Even during his school days Vishnu Soman knew that he wanted to pursue something in the creative field. It comes as no surprise then, that even though he studied to be a mechanical engineer, he founded Simleys India, an NGO that aims to foster the acculturation of art, culture and sports in society. It primarily encourages and motivates individuals and volunteers to explore their passion. “My habit of volunteering, as a part of my school curriculum, gave me my first platform to explore my passion. Volunteering with organizations like Bhumi, and a few organizations in Dubai, gave me an opportunity to put my ideas into action in the international arena.”
After returning to India, Vishnu started his own volunteer group, in 2011. Presently, he also works with Enable India as a ‘Volunteer Manager’ – handling their volunteer and internship programmes.
“We aim to take art, culture, sports, and technology to the lesser privileged sections of society, and help them explore and understand their passion. We believe that everyone in society needs help in exploring their passion; so we try to match their passion with the task they do at our organization. We have many volunteers who have switched careers, or have taken up part-time opportunities around initiatives they are passionate about,” says Vishnu.
Here are some of the interesting initiatives that attract a lot of volunteers.
Paint for a Cause – Volunteers and participants paint the walls of government schools, orphanages, libraries, etc. to show support or spread the word about a particular cause. Vishnu adds, “Apart from the primary purpose of protecting a wall, we find painting (wall doodles and graffiti) to be one of the best methods of conveying a message.”
Let’s Recycle – Team members and experts conduct recycling workshops to teach volunteers and students the basics of recycling and waste management.
Smile TV – Amateur photographers come onboard as volunteers to help NGOs develop better quality content. Professional photography and film making are expensive affairs – these are services that the NGOs cannot usually afford.
Annual Toy Drive – This is a new initiative. Volunteers collect toys that are in relatively good condition. They then sort and clean them for redistribution to kids of the underprivileged in slums; and also in government schools. Vishnu adds, “Any volunteer can come up with an original idea, and we try and make it happen. Some of the new ideas are: Ice-creams-on-street, Make-over-Mania (for the visually impaired), Sunday Surprise at Orphanages, etc.”
Tandav – a Dance Festival with a difference
The Tandav festival brings together people who are visually impaired, physical disabled, hearing impaired, born with Downs’ syndrome, Autism, Cerebral Palsy, etc. They are joined by kids from orphanages and the lower sections of society, who act as volunteers. These volunteers guide the visually impaired, or learn sign-language to interact with the hearing impaired. They also help them sense the rhythm of music – by using a combination of the music’s beat and the human touch of the volunteers.
Vishnu says. “People from all backgrounds come to celebrate this togetherness. It provides a platform for kids and people with disabilities to get exposed to various forms of dance and its intricacies.”
Smileys India also hosts the Social Media Day for Good which is an event where volunteers across Bangalore help NGOs create their social media footprint.
“In 2014, 122 volunteers (from Smileys) helped 200+ kids in one day (at the Tandav Dance Festival). Kids were exposed to seven different forms of dance,” says Vishnu.
Tandav is our biggest event and it has seen a rise in the number of volunteers. “We don’t try to retain our volunteers but we do believe in creating and building volunteers for the country as a whole. Our next initiative is based on this idea – it is called Volunteer Factory. We aim to add 5000 volunteers every year,” says a confident sounding Vishnu.
Apart from Vishnu, the other members of the core team are: Reji, Vishal, Apoorva, and Divya. Vishnu explains their roles and responsibilities: “Reji runs a school in Nagaland. At present he handles Smiley TV, but we could soon see a couple of activities happening in Nagaland, too. Vishal Soman is my brother – he is a freelance photographer and he handles the entire media side of Smileys. Apoorva is a volunteer who brings in corporate engagements for us. Divya, the youngest of the lot, is getting ready to campaign across colleges.”
They are crowd funded right now, though they do get some help from corporates who sponsor raw materials, etc., for events like Paint for a Cause. According to Vishnu there is some government work on the anvil: “We are about to begin some work with the government. It’ll be the first time for us and we’re excited. We are looking really forward to working with the government.”
Speaking about their current challenges, Vishnu says, “Right now our major challenge is to engage the increasing number of volunteers with the right initiatives. This year we’ve seen a surge in students as volunteers; we’re now working at developing more tasks that will interest the students, too.”
On a parting note, Vishnu tells us about what sets Smileys India apart from any other organization: “We match our volunteers’ passion to the task given to them. This in turn makes us a group of passionate people.”
Vishnu dreams of creating a positive and inclusive community for the marginalized sections of the community. We should all applaud his commitment and zest for life.