“Today I am 80% disabled, and all of you are 100% able-bodied. If I am doing so much despite my limitations, then what’s stopping you?”, Swarnalatha J ends her TEDx speech with this question to a spellbound audience.
The founder of Swarga Foundation – India’s first NGO to support differently-abled patients with neuromuscular disorders – Swarnalatha is also a professional singer, writer, photographer and motivational speaker.
Her indomitable spirit has overpowered her physical disability, and today her crown is bejewelled with incredible achievements while she is infusing new life to hundreds. Swarnalatha wants to dissolve the stigma and stereotypical perception about disability in the Indian society.
Not a fairytale past
Born as the second of four daughters in a lower-middle-class family in Bengaluru, Swarnalatha had a difficult upbringing primarily due to financial problems. The patriarchal mindset of her family failed to make things any easier for her.
After 10th, she enrolled to study Diploma in Computer Science. It was one fine morning during her college days when she met with a terrible accident. With a fractured jawline, she was unable to speak or eat for six long months, but the fire in her never dwindled for one minute.
Following multiple surgeries, Swarnalatha was able to become healthier soon. After completing her Diploma, fund constraints at home forbade her to pursue higher studies, and Swarnalatha started her first job at the mere age of eighteen, barely an adult.
Having lost her father at a young age, she had to shoulder a lot of family responsibilities alongside financial support.
“When I got married to the love of my life, my family disowned me as it was against their will”, she recounts the darker shades of her vibrant life.
Having overcome so many obstacles in own life, when her daughter was born in 2011, Swarnalatha was determined to gift her the life of a princess, “the way every girl deserves to be treated.”
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At her first job, she was fired over an inconsequential issue. She persevered and continued bettering her skills every single day, and soon Swarnalatha would find herself working with heavyweight corporate houses like ITC, Mitsubishi and Audi – companies most others can only dream to be a part of. Yet, the silver lining in the cloud dulled out soon, as she was compelled to resign from Audi after her diagnosis with a deadly disease.
The biggest shock
When Swarnalatha was at the doorstep of sailing into her thirties, the greatest trauma of her life shattered her to the core.
“It was October 26, 2009, just a day before my wedding anniversary. I was completely okay in the morning. Towards the afternoon I started feeling slightly feverish, so I simply took paracetamol. By the evening I was neck down paralyzed.”, she recalls in her TEDx speech how her life took a whirlwind turn within a wink.
Soon the hospital reports confirmed it to be Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis, a rare neurodegenerative disease, with little chances of recovery. With a gradual paralysis and malfunctioning of different body parts, today she faces difficulty in many daily activities, yet she always finds a reason to smile.
The turning point
Completely dejected and withdrawn from life, she soon found herself trapped in the dark alleys of depression.
“At one point I wanted to end my life. Looking at my husband and son, who was just two years old then, I realised they did not have any part to play in my diagnosis. That’s when I decided to give life another chance”, she shares, adding how seeing other patients in the hospital helped to bring about in her an optimistic outlook towards life.
Coming across differently-abled children and seeing their struggles, Swarnalatha felt blessed about herself. She decided not to pity herself anymore; an inner voice urged her to do something to help differently-abled individuals to whom every day poses a new struggle.
She actively started conducting puppet shows, face painting, ‘mehndi’, yoga and other skill-based workshops among patients of multiple sclerosis. Raising awareness about the disease, soon Swarnalatha became a ray of hope for everyone who is mistreated, marginalised and pitied due to their disabilities.
This paved the way for the birth of Swarga Foundation in October 2014 in Coimbatore, which she co-founded along with her husband Guruprasad T S.
As the name goes, Swarga Foundation is creating heaven for differently-abled people across India. At the outset, they provided psychological counselling to the patients and their family members to cope with the trauma.
“A couple was forcibly separated by the wife’s family when the young husband was detected with Multiple Sclerosis. We intervened and counselled the families. Today they are again happy together,” she shares.
Later, with better funds, the foundation started reimbursements for differently-abled people, helping them with monthly medication, cost of treatment, customised wheelchairs and walkers, physiotherapy and education for special children.
“Today we have made seven government schools in Coimbatore disabled-friendly, complete with wheelchair ramps and accessible toilets. We have been successful in bringing special children back to school.” Swarnalatha narrates the work they have done, sharing how Coimbatore railway station and several government offices are now disabled-friendly, thanks to their efforts.
“The very first user of Sarathi was one gentleman, a former CEO of a big corporate venture. A sudden stroke had left him completely paralysed. Sarathi enabled him to visit his mother after three years. Today he is socialising more by easily attending all family gatherings,” Swarnalatha recounts some heartwarming memories associated with Sarathi.
“I remember one ninety-year-old lady, who was bed-ridden for the past twenty years. With Sarathi, she travelled to a temple for the first time in decades. The van is also helping economically weaker patients who cannot afford an expensive disabled-friendly ambulance or vehicle,” she adds.
