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Stories that change the world

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Free Soul

The founder of SoulFree, Preethi Srinivasan is truly a force to reckon with. Here is her story.

My story

I had an absolutely blessed and blissful childhood. I'm the only child of Vijayalakshmi and Srinivasan, a loving couple, who did not have any children for nine years after their wedding. So, when I was born after lots of penance and prayers, my parents, grandparents and everyone filled my life with unconditional love. My father had always dreamt of learning to swim like they do in the Olympics, but did not have the opportunity. So, when I was just three years old, he enrolled me in swimming classes and by the age of eight, I was a state level medallist.

Somehow, I seemed to have a deep connection and passion for cricket and my father encouraged me. Never once did my family ever discriminate against me on the basis of gender. My father would always say, "Even if you want to be a mechanic, I will support you, but you must be so passionate about what you do that you become the world’s best mechanic." I feel blessed that I had such wonderful parents and family. My father's job required him to keep relocating, and we would move almost every year. The 12 years of school, I ended up attending nine different schools in three different continents. At the time, it was really difficult to always be 'the new girl in school', but I now understand the immense value of that kind of exposure to various cultures, traditions and lifestyles. After I completed school in the USA, my father and I decided that I would return to India. It was not a popular decision, because at the time everyone in India seemed desperate to study in the US. However, we did not want that because we are very patriotic my nature and it was my dream to represent the country in cricket. So, I returned to Chennai and joined a consolidated five year MBA course.

At the completion of the first year, I went to the US to be with my father and we had a very memorable summer vacation, during which time we drove through the length of California. I returned to Chennai on July 7, 1998. My life was perfect and the possibilities seemed infinite, but we did not realise that life was going to change. On July 11, 1998, I joined my classmates for an excursion (college trip) to Pondicherry. In the afternoon, after lunch, we decided to play on the beach. After a little bit of tennis ball cricket, the heat got to us and the boys decided to go for a swim. We girls were holding hands in about thigh-deep water, when a wave ate the sand under my feet. I stumbled and being a seasoned swimmer, when I knew I was going to fall, I just dove into the water.

As soon as my face went underwater, I felt a shock-like sensation travel through my body and instantaneously, I could not move anything. I tried to stand, but nothing happened. I held my breath and waited. Apparently my friends thought I was playing a prank, because I was an ace swimmer, but when they realised something was wrong, they immediately pulled me out. From that moment, I was paralysed below the neck, but I thought it was some kind of underwater shock that had hit me and that it would wear away.

I organised my own first aid and was taken to a major hospital in Pondicherry, where I was denied emergency medical care because it was an "accident case". Since then I have been a quadriplegic, paralysed below the neck as my neck had broken causing a severe spinal-cord injury. My life as I knew it was over, but a whole new one was beginning. I lost my entire sense of identity that had been based on my appearance, achievements and social factors. Suddenly, I became invisible to the world, and I didn't want to live. It took me several years to come full-circle, with the support of my parents and the grace of my spiritual masters. After that, I started mouth painting, doing online work but, when I tried to enroll in a distance education program a bachelor’s degree in psychology, I was hit in anyway.

A person, who had graduated school in the top two percentile of the entire American population, was bestowed with 'The Who's Who amongst America's Students' award and could have easily joined the top universities in the world, was denied admission into a long-distance program. I was told by many universities, "There are about 15 days of practical classes, no lifts (elevators), no ramps, don't join." I was devastated by this rejection, because I could not really understand why I was being discriminated against. My father encouraged me to improve my knowledge and bought me many books, but since about 2002, till his death in 2007, I did not pursue any formal education.

Later, I completed a bachelor's degree in Medical Sociology, as it did not have any practical classes. When I wished to join Masters in Counselling Psychology I was again rejected. This time, Soulfree was just getting launched, and the media supported in fighting the case. Soon, I was allowed to join M.Sc. Psychology and we were victorious in setting up functional ramps at the Distance Education building (IDE) of Madras University in Chennai. Today, I work full-time using a speech activated software as a writer in a movie-based website. I'm very proud to say that I'm able to provide for my family and am not a burden to anyone, but this transformation has required years of introspection and penance.

