Wishes & Blessings founded by Dr Geetanjali Chopra emerged out of an organic process of merging Blessings of the privileged with the wishes of the underprivileged
By Manjulaa Shirodkar
There is a ‘cause’ in the world which is taken so much for granted that it is not even considered a cause. Talk about ‘Happiness’. Yes, and would you ever have imagined that happiness could be a ‘cause’? It is usually the end result, but a cause? Surely that is food for thought.
That is just what Wishes & Blessings does. Based out of Delhi, Dr. Geetanjali Chopra’s brainchild does what it knows best – spread smiles, happiness and unadulterated joy.
A non-governmental organisation, Wishes & Blessings has been working in the social sector since 2014. A Q&A with its Founder President Dr Geetanjali Chopra gives us an insight into how simply lives can be touched. That all it takes is a single person to unwaveringly pursue what she believes in.
Why and how did you choose to embark on this journey called Wishes & Blessings? Was there an instance which triggered this thought of reaching out to the underprivileged?
I never knew that my life path would take me towards setting up an NGO. My family is made up of professionals and while there is no one who has taken up a career in the social sector, they always make sure to share their blessings with those who are lesser privileged.
As part of this, as a youngster, I would accompany my grandfather to a school for visually impaired children to celebrate special occasions with them. I continued this tradition even after he passed away, and just as he would, I would ask the children if there was any wish that they wanted fulfilled.
At one such event, the children responded with a rather surprising wish – ‘Didi, we want to play Holi!’ This request was quite shocking for me, since I could not put these two seemingly opposite worlds together – one of the visual festival that is Holi and the other that is of visually impaired children, children who have to rely on their other senses to ‘see’. Nevertheless, I promised them that they would indeed play Holi.
I went back to my office (then Centre for Policy Research) and shared this dilemma with my colleagues. Support poured in from everyone and I was able to help these children play the colourful and joyous festival that is Holi. Before this, if someone were to ask me if I liked Holi, I would say ‘No’. But, the Holi of 2014 changed my life. To see these children, children who cannot see, play with colours, with so much glee, without a care in the world left me in awe.
This was the turning point. This incident helped me find my purpose in life – to fulfil the wishes of the needy and to make happiness accessible to all. A few months after the Holi celebrations I set out to formally establish an organisation that would help me do this on a larger stage, and Wishes & Blessings was instituted in April 2014.
So what are the activities that Wishes & Blessings undertakes?
One of the overarching philosophies of Wishes &Blessings is to ‘never say no.’ As a result, we reach out to anyone and everyone who needs help. We execute projects on six main verticals which include nutrition, education, care for elders, relief, happiness and also customise projects based on the needs and wants of both beneficiaries and donors. Our youngest beneficiary is just a few months old and the eldest is 90+, a resident of our old age home. We are headquartered in Delhi, have 20+ centres across Delhi/NCR and an active presence in Assam, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.
In what areas specifically have you been able to impact children? How many children have been impacted so far?
We reach out to underprivileged children; homeless children; children living with visual impairment; children living with HIV as well as orphaned children through our Daily Meals Programme; Street to School Programme and Sponsor a Childhood Programme. With the support of wholesome formal and informal education and the provision of three hot and nutritious meals on a daily basis, the beneficiaries are able to start on their journeys of building bright and happy futures. Thousands of needy children join the Wishes &Blessings family each year.
You mentioned that you are also involved in ‘care for elders’. Could you elaborate?
Seventy-one percent of elders in India have testified to facing abuse in one form or the other. It is unfortunate that many families do not care for their elders, and end up neglecting them, or worse, abandoning them.
To reach out to neglected elders and give them the respect and dignity they deserve, we inaugurated our first old age home on 25th April, 2018. Called ‘Mann ka Tilak’, the shelter was initially meant to give a home to abandoned elderly women of Delhi/NCR. In 2019, on occasion of the NGO’s 5th birthday, we opened the gates of the home to elderly abandoned men also.
Many of these women and men have been thrown out of their homes by family, and have no money or belongings to call their own. These ammas and uncles find a new family and a new place to call home at Mann ka Tilak. What makes Mann ka Tilak unique is that all facilities are provided completely free of cost. This is to ensure that the residents live a life of dignity and respect, a life they truly deserve.
Mann ka Tilak is the first of a chain of old age homes that will be set up across India to help the abandoned elderly age gracefully. Till date, the organisation has reached out to over 60 potential beneficiaries, many of whom have been rehabilitated with their families. Mann ka Tilak provides the elderly abandoned a new place to call home, and a second family with which they may comfortably spend their last stages of life. Currently, there are 12 residents at Mann ka Tilak.
