Anjali Daryanani has shown what service leadership is all about by investing her skills and years into making a difference in the lives of underserved urban kids in the city of Hyderabad, India.
It is not only quite uncommon but very bold for someone who could have a pursued a dream career in the United States to put all that on hold and work for the underprivileged in an urban setting in India. That is exactly what Anjali Daryanani has been doing. Having graduated cum laude from Georgetown University in 2011 with a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service, majoring in Culture and Politics, and a film/documentary program at the International Film School of Paris in 2014, at the age of 19, Daryanani volunteered at Spandana Society in Hyderabad. Spandana is a home and shelter for abandoned children and children in need of support. Moved by the mission of organization and realizing that it needed some serious support to be sustainable, she moved to Hyderabad to produce a short documentary about Spandana. She went on to use this documentary to raise support and sponsorships from around the world. To date, she has raised $230,000 for Spandana Society, and will continue to support the founder’s efforts to impact even more children in critical need of care. She discussed her journey in a chat with American Bazaar’s Contributing Editor Venky Raghavendra in New York.
How did you first find out about Spandana Society?
I was 19 years old when I went to spend the summer with my Grandfather, who was living in Hyderabad at the time. In advance of the trip, I also looked for volunteering or internship opportunities with a local organization, and my family friend had recommended Spandana Microfinance – a microfinance organization. My search for that organization led me to an entirely different organization – Spandana Society, an initiative for critically disadvantaged and abandoned children. It was only because these two organizations shared the same name that I accidentally landed on Spandana Society, and the rest is history.
Tell us what aspects of Spandana made you get so deeply involved.
I instantly fell in love with the founders – Uttam Kumar and Shobha Rani, a husband-and-wife couple from Hyderabad – who I thought were real life heroes and angels on earth. It is only because of their efforts that 50 children, who were formerly in desperate and tragic situations, now had a home and a family. I saw their actions and the daily struggles they took upon themselves as truly selfless, compassionate, and changed the entire world for these 50 amazing kids.
I remember meeting the children for the first time, and instantly feeling the wave of love, happiness, and kindness that they radiated. I remember thinking that these kids are unlike any other kids that I have met. They were raised to be like Uttam and Shobha – pure, good souls, that would grow up to become positive forces in this world. So the children are the main reason that I knew then that Spandana would always be a part of my life.
What has your journey with Spandana been like?
That summer of 2008, I spent two months volunteering at Spandana as an English and yoga teacher. After returning back to university at the end of that summer, I knew that one day I would return to help Spandana in a more meaningful way. Which I did six years later, after I completed a film school program in 2014, with the goal of producing a documentary about Spandana and using that to raise substantial funds for the organization.
What ensued was three years of aligning myself with Spandana and making a commitment to elevate the organization to greater heights. With the help of the founders, we were able to get the organization out of debt and raise over $200,000 for the organization in three years. These past few years have been the most rewarding experience of my life and I am forever thankful that I crossed paths with Spandana all those years ago.
What continues to drive you?
All of the children at Spandana have come from traumatic backgrounds, either from being abandoned on the streets, rescued from child labor or child marriage, or other deeply tragic situations. However, they come to Spandana with gratitude and with hope. They also are extremely eager to learn and work so hard with their studies. Some children get up as early as 4am to open their school books and get in some extra practice. At the time when I came back in 2014, the kids were enrolled in a very sub-standard, overcrowded school, lacking in basic resources. Now with the support of the international community, we have been able to enrol all of the children in excellent private schools. Our goal is to ensure that the kids are not able to become self-sufficient, but that they also become stewards of positive change in this world themselves, and that is what keeps me motivated.
What have you learned from this experience and how has this changed you?
The past three years working for Spandana has forever changed me, more than any other job, course or experience could have. I look to the children as my heroes. They teach me compassion. They teach me resilience. They teach me dedication and drive. The founders are also my role models, as they constantly remind me of what it means to live for others versus living just for yourself. I continue to learn from everyone at Spandana about how to become a better person.
I’ve also learned much more about the realities of the world, from bearing witness to the injustices and critical impoverishment that especially women and children have had to face in the region, which cannot be seen if one stays in an insular bubble. It was an experience that pushes me to ask myself how I can better use my experience and skill set to serve others in need and to work with local heroes who are already making a difference in so many people’s lives.
What is the next phase for Spandana?
Our next initiative is to construct and launch our own school, as well as to impact even more children in need. Until now, we have been placing our kids at different schools around the locality. By launching our own school, we aim to implement an innovative 21st century education program for the children, which will include competence in technology, confidence and leadership development, understanding of empathy and global competence, and the program will also be child-centred and accommodate different modes of learning.
There are about 55,000 children living on the streets in Hyderabad alone, almost all of whom are not attending schools. At Spandana, we aim to break the cycle of poverty by providing an enriching, quality education to children who would otherwise not have had the opportunity. Broken down, by next year it will cost $500 USD per year per child to provide this kind of education. We would not be able to provide this without support from the greater community, within India and abroad, and we will continue to work hard to secure these sponsorships so that more children can have a life-changing education. For readers who are interested to contribute to this cause, here is the link to donate online.
What is your advice to young people who want to serve in India, and what would you say to parents who may be anxious about “allowing” their young kids to undertake such endeavours?
I actually faced a lot of skepticism about moving to India to do this kind of work, mostly from family friends and the previous generation. I’ve heard, “You’re not really using your degree”, or, “it will be hard for you to find a proper job after this.” Many respected my intent behind wanting to benefit this organization, but quite a few did not view it as a strategic move or something that they would do or want their children to do. It is true that over that time, my friends and peers have launched successful careers, gotten promotions, completed a master’s degree, the list goes on. How I have justified it to myself is that, it is me that I have to respond to at the end of the day, and I have to be happy with myself and the decisions that I make.
Here is what I would tell someone who is interested to serve in India: if you want to take a risk and make a leap, have the willingness to live off of less than you are used to, and feel a passion or calling towards this kind of work: one thing is for sure, that you may learn more during this time more than any other period in life, and it is hard to put a price on that.
My hope is that parents become a little bit more flexible regarding their kids’ decisions and listen to their passion. If someone wants to take a risk to make a leap, move to the country where they have roots, align themselves with a local project, and feel a pull or a calling towards that, then one thing is for certain: that they may learn more during that time more than any other period in their life, and it is hard to put a price on that.
(Venky Raghavendra is a Contributing Editor. He is Vice-President, Safe Water Network & Advisor to Government of India’s National Skills Development Corporation.)
More from Venky Raghavendra:
‘Saankal’ made all struggle in Mumbai worth it: Tanima Bhattacharya (November 27, 2017)
The collective power of UK diaspora to tackle critical issues in South Asia (September 11, 2017)
A new giving group, ‘Circle of Hope,’ to be launched in Boston on September 10 (September 6, 2017)
SKN Foundation: Impacting the community, one family at a time (August 1, 2017)