Preethi's TEDx talk

The birth of SoulFree
Since 2000, my parents and I moved to Tiruvannamalai, a little temple town in Tamil Nadu, South India and started leading a spiritual, ascetic life. We cut ourselves off completely from the rest of the world and created a happy bubble for ourselves. However, reality struck when my father suddenly died of a heart attack on June 12, 2007, with no prior warning. Four days later, my mother also suffered a heart attack, and later, needed bypass surgery.

At this critical juncture, my parents' friends came up to me and said, "What is your future going to be like, if there comes a time, when your parents or family are unable to care for you?" I was devastated. When I found the courage to research about the possibility of long-term rehabilitation centres, that were equipped to care for personal my condition, I found an even more shocking truth.

There is NO long-term rehabilitation centre for a woman with spinal-cord injury, anywhere in India, as of now. A spinal-cord injury can happen to anyone at any time. It causes permanent paralysis below the level of injury and currently, there is no cure for it anywhere in the world. The statistics in the USA are that a spinal-cord injury happens every 38 minutes and there are more than 250,000 quadriplegics living in the US alone. However, in India, there is neither awareness about this condition, nor any statistics are available. We are one fifth of the world's population, and 50% of these are women, but if any woman should suffer a spinal-cord injury there is nowhere for her to go. When my mother heard this, she simply said, "you be the change. I have faith in you, you can start the centre." I laughed it off because I felt that practically, I was not capable of running an organisation. Then three months after my mother's surgery, we returned to Tiruvannamalai. Within three months, too paraplegic girls I personally knew were forced to commit suicide by their own families.

They were told that they are a shame and a burden on the family and that nobody is willing to marry their male sibling because they would be forced to care for a paralysed person; that no one wished to associate with them at all. So, poison was left next to them, they drank it and died. I was completely shattered. My world is very small and if such things are happening in it, I could not imagine how frequently it must happen all over India. I said to myself that if I did not do something now, if I kept quiet because I was afraid to fail, I would be part of the problem, not part of the solution. So, that's how Soulfree was born.

A journey and its many milestones
Personally, some of the key milestones in my life are –
- Becoming a state level medallist in swimming at the age of eight
- Joining cricket coaching at the age of four, becoming a playing member of the Tamil Nadu senior women’s for getting at the age of eight, and becoming the only Captain to lead the state team (under 19) to victory in a national level tournament in the history of Tamil Nadu women’s cricket
- Graduating from Upper Merion High School with distinguished honours
- My accident
- Moving to Tiruvannamalai though the
- Near death experiences in 2001 and 2008 that completely shifted my state of being
- My father’s death
- Getting my master’s degree
- Starting Soulfree – whenever our projects’ positively impact people, I feel blessed. In the last five years, Soulfree has grown leaps and bounds, and our projects are transforming the lives of hundreds of people living with spinal-cord injury in India. I can only say that I feel privileged to be an instrument of change and am committed to keep working to improve the quality-of-life of persons living with severe disabilities like spinal-cord injury in India, especially women. Perhaps our greatest achievement is in being a ray of light and providing hope to those who
have none.
- My motivational talks – when young college kids stop smoking or drinking because of
something I said, when accomplished professionals suddenly change their perspective of life
and their priorities, when people tell me that I am and inspiration, a role model to them, I feel that my life is serving a greater purpose
- Just the knowledge that people find me Worthy of awards, because they know that I'm
attempting to lead an authentic life, with integrity and with a goal to serve humanity, then I
know I'm fulfilling my highest potential in life.
I have stated these, but I’m not really identified with any of these things. For as long as there
is a breath in this body, I wish to keep doing my best, to keep living in truth and with integrity. I’m filled with happiness, contentment and peace of mind, in the present moment and all I want to do is keep spreading love, laughter and light in this world.

