When you start something new, it takes a lot of flexibility, creativity and plain work. No need for big committees, boards or anything. Just start simple and once it works, expand.
Here is “How it started”
Here we have a children’s program for the ashram children once a week during which we teach either Sikh history or Kundalini yoga.
One mother wanted her child to learn to serve more. She had heard of a program called the “Backpack Program”. (a program where children from low-income families, who do not get enough to eat on the weekends, get some food to take home so it may carry them through the weekend.)
Some research needed to be done, so we went online, listened to someone speaking about the program and checked with the food bank in a city nearby. They told me, they didn’t have enough food to cover the kids in their own city alone, so they would never even consider coming to Espanola, our city.
That answer didn’t sit well with me. So I went to the school counselor of our neighborhood school and proposed our bringing 10 bags a week for children who would need it the most. She told me ok (first she looked at me a bit strange and had to check with the Principal etc. which took a few weeks) under the condition it would all be real food, no junk of any kind. So no chips, cookies, sodas, candy etc.
Then I went back online and checked out more about the program. There are actually a few but very essential rules.
A. all items have to be factory sealed (means no homemade food)
B. all items must be able to be opened by a six-year old alone; so no knives or can-opener required to open the food (means no bottles with a screw lid as this requires strength to open)
C. all items must be aseptic, so no cooling is required (a child living in a car with a parent does not have a refrigerator and for others who have their electricity shut off, it would be a problem as well.)
D. all items must be ready to eat without any cooking; microwave or otherwise (a child living in a car with a parent does not have a refrigerator and for others who have their electricity shut off, it would be a problem as well.)
At first this seemed complicated, but once I figured it all out, it went ok.
As we got going, I was shocked at how extremely expensive single servings are; remember we cannot give anything which requires a fridge after it is opened.
As we became able to afford to add another school, I asked the school counselor, which school had the highest rate of poverty. After introducing myself to them and explaining the program etc., we started serving this school as well.
THE ONLY GOAL IS: TO GIVE AS MUCH FOOD AS POSSIBLE TO AS MANY CHILDREN AS POSSIBLE
As of today we can say we give 100% of the money donated to food; no money goes for gas or bags, for membership or accounting, for salary, rent or anything else. All these matters are covered by seva.
Initially, we started out with just cash donations. However, soon afterwards we created a new bank account, in the ashram’s name. Now we have PayPal and are receive automatic deposits.
How we do it:
- Shop for the right kind of food items AND look for the best prices. I regularly look at different places for sales and best prices; on occasion stores will donate food when asked
- Find a space to store the food; or you can go shopping weekly
- Get bags to put the food in; at first we tried actual backpacks, but that didn’t work since kids would forget to bring them back and schools do not have the personnel to keep track of which kid brought it back and which didn’t; so now we use plastic grocery bags which we get from teachers, friends etc. We are looking into paper bags, but they break so easily and it will require money to buy them weekly. This last part also goes against our goal of spending money only on groceries. I do not have the heart to tell some children they can’t get food because we spend the money on paper bags instead of free, recycled bags.
- Pack the bags
- Drive the bags to the school(s)
We do not give the bags to the kids ourselves as a matter of privacy for the kids. The school counselor, nurse, teacher and principal all know which children need food the most and they decide which kids qualify. Sometimes it is also a matter of shame / embarrassment for a kid to admit they don’t have enough to eat. And our egos really don’t need to be thanked weekly, now do we? Do not expect a red-carpet treatment, this is Guru’s seva and staying humble while doing this is our spiritual path.
Why we do it
As a Sikh of the Guru serving lungar to all, is a basic part of life. These kids though, do not have a car to get to the ashram for lungar and neither is there very good public transportation in our area. So we go to them. No matter what, either due to a bad economy, a drug addicted parent or any other reason, kids should not have to go hungry.
