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To serve is a simple thing. If you’re a child, it takes one question. If you’re an adult, it takes initiative. Or willingness, at least, to say yes to your children. When I was a child, I asked that one question. My father had recently returned from a business trip and he was showing me the pictures he had taken while abroad. They depicted children who had no education. They didn’t have books either, my dad said.
My question was, “Can I send my old books to them?” I was seven years old, and this seemed like a simple request.
My parents said yes.
For how could they say no? They had consistently taught me that the world is one family. Raised as a Bahá’í, I learned at a young age that it is our duty to serve mankind. So when I saw my brothers and sisters suffering on the opposite side of the world, I couldn’t just sit around. Especially when reading was my favorite hobby. My seven-year-old mind could not process the state of having no books.
So, my mom and dad drove me around on Saturdays to collect used books from friends, family, and neighbors. Local schools held book drives, local Rotary clubs donated money to ship the books. Our initiative was called Project Book Angels. Simple enough.
Four years later, a tragedy hit southern Asia. The tsunami of 2004 overwhelmed my 11-year-old self. I could hardly process the images shown on CNN, nor could my parents watching the screen behind me. I only thought of one thing. “Can we go over and help them?” I said, craning my neck to look at my mom and dad sitting on the couch. They looked at each other and said, “Why not?”
Of course it wasn’t as simple as that—there was the fundraising, the endless planning, the whole life-changing thing. But their willingness granted me the opportunity to serve others. I can’t think of a better lesson for parents to teach their children. With that yes, my parents gave me the opportunity to learn how to care for others. They granted me the chance to see the product of hard work; they showed me what service really means.
After appearing in local newspapers and on local news shows, my family was able to raise over $22,000. I think most of it can be attributed to our small community of Fairport, New York—mostly everyone knew the Yogachandras and they trusted the fact that all of their donated money would go straight to the tsunami victims.
We spent a month (from February to March of 2005) traveling around South India and Sri Lanka doing whatever we could. We visited schools, refugee camps, and villages. All we carried was money and my collection of Beanie Babies stuffed animals. At each stop, we asked the people what they needed. They weren’t greedy—they didn’t want a shiny new school or brand new equipment—mostly they asked for hurricane lamps to resume their livelihood of fishing. Schools asked for textbooks in their local language, and children asked for book bags. They simply wanted to carry on with their way of living. They wanted to feel normal again.
Once we returned home, weary and exhausted, we experienced a bigger culture shock re-entering the United States. We were surrounded by materialism once again. I didn’t fit in with my middle school class. My dad suggested that we start a registered non-governmental organization and move to India. This time it was my turn to say, “Why not?”
Hope is Life Foundation became a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in the state of New York that summer. We then moved to India in August 2005. To say that it was a hard move would be an understatement. I missed home more than I can describe.
But eventually came the days that didn’t end in tears. I made friends, and we continued with the foundation work. We sponsored children to go to school, provided educational materials to neighboring village schools, and promoted the education of girls in a largely patriarchal society. Then came time to go to high school, and I needed a better international school in order to get into a good university.
My parents gave me the option of moving back home to Fairport, New York, or to continue our projects elsewhere, mostly likely in Asia. I missed my friends immensely, but I couldn’t picture myself fitting back into a suburban high school atmosphere. So we chose Thailand, mostly because my dad had previously worked there for Kodak before he met my mother, and he spoke the language. I attended a prestigious international school and continued work for Hope is Life on the weekends.
The promotion of education was at the forefront of our minds—and since Thailand is a hub for sex trafficking, we became heavily involved with providing an education for victims. We traveled to Cambodia and Vietnam, working with local, like-minded organizations. And all along the way, I remained a “normal” teenager—worrying about grades, boys, and what I was going to wear to our next school dance.
Despite the suffering my parents and I have seen and experienced, I never regret what we gave up to pursue a life of service. There were the days of indescribable loneliness and weeks of hopelessness. Yet we would walk outside and travel to poor, rural villages and see that hope we had lost. They were living on dirt floors, yet could laugh with all the joy in the world. I truly believe the people that we helped taught me more than what we gave them. And for that, I am eternally grateful—especially to my parents, who gave me this opportunity. Without them, I would not be here. I would not be the chairperson of Hope is Life Foundation. I would not be a rising senior at New York University, nor a published writer in numerous journalistic outlets.
Although the mission of Hope is Life is to eradicate illiteracy around the world, we also hope to inspire others to serve. And by serve, I don’t mean move halfway across the globe and live in a tiny village. I mean be nice to your neighbor. Teach your children how to give and how to graciously receive. Avoid idle gossip and encourage unity in diversity. To serve is a simple thing.
Natascha Yogachandra is entering her senior year at New York University, where she will graduate with a degree in Journalism and Anthropology. She is also chairperson of Hope is Life Foundation—find out more at www.hopeislife.org.
Updated on 9.10.13