Meeting challenges
My whole life is lived outside the comfort zone – it is difficult emotionally, physically, and the biggest challenge is to find humour, the silver lining and ways to grow through it all. The helplessness and dependence are the biggest challenges that one can never completely
transcend. When you are faced with a lifetime of being paralysed below the neck, of not being able to sit or stand on your own, of not having control over the most basic things like urination or bowel movements, of not being able to move your fingers, of not being able to change the channel or have a bath or any number of things that most people take on a day-to-day basis and of knowing that nobody can really understand how difficult or painful it is to accept, these are definitely major challenges.

I start working at around 10 AM and finish work sometimes as late as 10 PM. Soulfree has no employees, I do most of the work myself, although we have amazing volunteers who support me on many of our projects. I had to learn so much in terms of handling finances, making important decisions, fulfilling income tax, banking and legal aspects of running an NGO, it was a steep learning curve indeed. Working full time, to still find time to look after all of Soulfree's projects, update the website and other social media pages, travel for talks and awards ceremonies, and still have a little time to spend with my friends, it's a huge challenge. To a large extent, my motorised wheelchair has solved my helplessness. I race around everywhere, and have even completed 11 circumambulations (paradakshina) of the holy hill, Arunachala – a 15 km journey from start to finish in the last couple of years. I go out shopping and feel really pumped when I don't have to depend on anyone.

My speech activated software is a boon to me as it allows me to use the computer absolutely independently. I can type at the speed of my dictation, with accuracy and ease. It allows me to work as a writer and earn a living. For a long time, I did not care about my appearance at all. However, when I began to come out of it, I realised that I was quite overweight. As a spokesperson, I never had to count calories, but a quadriplegic cannot eat like everyone else, because there is virtually no exercise.

After a great deal of research, I changed my diet completely and also cured years of problems with constipation. Now, I have lost 10 inches off my waist and feel happy that once I figured out a problem, I could research to find the solution, work towards its implementation and successfully achieve my target. For nearly 16 years after my accident, I never travelled by aircraft because I had a very painful experience, while returning to India after my accident. However, now I'm a different person, and I confidently travel to many places in India on a routine basis. I was also provided a specially altered vehicle, which allows me to travel within the southern states, quite comfortably. So, the saying, where there is a will, there is a way, is completely true.

If one is able to transcend the limitations of the body mind due to clarity of thought and determination of action, then anything is possible. Let the challenges keep coming, I’m confident that they will keep helping me grow into more evolved and better human being. And, that I suppose is the greatest gift of challenges, when we start to enjoy them and develop a positive bring-it-on attitude, then nothing can really bring us down.

Dealing with resistance
Living in a rural area, I have faced a lot of resistance. There is no concept of wheelchair accessibility at all here. People are insensitive because they don't know any better. I just had to realise that it is really not my problem – I am as I am, and if anybody judges me negatively, it is due to their ignorance and insensitivity rather than my condition. I accept myself as I am, and nobody can take away the peace, happiness and sense of contentment I live with.

Now, I'm able to use humour to talk to people openly and change their views. My public speaking is geared at changing perspectives, especially prevailing ideas about persons with disability. Slowly, but surely, I really believe that we can fundamentally change the idea that persons with disability are somehow “less than” and show people that we are positively-abled warriors, who do not wish for pity or sympathy, we just need opportunities to prove that we can become productive citizens.

Perhaps the greatest resistance I have seen in society is in the area of sexuality. There is a notion that persons with disability are asexual and do not or should not have any wish for a meaningful relationship. This is going to require a very deep change, but a lot of work is happening to raise awareness as well as provide platforms for persons with disability to meet other like-minded people. There are lots of positive changes, but there is a lifetime of work ahead and a great deal of awareness that needs to filter into the minds of people for fundamental changes regarding equal opportunity, wheelchair accessibility and other aspects that would transform the quality-of-life of persons living with severe disabilities in India.

