Ritu Jha –
Jyothi Gurram, Mrudula Bajjuri, and Praveen Mamnani, came to the US to pursue the American dream – a successful career and comfortable life. But they also wanted to do for underserved children back in India – perhaps give them a suitable life as well.
So, the three software engineers set up Chirag, partnered with other non-profits – Save the Child, Children’s Vitamin Project, Vandemataram, and Big Brothers and Big Sisters – and last month hosted their first banquet to raise around $250,000.
They told indica they hoped to use a holistic approach to ensure children could meet the UN’s three sustainable development goals with a key focus on children – education, equality and health.
Gurram and Bajjuri grew up in Telangana, in a house where their parents supported underprivileged children. Mamnani, from Madhya Pradesh, remembered how hard it was to see children begging, without clothes on the roadside and feeling the need to help them.
Gurram came to the US in 1999 and got a job at Yahoo in 2003. That was when she felt financially capable of helping others and so set up Chirag with her friend Bajjuri. Through common friends and social media they met Mamnani.
“We all had one mission: How to provide basic necessities and education to underprivileged children,” Gurram said.
Gurram’s father, a schoolteacher, at any time, worked with 40 children at his home.
“My dad can do little financially, but there are a lot of government programs that help 5th to 12th-grade students. He adopted those kids and put them in government programs. While growing up I saw that,” said Gurram. “I always thought I have to do something for him.”
Bajjuri said she used to intern in summers at her parent’s charitable foundation in India that focused on education.
“My mother used to teach math and physics to underprivileged children. It was another way to make us also study,” Bajjuri said with a smile.
Though started in 2003, active work began in 2008.
“What we have realized Chirag is a very horizontally focused organization…. It’s all volunteer-based… We have noticed those kids need much more than just supply and infrastructure,” said Gurram. “You just cannot give backpacks and books…. So, we thought would partner with [other groups] and then scale the impact.” She added that the group now had hundreds of passionate volunteers adopting schools in their villages.
The thing is that even if you have a passion and a school you need expertise. Passion doesn’t mean it’s sustainable,” she said.
Mamnani pointed out work done in his own state.
“Our jobs are adopting shelters and schools in India. In Madhya Pradesh we did a project for special needs and distributed tricycle and wheelchairs,” he said.
When asked on raising funds and the challenges, they laughed and said, “We are all engineers and are boring people. We don’t know to do marketing. But we have done many execution plans. Each of us has a unique talent.”
The team started by seeking donations of $5, and given the manageable sum family and friends rallied around. Now even people in India ask them about ways to support Chirag.
The group now donates to other organizations.
“We donated $100,000 to Sankara,” said Gurram.
Mamnani pointed out to the low overheads.
“Today, 98 cents of every dollar raised goes directly to the kids. In fact, for the banquet we have sponsors to donate for this,” he said.
One of the supporters at the banquet, Hanimireddy Lakireddy, a cardiologist in Merced, California, discussed why he supports Chirag:
“I come from a [place] where things were bad, and I became somebody because of education,” Reddy said, adding that he wants to use his earnings to help others succeed, too.
“When I was young, I used to see so many people hungry and with no money to buy food. So, I thought should do something,” he said. “I thought the easiest way to help people succeed is through providing education.”
Charuti Arul, a 10th-grader at Monta Vista High Scool and a volunteer at “Save the Child” a non-profit working for the empowerment of child mainly special needs, helping victims of sex trafficking, and teaching about hygiene and sanitation, told indica, “It’s not to get just volunteer hours… “I can directly be in contact with students in India and Uganda, Nepal and Pakistan as well. I thought this is a great opportunity for me to help other people… It’s heartbreaking to learn about them and I get very angry sometimes. I want to do something.”