While presenting his research at an AIDS conference in Chennai, India, Koen Van Rompay was struck by the poverty there and felt he wanted to help. After a modest start, he set up the charity Sahaya International.
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Tell us about the charity.
Sahaya International is a diverse network of friends, who are committed to making a difference and improving the quality of life in developing countries. We are volunteers, so most of the funds raised are sent overseas. To achieve our goals, we collaborate with local grass roots organisations that run a variety of educational and socioeconomic development programmes to empower underprivileged and marginalised people in their communities. We are currently active in India, Kenya, Vietnam, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
What does Sahaya mean?
Sahaya means ‘help’ in sanksrit, the old language of India.
What led you to set up this charity?
In 1997 I was invited to present my research at an AIDS conference in Chennai, India. I was shocked by the poverty. I felt I could not just leave and close my eyes; I had to do something, no matter how small. At the conference I met a social worker who had started a small organisation in a remote rural village to help his local community. He was trying to raise funds by selling embroidered greeting cards made by women's groups. I felt: ‘Wow, this is a way in which I can help; I can make a difference by selling these cards to my friends and family, in the USA and Europe.’ Over time, more people joined our efforts. As I noticed the rewards of making a difference, we decided to take it to the next level. That's how, in 1999, Sahaya International (www.sahaya.org) was born in the USA. In 2009, we registered a sister organisation (www.sahaya.eu) in Belgium.
How has it changed your life?
Although I dedicate nearly all my free time and personal resources to this work, the rewards far outweigh the input. I have learned so much about the meaning of life. In our modern society, we are bombarded by messages that try to indoctrinate us that happiness is reached by accumulating material wealth and fame. However, the pursuit of this is often only a source of stress and a waste of our precious time. I have learned that once one has a basic level of comfort and health, what really gives happiness is love and friendships, and sharing one's resources to help others to meet those basic needs. For example, when I am in the villages in India, and I'm playing games at the local school playground with the local kids (whose lives we've been able to change by putting them or their HIV-infected parents on lifesaving medicines), I feel totally happy.
At home in the USA, I talk by phone or Skype with some of the orphans in India that I'm supporting with their education, and I listen to their stories – those moments are priceless.
Through Sahaya, I have met and befriended so many inspiring people all over the world. I am truly blessed to be a humble link in this work.
How do you raise funds?
While we receive grant support from established organisations, our largest support comes from the general public via direct donations and a variety of fundraisers. Examples are slide presentations, dinner events, the sale of handmade greeting cards, our annual Sahaya Walk events, yard sales, and mountain-climbing adventures. The creativity of our volunteers is beyond limits.
How can people volunteer?
Volunteers can assist in many ways, even from the comfort of their home. People can help raising awareness and funds, and we'll be glad to assist with advice and materials. For example, one can dedicate one's birthday to one of our projects. Even relatively simple fundraisers can make a big difference. People can also look for grant opportunities; for example, many companies have charitable foundations to support good causes.
Some people have travelled overseas, especially to India; most of them helped at our schools, teaching English or to engage the children in creative activities, including art projects.
Are there other ways people can help?
We recently completed a 20-minute documentary, ‘Sahaya – Going Beyond’, about our work in India. Narration was provided pro bono by Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons; the theme song was provided by Enya. More information and the trailer can be viewed at www.sahayagoingbeyond.org
Where do you hope it might lead?
Sahaya's work is inspiring people to realise that within each of us is the power to make a difference if we just dare to go beyond our boundaries, and take one step at a time. Some of our volunteers have started their own projects, either locally or overseas. We hope this ripple effect continues. As Sahaya's slogan states: ‘An act of kindness inspires, be a drop that creates a ripple’.
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