Looking ahead
The major areas we need to overhaul to address the needs of people with disability effectively are:
 Wheelchair Accessibility – Soulfree is working on many levels to ensure that all public
buildings, government offices, educational institutions, recreational centres like movie
theatres are wheelchair friendly on a mandatory basis.
 Improved Opportunities – Persons with disability should be given appropriate, if not equal opportunities in education, employment, entrepreneurship, and sports.
 Government Support – there is almost no support from the government in terms of medical and vocational rehabilitation, caregiver training, medical insurance or maintenance of quality-of-life for persons with spinal-cord injury or any other significant disability. This needs to change in a big way.
 Discrimination – perhaps the biggest change that is required as in the general view that most people have, whether it is ordinary citizens, government officials, employers or even family members to think that a disabled person is unworthy of equal treatment. If we recognise that all of us are disabled to some degree, many of where corrective-spectacles or have some flaw and if we do not now, we will in the future. So, why not just accept differences and try to enable and empower instead of judge and belittle.
As a person with spinal-cord injury, as a woman with disability in India, I just wish to say that we do not need or expect pity or any sops, we just need a level playing field to fulfill our dreams and have an equal chance to lead a life of dignity and purpose.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Sailing Leaf

Manmeet Narang is the founder of Sailing Leaf, a program that works with children for creative expression. Here is her story. 

I had an unhappy childhood, in the sense that I had a lonely childhood. I didn't have many friends, and books were my companion. I didn't have many books, either. I have a short story around this. I remember I had been to a friend's place.  I still remember her book very vividly - it had the image of an incubator on the cover, with a bunch of chicks in it. I was very fascinated by the book cover, and really wanted the book. This girl was almost five years older than I was - and I had this one book at my place. So I decided to barter the book with her, and exchanged it with her. I used to read that book for hours and hours. My first brush with reading was with that book. Since then, I have been reading all kinds of books. Even though books were my only companions, my childhood didn't have many books.So I don't have memories of reading Enid Blytons or Famous Five.It is funny that now I am reading all books under the ambit of Children's Literature. May it be picture books or Roald Dahls or Katherine Applegate, they give me such insight and joy. I can go for hours on end, reading books for children. I find myself wondering how these books can impact children's minds. This void is what lets me work with children. On some levels, I've also felt that if I had something handholding me in my childhood, maybe I may have stood on my feet sooner than I have, and come into my own with the understanding that certain things are all a part of growing up, and that this confusion can also be a basis for creativity. Had I had a song in my childhood, it might have been fun. 

The journey into founding Sailing Leaf began with my own children. My daughter is a voracious reader, and writes very well. I thought that having someone to guide and give her a push would be a good idea. Being a trainer, writer and facilitator, I realized that I had the skills to pull it. The idea was fair, and I wanted to, and I had put those little eggs in the incubator. I was already working with kids on a range of themes, and conduct sessions for children on topics like body image and comprehensive sexuality education. In the midst of this I had the chance to take on a project - it was a perfect one for me, really - where I got to venture out into self-expression with kids. One night, I decided to take the plunge. In the day that followed, I designed the entire curriculum and launched a workshop by the name of "The Story of Emoticons," where the primary focus was to come out with your emotions, delve into them, create stories and write letters. The very next day, I launched it on Facebook - without a second thought. That's how the journey began. The name, "Sailing Leaf" was not even coined then. I had no plans then, and till date, haven't had any plans in place - except that I knew that this is important work for children, who go through a lot of emotional upheavals. At the end of the day, pain is what leads to creation, so if you are going through an emotional upheaval, let's bring whatever there is inside out, and create something. The first two workshops, strangely, went full. It's strange, when I look back, and see people who struggle to find associates, find children and advertise - but I haven't struggled since the day I began. It seems like the universe has been with me. I didn't for a second question anything - everything has been instinctive and out of passion. With this unplanned, unscripted route, I never feel tired. I do a lot of work on myself, and I spend time meeting with people - which is training in itself. 

