Updated: Sep 1
All of us have our milestones in life as well as targets we want to meet.However, which of our milestones we use to learn from and add to out personal growth on your way to attaining our goals varies from person to person. Many years ago, when I was 18 I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, 4th stage, and after treating myself with many organic medicines I was Delft with no choice than to undergo many sessions of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. During those painful days and sleepless nights at the hospital I made a promise to myself that I will beat cancer and dedicate a part of my life to volunteer and support cancer care patients however possible. It took me many years to find a cancer care center that I could relate to and was genuine in nature as well as in my vicinity, this is Access Life Assistance Foundation(www.accesslife.org), an Indian not-for-profit organization registered as a Section 8 company in 2014 providing multi-disciplinary supportive care to families who come to Mumbai for their child’s cancer treatment. Access Life set up its first centre in June 2014 in Chembur and has grown to 6 childhood cancer care centres across Mumbai and Thane where at any given point of time 57 families (171 individuals considering every child lives with her/his parents) are accommodated.
Workmates and friends *Girish Nair and Ankeet Dave* were 30 something professionals, well settled into a daily routine, peppered with the usual highs and lows. Their job at a leading public relations firm involved managing events and alliances for clients. One client’s desire to invite children from an NGO to an event became a defining moment in both Girish’ and Ankeet’s lives. They were bitten by the ‘do good’ bug! These two men joined forces with each other, multiplying their time and effort towards a good cause. Girish and Ankeet began by volunteering to distribute fruit and vegetables at cancer wards in hospitals. That was until one day, they made a chance visit to the pediatric cancer ward. Nothing had prepared them for this. Children of all age groups were lying down on newspapers and rags in the corridors of the hospital. And they were being administered chemotherapy through chemo bags dangling from window sills. Girish and Ankeet were shaken to their core, and that's when the idea of Access Life home was born! Both Girish and Ankeet have always stuck to their vision that is to create an environment where children have access to quality health care and holistic support and which allows families to face the weight of illness together. Their mission is to provide all the children from the age 0-14 years coming to Mumbai for treatment of cancer, a clean, safe, comfortable, caring and cost-free accommodation, wherein their families are able to better comfort and support them, while actively participation in their care.
What truly touched my heart was to know that families come to Mumbai from remote towns and cities across 13 states in India, seeking treatment for their children affected with cancer. While hospitals extend them quality medical services, the poorer families have no place to stay during the 5-12 months (sometimes extending to 24 months) that it takes to complete the treatment. Many of them end up living on footpaths or are forced to abandon treatment due to the high cost of accommodation in a metro city like Mumbai. As a matter of fact, children battling cancer and without access to proper accommodation and nutrition are 5 times more likely not to survive due to secondary infections, chemotherapy intolerance and treatment abandonment.
Access Life offers children and their families an interim hygienic home that gives these little brave hearts an upper hand in their fight against cancer. They also try to improve their quality of life by providing practical support services, educational resources and recreational programs. These services include free accommodation, nutrition, secure transportation, and a clean and care kit with hygiene providing items for each child. Access Life also provides them board games, educational toys, enriched libraries, language tutorials(age-wise/grade-wise), yoga sessions, value-based sessions, emotional and nutritional counselling.
We must also bear in mind that certain challenges have come up, such as:
-Fear and paranoia have gripped most people and all of a sudden, these families were made to feel unwelcome by the residents of Thane housing complex where one of the Access Life centre was situated. This coupled with restrictions on public transport made the Thane centre completely unviable and has prompted us to make resulting in the tough decision to pull out of there.
-Even though, it has been their earnest attempt to continue supporting the kids, since treatment for cancer cannot wait, The COVID19 pandemic and strict lockdown in India have affected Access Life services adversely.
-In spite of having supportive landlords, Access Life is facing a similar crisis at its other Chembur centres as well, which has forced them to rethink our strategy. In fact, one of the AL centres in Chembur -Access life 4 on Sion Trombay road is a stand-alone building where they are supporting 12 families (units) currently on the first floor. They had proposed to the landlord for giving them the entire building so that they can support more kids battling cancer. Fortunately, Access Life are received a favourable response to have the entire building for this noble work. This will increase the capacity from existing 12 units to 30 units and hence Access Life Centre 4 (Next to Wasan Motors, Chembur) extension comes in.
I personally visit the Bandra care center whenever possible to connect with these brave hearts and learn so much from them, while I embrace them in my arms and mischievously play games with them. Also, I support one of the cancer patients and his family every month, as Access Life offers many packages that can fit one's budget covering the patients' needs and requirements.
Following on are the Q & A by Kajal Makwana, Counseling Psychologist, Queer Affirmative Therapist, Psychotherapist, Graphologist & one of the founding members for Volunteer For India (VF):
1. What is VFI:
Katradi in partnership with the U.S. Consulate General in Chennai has created the Volunteer
for India program, a dynamic youth volunteer network that contributes to communities across India. Where in each participant received a seed funding to design and implement projects that can create a movement of volunteers across the country. for orientation and training of other individuals into the Volunteer For India network. To design and implement projects that can create a movement of volunteers across the country. There were fellows who were selected from 13 states and 2 union territories, who are working in different fields and have come up with their unique ideas for social change. VFI is a platform that aims to advocate volunteerism and increase the chain of volunteers as we go.
2. What does volunteerism mean to us as a Cohort:
Since childhood, I have done “seva.” It inculcates generosity and encourages working without expectations of any benefits. Religious preaching introduced to us as volunteerism, urging donations, and wealth distribution. This can promote a culture of volunteerism. There are groups to identify volunteerism in the five umbrella types – a donation of money and materials, donation of services, Self Help Groups, civic participation, and civic movements. In India, the idea of service which parallels that of volunteerism encompasses many beautiful acts of community service done by people for generations in their villages and cities. These acts of service are not typically considered volunteerism but rather as their participation in the give and take of a healthy community. In Volunteer for India, we aim to integrate multiple definitions of volunteerism as perceived in local contexts. As a cohort, each of us is passionate about different issues but all of us were brought together for our belief in volunteerism to bring change in the society.
3. How does VFI project work?
The core idea of VFI working is, building a network of community volunteers who will solve the issues and bridge the gaps all over the country. There are four buckets – building volunteer opportunities, capacity building, policy-level work and advocacy, and a digital platform. Engagement in Workshop/Orientation + Activity in the community by volunteers, execution of the volunteer’s projects and train more volunteers and increase the chain of volunteers.
4. What is your role here?
I am one of the founding members of the Volunteer For India initiative, my focus area is mental health and LGBTQ+ advocacy. Each one of us is interested in a particular issue that’s close to our heart and we design the projects that address the same. While the rest of the cohort members come together as a family to support the project.
5. How can people contribute or be part of it?
We are open for collaborations on various themes and cause. There are two ways to go about it, one is that they can be a part of ongoing projects headed by anyone of the founder cohort member and the second one is that they can come up with their project idea and structure and then VFI can take it forward, if the idea is in line with our shared values and contributes to volunteer movement across the country.
6. What makes them different from other institutions?
VFI is founded by the volunteers, managed by the volunteers & is for the volunteers. We don’t merely see volunteers as someone who is entitled to do the free work but we consider, them as a social entrepreneur and a change maker, who has the right intention to be a catalyst and bridge the existing gaps in the society and their contribution adds a lot of value to social change.