The response we received at first
People were skeptical. But over time that went away and now they are happy to see us. One of the Principals last year said, “It is not just the food; this bag with food is the one thing in their life they can count on because much in their home-live is not stable or reliable.” The question: “is this just a fad or is this for real?” can only be answered over time, when we prove our worth as Sikhs.
What to do when there is not enough money collected for food for a week/month
Then I pay out of my own pocket. And yes, there have been times I had to do so. I just remembered the story of Guru Arjan and his wife who would go without food just in order to serve the Sangat. – a good example to follow!
Biggest difficulty – Funding
When starting I made a promise to not let these children down.” ONCE YOU GIVE YOUR WORD YOU WILL HAVE TO COME THROUGH, NO MATTER WHAT”, the Siri Singh Sahib Yogi Bhajan always said. So sometimes when there was not enough money, I had to dig deeper in my own wallet. And yes, it would mean the phone wouldn’t get paid till next month etc. However, knowing the kids would have food to eat, made it all worthwhile.
Also it requires financial planning. If someone gives a big donation, don’t just spend it all on food for this month. Be careful to be prepared. (For example, here in the US, April is the month to pay taxes, so that’s a month where donations may be down and you need to plan ahead for this.)
Some people like to give food instead of money. Be prepared for this. We made a detailed list of food items needed every week (like where to get, aseptic, individually sealed, no junk, etc.) and posted this list at the ashram. Plus we had to find a place where people could drop off their donations at their convenience. Also in the daily community e-mail we post what is especially needed for the upcoming week.
Asking for donations is essential. Once you are established, have done it for a few years, it will be easier to ask for it.
Why this is so important to me
- It is the Guru’s way.
- Children are innocent. It is our duty as adults to look after them and care for them until they are grown up. “If you cannot see GOD in all, you cannot see GOD at all” the Siri Singh Sahib always told us. I see GOD in those children and so I want to pay homage to them.
- Remember: these children are our future leaders. If we let them grow up hungry, they may become a basic, totally angry person or super manic depressive. Either way, no good can come from it.
- Knowing how much these kids are looking forward to it, knowing these kids keep asking over and again ”am I going to get a bag with food, this week?”. This keeps me going. Knowing, that with all I do, it is still only enough for half of the children who need it – and that is just at these two schools. That is what is hard for me.
Once a school had a half day and a child went to the principal, asking if he could get a bag of food. The Principal had to tell him, the bags only come at the end of the week. The child started to cry, and when asked why he was crying, he told the principal it was because he was so hungry.
Another time a child was overheard saying to a friend: “I have food to eat tonight” after getting the bag. Guess she was not waiting for the weekend, just too hungry.
There was an 11 year old boy who literally got nothing to eat from Friday’s school lunch until Monday’s school breakfast. All he had was access to water.
And there are many other stories!
What we give in the weekly bag
- Banana, ripe enough to be eaten immediately.
- Apple(s), mostly red or yellow; few kids eat green apples
- A juice with straw; 100% juice – not 10% and the rest is junk; a bottle will require help of an adult, so we do not give those
- A milk: Horizon has 8 ounce aseptic boxes with a straw
- Granola bar
- A cereal serving; single serving
- 2 muffins
- Raisins, 1 oz boxes; most stores sell them in a 6-pack
- Pudding made with milk; the milk gives some nutritional value
If we have enough money we like to add bean dip in a can with a flip-lid, which can be opened by a child without any help; or trail mix (not the ones with candy in them) is very nutritional; or sometimes crackers and peanut butter.
For their school breaks we like to add a little bit extra like protein-bars etc. And for their summer break we were able to give each child a bag of bagels. These are so filling and can be kept for a little while outside a fridge. This year we gave 165 bags of bagels, as we were giving this many children a bag.
As Sikhs we do not give any form of meat of course. Doing this program does not mean we compromise our values and principles, but no one has a problem with this. They are just super grateful we bring them food.
If you have any further questions you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
And if you have any new ideas, please share them. We are open to all improvements.
Guru Simran Kaur Khalsa