On the last day of the training, I give the children deflated balloons and tell them to blow air into it. I tell them that they have to puncture the balloons of others, but at the same time, they must protect theirs. After they are done playing this game, we have a round of debriefing. A lot of people in the world will try to puncture their balloons - so you have to save your own. At the same time, instead of trying to puncture others' balloon, work on saving yours. Look at what you have, rather than try to compare yourself with others and expect to be like them. I keep a bunch of deflated balloons in the center. Once their balloons are punctured, they are all the more aggressive about puncturing others'. So during the debriefing, I ask them what stopped them from picking up another balloon - and point out to them that their energies are directed towards puncturing another's, instead of making an effort to groom their own. The world out there is going to tell children that they are not good enough or they cannot do something - but it is important for the children to take home the fact that only they know what they are, and should make an effort to be their authentic selves. I leave no stone unturned in making them see and take home the lessons they learned. I tell them that it is their job to move ahead, and to take along those who can benefit from the privilege of learning alongside them. I teach them to see that their parents may not share the new views they learn because they have grown up with a conditioning peculiar to their times - and so, instead of looking upon their parents with anger for not aligning with them, they should aim to take them along in the journey of moving ahead in life. 

Each program ends with a session with parents.So they are also being enrolled and educated about creative processes so that they can provide a conducive environment at home for kids to blossom. I receive beautiful messages from the children and parents after my sessions with them. But there's this spark in the children I work with that keeps me going, and tells me not to give up on this journey. I take only 12 kids in my batch - but in my first workshop, a mother approached me for her daughter, who was in class five. The age group I was working with was between 11 and 14, so I refused the mother. But somehow, something about the mother made me give in and take her daughter in. By the end of the workshop, the child came out jumping. I saw the mother crying - and I was surprised. The mother told me, "You gave my child back to me." I was surprised, and asked her what she meant. The mother told me that the child was being bullied and was rejected at school - and that workshop had changed her life altogether. The mother is still in touch with me, and the child has done nearly all of my workshops since then. To the child, attending these workshops is much like visiting a place of faith, as she comes there to connect with herself. I do this thing in my workshops where I get the kids to pick up a pebble each, and ask them to make a promise that they will implement their lessons learned in their everyday lives. This little girl carries all these pebbles with her, wherever she goes. Recently, on one of her holidays to the hill station, some cousins teased her - and the pebble fell out of her pocket. That night, her parents searched for the pebbles - because that's how important it is for her. This is just one story, but there are many more. However, I am only a medium, a catalyst - the children themselves are being the change, themselves. Even if the children don't continue to write, they find their own ways of self-expression and that matters. 

People have been very generous and supportive so far - my daughter designs my creatives, my husband helps me with all things tech. I don't have a marketing plan, I'm just going with the flow. In January 2016, when I launched my workshop, I didn't think this much work will get done. I believe in physical proximity and working in the same physical spaces as the children I am working with - and I make it a point to create enabling spaces. If I was given a dark or dank room to work in, I would make it a point to create bunting, posters and such for the decoration all by myself. I place a lot of value on emotions, on physical presence and on engaging in person because all that matters a lot.  

As much as children need a facilitator, a guide or a mentor, we equally need these children. The kind of confidence in these children and the change they went through validates my work. As a one-woman army in this work, I handle everything and it gets taxing. But the change I see in these children, I find that it is all worth it. I need them as much as they need me. Every breakthrough is energy in my blood. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

Boss Woman: Shalini Girish

As part of our Boss Woman Series, we bring you stories of entrepreneurs who have gone forth on their own: dealing with challenges of different kinds, starting up without funding and sailing through, and much more. In the first post of this series, Shalini Girish tells her story. Shalini is the brain behind La Elegante. 