Besides being a dynamic social worker, Swarnalatha J continues to mesmerise audiences with her amazing singing skills. She also writes short stories and essays for many online forums. She is a professional photographer, and her photography series with multiple sclerosis patients has featured in magazines and calendars.
Swarga has published a calendar this year with award-winning Paralympics athletes. Everyone knows about Vishwanathan Anand as the five-time world champion in Chess, but Swarnalatha wishes to introduce everyone to Jennitha Anno, “five-time champion of the World Chess Championship for the Physically Disabled” – as her Wikipedia description reads.
Swarnalatha has delivered over 150 motivational lectures across India. She is also the first runner-up in the Mrs India Beauty Pageant South, giving a tough competition to professional models. She also won the title, Mrs Popularity.
Swarnalatha J continues to be a dazzling inspiration for everyone. Her undying zest for life, even after facing endless obstacles, is a marvel to witness.
She shares, “People call us various names – physically challenged, disabled, handicapped or special. I want everyone to know that we are not just special, we are limited edition.”
Rahul Khera and Gautam Jindal, volunteers (aka hunger heroes) at Feeding India, were among the many Delhi NCR residents accustomed to seeing hungry children pick up half-eaten burgers or stale sandwiches from the dustbin and savour those with the brightest smiles. Like many others, they also had the will to promote equitable food distribution but was perplexed about the approach, until they learnt about the community fridge initiative which has gained unprecedented success in Saudi Arabia and few other European countries. Meanwhile, community fridges were already being installed outside restaurants or in public places in a handful of cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Coimbatore and Kochi.
Thank you for overwhelming response for the Happy Fridge concept. We need more funds from you to install more fridges like this across India. With the limited funds avaialble Feeding India was able to install three fridges only. Kindly donate here http://bit.ly/happyfridge
Needless to mention, with a shocking 103rd rank in the Global Hunger Index and a food wastage estimate of around Rs 58,000 crore – India was perhaps the best country to implement such an initiative. With Gautam’s help, an enthusiastic Rahul invested his own savings to install a ‘Happy Fridge’ outside his residence at Sun City, Sector 54 in Gurgaon. Set up in 2017 by these Feeding India volunteers, the fridge in Gurgaon has inspired the NGO to scale up the project across India.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
‘Happy Fridge’ fostered many smiles
It didn’t take long for the local residents to learn about this laudable endeavour. They welcomed it, as wastage of excess food was a recurring problem in almost every household. “Intimating the localities was no mammoth task, thanks to social media. However, it was difficult to spread the word among those who actually needed the food,” shares Rahul, who went from auto stands to slums, inviting rickshaw pullers, ragpickers or roadside vendors to avail the community fridge any time they feel hungry. “The security guards of our residential complex played a huge role in explaining how the fridge works to the beneficiaries,” he adds.
The operational and maintenance costs of the ‘ happy fridge ‘ are being maintained diligently by the community members.
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“I remember one young man who had arrived from a village looking for some menial day job. Somehow he had run out of his paltry savings and had no money to buy one decent meal a day. For about a month, our happy fridge was his solace, till he earned his first salary from a housekeeping job,” shares a jubilant Rahul.
In another incident, a truck driver returning in the wee hours of midnight was starving after a whole day’s hard work. He had run out of cooking fuel at his home, so our fridge was at his rescue.
“The residents keep all sorts of palatable dishes in the happy fridge, ranging from dry snacks, fruits to cooked meals. Sometimes, they even keep raw vegetables, to ensure not a single bit of good food ends up in their trash while other people go hungry to bed,” reveals Rahul.
On an average, each happy fridge supplies around 10-15 meals in a day. The gratitude and pure smiles of the hungry souls after a fulfilling meal are more than enough to continue to motivate Rahul and his neighbours. In fact, inspired by him, many other communities in the Delhi-NCR region set up community fridges in their areas.
Since the past few years, Feeding India has been a prominent organisation working in the forefront to solve the hunger problem in India. Primarily, they were involved in redistributing leftover food from weddings and parties among the underprivileged people in different cities of India. Their volunteers, better known as “Hunger Heroes of India”, worked actively to bridge the gap between food wastage and food crisis.
“We used to get a lot of calls from individual households to collect their excess food. However, unfortunately, we lacked the manpower and planning to launch our programme on a door to door basis. We were desperately looking for an alternative when we learnt about the community fridges,” shares Srishti Jain, co-founder of Feeding India.
After interacting with Rahul Khera and other campaigners of community fridges, Feeding India decided to amplify this extraordinary project throughout the length and breadth of India. Presently, they have launched the #FightFoodWaste campaign to install 500 community fridges – nicknamed ‘ Happy Fridge ’. So any passer-by – be it a kid going to school without a lunchbox, or a labourer returning home late at night with no promise of a dinner – can now grab a pack of biscuits or a bowl of ‘dal-chawal’ (rice & lentil soup) to satiate their hunger. Click here to contribute for ‘ Happy Fridge ‘ and ensure India never sleeps hungry again.
Feeding India also urges everyone to make a promise to stop wasting food and instead consider donating it to those in need.