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Interview with Tracy Kunichika, Founder of Operation Shanti

Updated on August 5, 2009

It's hard to believe that more than a year has zoomed by since my first post on Operation Shanti, a not-for-profit, no frills group working to empower the poorest and neediest children and elderly in Mysore, India.

I thought it would be good to get an update from Tracy on the state of affairs at Operation Shanti, and I'm grateful that she took plenty of time to share a thorough update of the progress that they've made over the past year, as well as some insightful observations about their approach to helping their children and families help themselves.

Let's get right to it, shall we?

Ben Kim: Hey Tracy - thanks for taking the time to do this interview. So how are things going these days with Operation Shanti? Maybe you could share some highlights of things that have happened since we first introduced Operation Shanti to our readers last February?

Tracy Kunichika: Time sure flies, can't imagine it's been over a year's been a good and productive year, and Operation Shanti has done a lot during that time.

We've settled nicely into the Karunya Mane (KM) orphanage, and we're at 36 kids there now, ranging from ages three to sixteen (the majority are under age 11).

We're targeting 40 kids for the coming year, and the current batch of 36 all intend to continue living there! The kids are all doing really well, and have made great progress in school and in their study habits. A few local visitors have commented that it's hard to imagine that many used to live on the streets.

Prema and NanjundaThe street boys now living at KM, who used to complain about staying there and often talked about going back to the street now don't say such things anymore. It took a few months but they seem to have settled into new lives at KM, which includes getting a proper education, interacting with others in society (in the form of consistent weekend volunteers), and learning good life lessons.

Prema, the street girl who until now was unable to learn in school because of hearing problems, is now getting solid As and Bs in school, and has greatly improved her concentration and focus.

AnushaWe recently took in little Anusha (age 4) whose mom died a long time ago. Dad left her with grannie and hasn't been seen since. Grannie heard about Karunya Mane, and asked us to take Anusha. Grannie cleans houses and earns about US$20 a month.

We started a new program in September, called Project Food and More. The program distributes care packages each month to very poor kids who have lost one or both parents to an illness, such as HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis, and the child now lives with a relative, often a grandmother or an uncle, who struggles to feed the additional mouth. We have 30 kids in this program, and the care package we distribute is valued at about US$25. It contains practical items such as bath soap, healthy lentils, protein powder, healthy snacks, mosquito repellent, laundry soap, toothpaste, and a little cash.

The grannies and uncles who take care of these kids earn less than US$70 a month, so this care package really helps them out. The ultimate goal of this program, of course, is to get to know these families so that we can help them with other aspects of their lives, like educational opportunities for these kids.

Ben Kim: Sounds like things are moving in a positive direction - thanks for the good update.

Let's shift gears a bit...a lot of the feedback that I've received from our readers on Operation Shanti has been about you, how interesting and inspiring your personal story is. I know that you prefer to focus on Operation Shanti rather than on your story, since, as you once put it, "you want Operation Shanti to go on if you get hit by a bus or something one day," but how about describing what a typical day looks like for Tracy Kunichika in Mysore, India?

Tracy Kunichika: A typical day in Mysore? Well, yes there are those boiling hot days, usually in March/April/May where all I try to do is stay cool.

The great thing about India and it's relative "sparseness" (translation: no A/C!) is that one can get creative...sometimes, on really hot days, I lie on the concrete floor in my house, pour water over myself, and turn on the ceiling fan. Seriously, home-made A/C!

Anyway. It's hard to describe a typical day, since the one thing about this work, combined with doing it in India is the unpredictability of it all.

I get up early, like 3am, mostly (I discovered) because that's the only time of day when there is absolutely no noise -- no honking horns, no buses going by, no people yelling and no neighbor clearing out his nose -- in my neighborhood. Complete silence, it's really nice.

Sometimes I start the day with some sort of exercise -- some asana practice or aerobics -- early in the morning, to get it out of the way and before the heat and pollution and noise arrive. Check email, do some work.

Then, I get to the street to visit our street people around 8:30 in the morning. This time has turned into sort a check-in period. We used to do a few more activities with the kids, like coloring, yoga postures, other games, but most of the street kids are now at Karunya Mane, so we basically check in with the women there. Someone may be sick and has to be taken to the doctor or hospital, other mornings we check out a possible house to rent for one of our street moms, other times we meet someone new.

Our women and men bring us other destitutes, others who need help and can't get it elsewhere. Sometimes this is a kid they know who could greatly benefit from being at our shelter, or a middle-aged man whose burn injuries prevent him from continuing to work but that can be easily fixed with the right plastic surgeon's attention (which we can get for him), or yet another abandoned, emaciated woman who will turn out to have tuberculosis or HIV and needs our help.

During the day, depending on other things-to-do, I visit Karunya Mane to check in with the manager and say hi to the kids, to see how things are going, bring rice and other food supplies.