I am Shalini: a dreamer, a go-getter. I am strong, yet sensitive to a fault, but a fiercely independent woman. I believe that we soar as high as we set our limits. I am an MBA graduate in finance but doing the degree was more for my family. I was not interested in studying business management, I always wanted to do journalism, but ended up selling jewellery - well, at least, there's a J in both! I have always wanted to travel the world and have been fascinated by travel. I guess fate had other plans. A small consolation though, is that my jewellery is travelling all over the world. I have clients from all over the world, be it Finland or the USA, Africa, most gulf countries, Australia and Bangladesh, and even a dear client from Antarctica! I am the eldest of two sisters and our parents always taught us to stay true to our conscience and  to never give up. My mother is one of the strongest women i have ever met, and remains my inspiration, my strength and my weakness as well. 

I always had an eye for pocket-friendly affordable and wearable jewellery. When I was wondering what to do career wise, a cousin suggested e-Commerce. One thing led to another, and on March 8, 2014, La Elegante became a reality. It was launched with the sole aim of trying to bring curated fine elegant pocket friendly accessories to women all over the world. I run it entirely, and treat it as my baby. Every single aspect is my department, be it procurement, photography, accounting, taxation, coding, sales, marketing, social media presence, packaging and dispatch, logistics and everything else there is. I handle all of it personally, which is both, an advantage and a disadvantage. It is undoubtedly an advantage because I have the pleasure of interacting with my clients, and it is an unparalleled experience that I would never trade for anything else in the world. It is a disadvantage too, because I also have a family to take care of, and anything going on in my personal life can affect my work in equal measure. There are times when I worked through sickness from a hospital bed, from a hospital lobby while nursing a loved one back to health and t he like. Those are times you regret not having another helping hand! That being said, the bliss I experience on seeing a review posted on my page is reward in itself for all this hardship. Recently, I held my first ever exhibition in Chennai. There was this dear client who came all the way from Pondicherry just to meet me and to buy my products. Now, that is unparalleled bliss and I wouldn't trade that for anything! Women all over are constantly juggling and do find themselves, on occasion, caught between their personal and professional lives. My story is no different. It is just that when its your own baby, the stakes are way too high. It is my reputation and integrity which are questioned if i fail to deliver. The constant choices I make to keep both the worlds from colliding are daunting, if not hard.
It is still a man's world. Getting my suppliers to take me seriously is itself a challenge. They are quick to dismiss women like me as bored homemakers out to make a quick buck. On many occasions, we have to be the liaison between the courier company / speed post / customs, and that is a different ball game in itself. I work from home, and there is always the challenge to get people to respect my work and deadlines. The general perception is that "its your home business, so it is not that serious!"  There have been and pretty sure will be, many more challenges. I guess the trick is to keep pushing forward and never to stop learning. Everyday is a learning opportunity. 

I hope to make La Elegante a brand in itself, a one-stop destination for people to pick up carefully curated pocket-friendly jewellery. La Elegante has helped me build some beautiful stories that bring me tears of joy and lots of laughs on difficult days. I had a new client order some stuff, and by the time I could dispatch her order, I had to rush to my hometown since my dad had suffered a massive heart attack. In the chaos, I could not inform her about the unfortunate delay in the dispatch of her products. Finally, she called when I was just jumping into the flight, and I mentioned the issue. Imagine my joy, for when I landed, she called me back just to make sure there was someone at the airport to pick me up and to generally to give me strength! A client once messaged to tell me that even for movies, she could manage to get tickets easier than she could grab my products! Another compared getting my products to getting tatkal tickets. Yet another told me she was planning on quitting Facebook because she was addicted to my page. The one I savour most was when I bumped into a friend and she introduced me to her colleague. We got talking and when this person knew I was into e-commerce, she started talking about how they were the in thing and about how there was this one page she was addicted to. I couldn’t help grin from ear to ear when she told me the name of that page: "La elegante!" A dear client invited me for her wedding and was sweet enough to actually insist on booking tickets for me to attend her wedding. A few of my clients have gone on to become well wishers - although I have not met any of them in person, the love and concern I got from all of them was blissful.