Its notable that in a short span of six years you have grown exponentially in different states -including the East and North-East. Do share this journey of growth.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, our operations were restricted to Delhi/NCR. The silver lining to the pandemic and the lockdown was that we could expand overnight to the furthest corners of the country. We took our Covid relief operations to needy families in states including Assam, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal.
Operations in West Bengal and Assam have been particularly heart-warming. With the support of Wishes & Blessings volunteers who handled on field operations, we were able to provide over 5,000 ration and hygiene kits to at-risk families, the abandoned elderly and daily wagers who had lost their sources of income and were struggling to fulfil basic needs.
While the Covid Relief Project is no longer operational due to a paucity of funds, we absorbed the beneficiaries from West Bengal under our Daily Meals Programme, and continue to provide them with ration kits as there is still a dire need on the ground.
The beneficiaries in Assam have been able to resume their occupations and thus are no longer in need of immediate aid. We are in the process of setting up a day care centre for underprivileged children in Guwahati as well as a women’s self-help group.
What have been the challenges so far – in terms of funding, working with children who are otherwise completely ignored by society and rehabilitating the elders?
One of the biggest challenges that we face is the paucity of funding, something which was exacerbated during the lockdown. We had a CSR partner pull out of a project supporting street children while individual donors were facing financial crunch themselves. Many times, we have donors who commit funding and then back out at the last minute.
Unfortunately, in such situations we either have to bank on our reserves saved up for future projects or have to withdraw support from our beneficiaries as a last resort. To make up for this gap, we hold regular fundraisers and are now working on self-sustainable models.
Working with underprivileged children has several challenges, and one of the major ones is lack of trust. Just as donors are hesitant about giving to NGOs because they are unsure about the accountability of the organisation, the beneficiaries are also wary of joining us. They are suspicious of us, wondering what our end goal is and often think we are here to take advantage of them. It is only with regular community engagement, wherein we spread awareness and hold meetings with the families of the children that we are able to clear all their fears and doubts.
The children themselves pose a few challenges including poor attention spans, their attraction to begging and playing on the streets. We have a set module in place that has proven itself in the past and through executing this we are able to account for these challenges, whether it be through incentivising attendance in day care centres, or through encouragement and guidance by peer counsellors.
Just as there are challenges working with an age group on one end of the spectrum, there are unique obstacles that come with dealing with age groups on the other end- the elderly, in some ways are children themselves.
Most of the beneficiaries who come to us under our Care for Elders project have been abused and abandoned by their near and dear ones. They come to us in a vulnerable, helpless state and our first step is always to give them emotional security and stability. This takes place through intensive care and support and we are able to bring them to a happy, stable state.
As an active academic for over 15 years; a Ph.D from Jawaharlal Nehru University and a Fellow with Centre for Policy Research, its intriguing that you gave it all up at the peak of a lucrative career to start Wishes & Blessings.
I come from a large Punjabi joint family. Born and brought up in Delhi, I did my schooling from Convent of Jesus and Mary, New Delhi, my Bachelors from Lady Shri Ram College and my Masters, M.Phil. and Ph.D. from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. I formed a solid base in journalism and political science and have also studied a few courses on International Law from the Hague and Utrecht University in Netherlands.
And I have also pursued creative arts on the side. There was a time, I owned a small block printing press that made hand-printing blocks. Paper was brought in and I made hand-block printed paper, envelopes and bags. I have also been a journalist for about two years, acted in a few TV shows, and tried my hand at radio jockeying! I also cooked and baked, travelled the world, taught in India and abroad and have published a book.
So even while I was studying I pursued other creative avenues. I have also worked as a Fellow for five years at a Delhi-based thinktank – Centre for Policy Research. I gave up this well-cushioned job at the height of my career, and this decision was definitely met with several raised eyebrows and questions from friends and family alike. However, I would not give up this life for anything else. The job satisfaction I receive on a regular basis is incomparable to any paycheck I have been issued.
But philanthropy runs in my family. I still have fond memories of going to a school for the visually impaired with my grandfather to celebrate festivals and occasions. My family made sure to inculcate values in my younger brother and me – basic civil values like honesty, charity, humbleness. These were just some of the principles that were imbibed in us from the very start. My parents, and my grandparents especially, have played a very large role in making me who I am today.
I am forever grateful to the visually impaired children I celebrated Holi with, for they gave me the vision to make this world a better place for all.
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Manjulaa Shirodkar (nee Negi) is an established film critic and author, having worked in leading national publications. She is also a Film Selection Committee member for various film festivals.