One afternoon. One woman. One idea. One cellphone. These are the ingredients to spark a revolution.
Some memories seep into your psyche, especially the ones you make as a child. Thirty-five-year-old Archana Suresh’s cornerstone, in that regard, is vivid images of taking the car out at night in the streets of Hyderabad and Secunderabad and throwing a blanket or two on the homeless as they slept.
But, what changed the trajectory of her life was when her mother explained why the disparity between the haves and have-nots has stood the test of time. Ironically, the older generation had the intent, but not access to social media or technology to bank upon to make a difference. Today’s generation however has all the means at its disposal but lack the will to go out and make a change. This gnawed away at Archana’s mind, till she decided it was futile to wait until she was more well-disposed or had a bigger army, because change can be measured by a single smile even – which can be brought about by a single person.
And she was ready to be that person.
The drop that made far-reaching ripples
“It was 2012, when my mother and I talked about how if the haves just rounded up the things they don’t use and dispense it among the ones in need – that would help uplift so many lives. She always wanted to do something like Bring A Smile (BAS) but could not because of the lack of means in their generation. I realised how we have it so much easier with technology and social media, and support streams in from all and sundry,” Archana recounts.
She simply sent out a text message to the residents of her society, Indu Fortune Fields, to set aside anything they were not using any longer. In return, she got her neighbours interested in executing the campaign. “Everybody was on board. When I told them I could handle the content, another man came forward stating he owned a printing press and would print a thousand pamphlets. The newspaper man said he would distribute it for free in the locality. This whole thing was set in motion by one message,” she recalls. Eventually, 40 households came together, and collected items that lasted donation drives for a year.
They followed this format until 2013. The turning point for Archana, however, was when she cremated her mother three years ago, after losing her to cancer. “She was a very kind soul, and to honour her wishes, I decided to go full steam ahead with Bring A Smile,” she says.
Straddling two worlds
By day, Archana is a corporate communications professional – for 12 years she has worked for companies like Yahoo, HSBC and Microsoft in the IT hub. But in 2012, she started chipping away at the concept of Bring A Smile to perfect it.
Not wanting to pigeonhole BAS into just one arena like education or infrastructure, the format they established was like a Rotary or Lion’s club – except, the focus was entirely on community service. Hence, whenever Archana or the people associated with her on social media identified any organisation or individual in trouble, they would approach them, vet them, and take stock of their requirements. Archana would then post the requirements on the Facebook page and WhatsApp groups she had created; that came to be populated with more and more people interested in her work and wanting to help out.
At one time, she was at Karachi Bakery when an idea struck her. She asked what they did with the leftovers. On learning that they threw them away, she approached the owner of the bakery at Times Food Festival and asked him if she could pick up the leftover food and distribute it among the poor. Two hundred orphaned children who come back from school with empty stomachs have been eating leftover food from the bakery for six months, rather than the puffed rice they’d get before that. “The whole intent is to create a ripple of action. It’s such an easily replicable model,” she says, adding that she would want BAS to have more such chapters in other cities someday.
She says that social media and WhatsApp groups made sure she never had to look too far or wait too long for help. “There have been friends from school and college who do not live in Hyderabad anymore, but are still keen on offering financial aid. Initially, I was reluctant about taking money from them, but thought of how much they could help organisations in need. So, I urged donors to make direct contributions to the organisations I have worked with, and, in turn, I would send them receipts as far as possible so that they could see where their money was deployed,” she says.
They even got a bank account and a PAN number recently, and registered Bring A Smile formally as a trust. Over 6,500 underprivileged people have been aided with daily necessities, like clothes, toys, footwear, utensils, etc. The education of 56 orphan kids was sponsored in 2015 and 2016, 2,300 blankets were distributed to the homeless in the winters of 2015 and 2016, over a thousand notebooks were distributed to kids in Hyderabad and Adilabad district in June 2017. They even provided seed capital to a partially handicapped man to start his entrepreneurial venture Curry Point in 2015, and sponsored a wheelchair for another partially handicapped man who reached out to them in 2015.
The number of smiles she brought
Bring A Smile has over 200 members, out of which 50 are active. “There have been times when no one showed up for a scheduled distribution drive so I’d drag my husband and we’d carry it out. While I want to gather a large army of Good Samaritans, I don’t need all those people to get started,” she explains.
Besides this, Archana gives immense credit to corporates for coming through and backing her work. Her friend Aditi Sen’s company HyGro Chemicals sponsored a school van for 60 kids of an orphanage in Miyapur; these kids earlier had to change three vehicles just to get to school.
Merck Pharmaceuticals, under its Helping True Heroes campaign, recognised her work and made a video on her that got 7 lakh-odd views and presented her with an award last month, all of which majorly boosted BAS’ outreach.
Another noteworthy campaign was for an orphanage in Kukatpally that had metallic rods jutting out, which Bring A Smile helped renovate.
“WhatsApp groups really help. One lady had to take two injections for Rs 70,000 – one member came forward within four hours with the funds and she got her injections the very next day. There are large-hearted people, they just need legitimate platforms,” she notes.
At present, she is trying to alleviate the condition of a government school in her vicinity, which cannot afford the Rs 4,000 salary of a cleaner and the Rs 8,000 salary of a teacher. Their roster contains 200-300 students, but hardly 50 of them attend school. They use a column of bags to separate the grade two and grade three classrooms, and have one single teacher teaching both classes. Another blanket distribution drive will be conducted in November, and they also want to sponsor the school fees of orphans.
“We would like to hire a volunteer to help us operationally, if we can afford it. Balancing a full-time job and a passion to help the underprivileged is a challenge. I wish I could do BAS full time!” she says, signing off.
The bank account details for Bring a Smile for transfers (only from Indian bank account holders) are the following:
Account name: Bring a Smile
Bank & Branch: ICICI Bank, Khairatabad Branch
Current Account number: 000805016893
IFSC code: ICIC0000008
MICR code: 500229002
Also, once a bank transfer is made, a mail needs to be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org with the donor's name and phone number so that Archana can keep you in the loop about how your donation is being spent.