MCLEAN, VA - Drawn from places as varied as Arizona and London, New York and India, hundreds of volunteers last week found themselves in an unassuming hotel just outside Washington, joining together near the nation's capital to help its homeless.
Traditional Indian music blared in a wide, low-ceilinged room at the bottom of the hotel’s spiral stairs. Volunteers flanked long rows of narrow tables, whole families joking over piles of supplies as an organizer called out encouragement from a stage.
“How’s the josh?” he asked, Hindi for enthusiasm, to cheers from a jovial crowd.
More than 700 people packed shampoo, combs and other basic hygiene supplies into kits for distribution to homeless shelters and orphanages across the country.
After three hours, they’d assembled roughly 15,000 packs of hygienic supplies.
Most of the kits will stay in the D.C., area, distributed by eight local partners, but nearly 4,500 will make their way back to partners in Los Angeles and elsewhere, as event planners return home. Friday’s event was hosted by Shrimad Rajchandra Love and Care (SRLC), an India-based nongovernmental organization with roots in Jainism.
Volunteers slipped into the kits for those experiencing homelessness messages of love and support, hand-drawn by the children who attended.
“We want to pack so much of our love into these bags that they [the recipients] feel it as well,” said Parthvi Harde, a college student and head of public relations.
SRLC started its American chapter just two years ago and has since opened 19 domestic chapters spanning the country. Chintan Mehta, a member of the board of trustees, estimates that the NGO’s volunteers have put in more than 10,000 hours of community service and have “touched the lives” of at least a million people.
“We wanted to perform selfless service ... whether that selfless service happens in India or it happens straight in our backyard,” Mehta said.
The eight recipient organizations included the U.S. Labor Department and some smaller organizations like the Grace DC Homeless Project, which provides meals to the local homeless population.
“When this opportunity came up, I was like 'absolutely ... I can always find a home for this stuff,' ” said Gina G. Jamaldinan, the project’s founder and president. Her organization will receive 1,500 kits that it will distribute monthly alongside its own free meals.
“As the years pass, I feel like the need keeps getting greater and greater,” she said. “[But], I feel like the impact becomes greater and greater to continue doing stuff like that.”
For many volunteers, their work was integral to their faith. They stressed the importance of “seva,” or “selfless service,” both for vulnerable populations and for their personal beliefs.
“It's unbelievable what the need is, the number of people who just need basic necessities like what we are putting together,” said Mehta, the board member. “But we are the ones who are actually benefiting the most, because the fulfillment, the love that we get is tremendous.”
People of all ages and abilities participated. Children illustrated the personalized cards in each hygiene kit, while older adults were provided chairs and shorter shifts if they got tired.
"If you’re willing and able, we will try to make it happen,” Mehta said.
For Kelly Scharff, the SRLC's humanitarian work transcends language. Her parents are both American, so she learned about the group through a childhood friend.
“I’m learning [Hindi], but I definitely don’t understand it — but it’s never about intellectual understanding,” she said. “The atmosphere [at these volunteer events] is something you don’t find anywhere else. The energy is crazy.”
The energy also was well-planned. Dozens of volunteers worked 15 hours a week or more for four months, nights and weekends, to put it all together.
India's ambassador to the U.S., Harsh Vardhan Shringla, attended Friday’s event, as well as Raj Shah, a former White House deputy press director.
“One thing we all have in common is we all want to do good,” said the Rev. Walter Kedjierski, a leader in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The crowd, mostly Jainists, clapped and cheered.