys (and challenges) of service in India. We hope the opportunities that we provide our volunteers will translate into relationships that last a lifetime.


As a volunteer what do you do?


In terms of the volunteer responsibilities of our program, they tend to vary depending on NGO, experience, language and skills. For example, a 3rd year medical student may have an entirely different project from someone who is in their second year of undergrad. However, all projects emphasize on this, sustainability and replicability. With volunteers often coming for 1 month, we place a huge emphasis on “what will continue after you are gone?”. This is important because we don’t want projects to just depend on volunteers but on the skills that are passed on to the NGO staff through the volunteers. Volunteers have had a range of activities including basic health check ups along side local physicians, the creations of health manuals, research, analysis, and reporting along with non-public health tasks such as fundraising, evaluation, and budgeting. We strive to utilize all of the skills of the volunteers to bring some benefit to the NGOs.


What has been your experience working in Mumbai?


Working in Mumbai has been a really personally and professionally challenging, but also very exciting. Coming from a western background and education- its very easy to have expectations of making things work in India. However, since I got used to the different systems of operation, I find the work very rewarding. In fact, I have liked the work so much that I have extended my contract by 6 more months to continue to work with AVSAR. I enjoy the people I meet through working with NGOs and local staff members. We have a strong team that puts in a lot of effort to make the experience a rewarding one for everyone involved.


What would you say to interested volunteers about the conditions that exist in the slums and what they can do to make a difference?


To interested volunteers, we always say “ help where the help is needed”. Basically, this alludes to the fact that we as volunteers think we have all these particular skills in medicine that could benefit underprivileged folks living in the slums, however, it may be the skills that we take for granted that are the most beneficial. For example, we had a volunteer who was a 4th year medical student as well as a Master of Public Health, her biggest contribution to her partner NGO was teaching local staff how to enter data into an Excel spreadsheet and analyze it. In that way, we feel its important for volunteers to keep an open mind about their experience and make sure the overall benefit comes from that fact that we need to leverage whatever resources we have to make programming effective.


Are they any hurdles that NGO’s face in India in their day to day operations?


Funding is one of the biggest challenges many NGOs face in day to day operations. We find a lot of NGOs would like volunteers who can help them with fundraising strategies, marketing, as well as management of information systems. Another major hurdle is the lack of awareness of the NGO sector in India. In India, there are many, many organizations filling in gaps for healthcare, education, economic capacity building and much more; however, many of these NGOs are largely unrecognized because the success of NGOs in India (or anywhere) is hardly newsworthy. Having said that, I must say that these NGO’s have such a dedication to their communities, that it probably doesn’t matter if they get recognized or not. The staff, who are often recruited from the community, continue to give despite challenges; and that serves as an inspiration for us all.


Is there is human interest story you might like to share of your current visit?


I am including a story from an email I wrote to my family and friends, this little kid is my buddy. {This is a story from Shelter Don Bosco- one of our partner NGOs that holds a monthly festival for street children, for which we often provide volunteers.}


"I am attaching a picture of me and a little boy named Chanda. I met him at the Don Bosco Shelter (http://www.shelterdonbosco.org/) for street children. On a visit there one day, I noticed he was crying because his arm was swollen and he had a high fever. Chanda is only about 8 years old and had been complaining about his arm pain for about 2 days. Someone at the shelter sent along a boy of about 17 to accompany him to the local government hospital.

Out of concern for Chanda's first visit to a hospital and partly out of curiosity, I asked if I could join them. After hearing about the horrors of government hospitals in India, I consoled Chanda but prepared myself for the worst. We rode on a bus and reached the fairly filled "Casualty Dept"- their ER.

As we registered Chanda, the doctor swung his arm around (which could have been broken) like he was a cricket player holding a bat. Chanda cringed each time but took it strongly, like how only a street kid would. He was registered and we were sent to the X-ray room. While the older boy (Manvir) went to register us for the X-ray, I sat with Chanda who was quite nervous.

"Didi, what is wrong with my arm?" he asked.

"Well, it might be broken or it might have to do with the cut you have on your arm," I replied.

A man was wheeled by on a stretcher with his elderly wife following by with his belongings.

"Didi, if my arm is broken, will they cut it off?" he asked casually.

"No Chanda, if its broken the doctor will put a cast on it and you will be ok in a few weeks", I replied, giving him a kiss on the head.


We sat there waiting for Manvir to come back, I explained to Chanda what an X-ray was, and he saw someone walk by with an X-ray of a chest. He asked what they see inside and I gave him the anatomical tour, ribs, lungs, heart etc.


"Didi, can someone's heart break the same way an arm can break?" he asked.


I didn't know what to tell him about heart break. There are so many kinds, the first kind is what his mother must feel after he ran away from home.

Another is for those who are dead or dying in the hospital. He told me how once he was missing his mom so much at the shelter, he ran out into the street and got lost. By chance, someone guided him back to the shelter.

Anyways, in the end, Chanda's arm was slightly infected and not broken. He is fine and I see him regularily at the shelter now. He lives at the Shelter and attends a local government school. Everytime I see him, no matter how long its been, he says "See Didi, my arm is ok!" The hospital- with its share of limited resources and heart break, continues to provide care for the poor and extremely desperate."


 Tell us more of what Avsar has accomplished till now?


AVSAR has accomplished quite a lot, but we have set some fairly high goals for ourselves and hope to accomplish them all this year. To date, from our launch in Feb 2004, we have recruited over 31 volunteers from US, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, and Pakistan. These volunteers have provided over 3 ½ years of free services to our partner NGOs. This includes, research & analysis, clinical assistance, fundraising, marketing, financial planning, networking, identifying resources, and connecting NGOs with each other to eliminate the need for duplication of services. We have secured an AVSAR Home Base in Mumbai, which is the living quarter for all of our volunteers. This is 2 bedroom flat with Western amenities and provides a place of respite for the volunteers after working for their NGOs. We have a local, in-country staff that is passionately committed to successful volunteer experiences. Our bi-weekly reflection sessions, retreats, journal writing, and peer topics are ways for the volunteers to reflect with each other as well as liaison with community members to enhance their experience in Mumbai.

We recently launched an NRI Volunteer Program (Feb 2004) with 4 NRI doctors from the US and connected them with local doctors and NGOs to provide basic medical and public health services. This project is currently being evaluated and will be re-launched in June for regular cycles of volunteering in India. We have received over 200 inquiries into volunteering opportunities abroad along with dedicated citizens who cannot make it to India but continue to help us from the US. In terms of expansion, we hope to expand to one more city this coming year. This site will provide other volunteers and NGOs to benefit from the work that AVSAR does to provide “gateways to service” for people who have the desire to do so.



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Meenakshi with Chanda Photo Credits:Jeff Hughes

Volunteer Orientation

Smiling Kids

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