The Pandemic and Poverty: Remembering the Most Vulnerable
By Anokhee Mepani / New York City
I've been feeling especially grateful during this crazy time. I’ve taken this period to reflect on and be thankful for so many things: my supportive partner, my secure job, my safe shelter, my entertaining friends, and especially my loving family. It’s given me a deep appreciation for the small joys in life, like being able to develop a relationship with a wonderful neighbor like Andrea. It’s also given me time to invest in something I care deeply about: Learn to Love (www.learntoloveinc.org), a nonprofit organization I started in 2005 to support the education and healthcare of differently-abled children in poverty.
On my last trip to Mumbai, I got to spend a lot of time at the school with the students. Here’s a picture of me hanging out with the youngest students at the SEC school during recess.
Much of my family lives in Mumbai, India. I typically visit Mumbai every year, and when I was younger, I would live there for months at a time. If you’ve never been to Mumbai or to India, I highly recommend going - India is a vibrant country, full of spirit, color, amazing food, and kind people. It is also a country that, like many countries, fails its most vulnerable - the poor, the differently-abled, and the minorities.
During my visits I began volunteering at a small network of schools for differently-abled children in need (the schools are operated by the Society for the Education of the Challenged - www.sec-india.org). While India technically offers free education to all children up to the eighth grade, it does not necessarily make that education accessible. Many of the students I met could not go to the state schools because there were no handicap-accessible buses to get them to school, or the schools themselves were on the upper floors of buildings with no elevators or ramps.
I fell in love with the kids and was glad they had a place to come to every day that could provide them with food, shelter, and an education. The schools also gave students mobility equipment (e.g. wheelchairs, crutches), and basic healthcare needs.
In 2005 I began fundraising here in the US to support the schools financially. I turned my fundraising initiative into Learn to Love (LTL), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. For 15 years, we have been providing funds to enable the schools to provide special educators; nutritionists; physical, speech, and mental health therapists; art, music, drama, and sports program; handicap-accessible transportation to and from school for all students; mobility equipment; medicine; sanitary and hygiene items; and more. We’ve also taken on large projects, like renovating bathrooms to make them hygienic and accessible to all.
The entire time I was volunteering at the schools, fundraising for them, developing an organization to support the vulnerable children - the entire time, the baseline assumption was that the schools were there and open to the kids. The goal was also to make the students’ lives at the schools happy and well-rounded - all of the funds we raised and spent and all of the programs we stood up were centered around the school. School was the safe place, the place that removed the weight of being underprivileged and differently-abled from the students’ shoulders and made it possible for them to just be kids.
This pandemic has taken school away from the children. Most of the kids live in slums in and around Mumbai. Forget classes through Zoom - many do not have consistent access to food, medicine, or basic necessities. Their families and their homes are not set up to handle their challenges - they likely do not have an accessible bathroom nearby, and cannot move or go anywhere.
For the past month, Learn to Love has been raising funds to support the children at home, in this desperate time of need. For $65 a month, we are able to provide the child and his or her household with milk, eggs, flour, lentils, biscuits, rice, oil, soap, toothpaste, and the specific hygiene and medical items the child needs. If you are able to and would like to donate, you can contribute to this fundraiser: https://www.gofundme.com/f/raise-funds-for-kids039-basic-needs-during-covid . Every dollar will go towards our impoverished, differently-abled students who are severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. I can’t express in words how grateful we are for your donations.
This global crisis has brought so much pain to the world, but it has also shown us just how resilient we are, how much strength we can muster when we support each other. In my reflections I am reminded of a quote by Helen Keller that is painted on one of classroom walls in one of the schools, reminding each child that they are capable: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”
I wish my fellow insiders and their loved ones health, safety, and strength during this most difficult time. May we all overcome together.
Anokhee Mepani grew up in Boston and has lived in New York City for the past decade. She founded Learn to Love in India and is an active member of her local community here in the U.S. In addition to being committed to helping others, Anokhee has a career in finance and technology and is the director of strategy and operations at Addepar. In her free time, she loves to dance, read, and meet new people.