Sometimes urgent, unexpected situations arise at KM, like a drunk parent tries to take back his kid or the nearby villager making a stink about our dogs fighting with her goats... or the cook runs away... or the new security guard (yes, from the security company!) steals our petty cash.

Other times, someone wants to visit KM, or a new person wants to learn about volunteer activities, so I meet them. Sometimes I take visitors to KM but usually only on Sundays, so we don't disrupt the kids' daily routine.

Other times, a day or several can be all about paperwork -- one of those really boring and tedious necessary evils. And unfortunately, one can run here and there and back and forth and all over again just to get a document signed three times and stamped four times!

On Sundays, we distribute the care packages to our kids in Project Food and More. And it's really a funny thing, because no matter how tired or frustrated I might be at dealing with the red tape or how hot and dusty and sticky I might be, seeing these little ones and their happy, smiling faces always makes me feel less "dusty." It's so easy to smile when they smile, especially knowing all that they struggle with.

And that feeling is the same when I visit our kids at KM, who are so very happy and healthy now. And volunteers tell me this -- which is just so much fun to hear -- we have a group of young volunteers from Infosys who come every Sunday to hang out with our kids, and more than one volunteer has said to me, "I had so many problems before seeing the kids, but whenever I spend time with them, all of my problems go away."

So I guess there's no real typical day in terms of the activities I do. I suppose the "typical-ness" of my days is just keeping my eye on the ball regardless of what gets thrown at me (how about that tennis analogy??!).

And I'm not really sure any of this is inspiring because of what I get back from doing this kind of work. A sacrifice is a loss of some kind, giving up something, right? Well, net-net, there aren't any losses given the returns I get from watching these little kids and our women improve themselves, especially with all of the obstacles they face.

Ben Kim: Thanks a lot, Tracy. I promise not to ask any more personal questions - I know how much you enjoy talking about yourself. By the way, we should mention that you were once and likely still are a household name in tennis circles in Hawaii. Have you been hitting the ball at all?

Tracy Kunichika: Oh I would not be able to last 5 minutes on a tennis court now! Maybe one day we can hobble around on a court... that might be funny.

Ben Kim: I know that it's your and Operation Shanti's goal to help street children, the elderly, and their families learn to help themselves as much as do you and other Operation Shanti workers and volunteers encourage the people you help to keep this in mind, and discourage them from going into dependency mode?

Tracy Kunichika: Good question. Well, the problem in India is the inherent attitude held by many that Westerners have a lot of money and can pay for anything and it's perfectly fine for Indians to ask for anything they want, even non-poor Indians. And we see it a lot on the streets of course.

A tourist bus filled with Westerners will pull up and the little Indian street kids run as fast as they can to these buses, knowing that Westerners are in them and will likely have something to give them -- money, little goodies from their hotel rooms (coins, pens, shampoo bottles, soap, combs, etc.) -- it's just the expectation.

For some of our people, like the older street women we help that we're trying to get off the streets, to do so means that we'll probably be supporting them in some capacity for a long time -- and a lot of them are so bad off that they die on us even after medical attention. In these cases, we're just about humanity and pure charity, because there are too many like this living on the streets of India. It's like they have less than nothing because they can't even be human beings.

Others, like the younger street women, the moms to our kids for example, are more capable -- they are stronger most of the time, and are happy to remain as independent as they can be. All they want is housing so they don't have to sleep on the street at night, and to know that we are there as a backstop in case something big or bad happens to them. They've never had this before.

Sreenevasa planting a fruit tree at Karunya ManeThe kids, on the other hand, are easier in some ways. There are two different aspects that we are dealing with in India, when it comes to teaching independence in the kids we help. One challenge is that, in Indian society, it is the norm for kids to live with their parents until they get married, and even after that, as the new wife usually moves in with the husband's family and becomes basically a servant by default for mother-in-law. And, having been in many households (both rich and poor) by now, many mothers there do not teach their kids to be independent but instead do everything for them. This isn't necessarily good or bad, but there seem to be aspects to the culture that we need to address when we think about "dependency" issues.

This hit me the other day when I heard Michelle Obama talking about life in the White House for her kids. She was saying that she didn't want her girls to be spoiled there or to be treated like princesses, because they had to do their chores, dress themselves, make their beds, so they would grow up to be independent adults who knew how to take care of themselves. I remember the same message from my parents -- they were there to support me but also taught me how to do things on my own and gave me chores and responsibilities. This is just not the way a lot of Indian society works when it comes to children. Many may disagree with me, but it's just my opinion based on years of observation and conversation with Indian moms.

We have rules in place at our shelter that address the dependency issue. The kids have chores, there is no difference between our boys and girls in terms of expectations, and they are taught to be responsible for their actions (this was a new one for them!). They are told that they must do their homework and try their best in school. We remind them that they have a lot of good stuff at the shelter -- good schooling, great food, excellent medical support -- and that they should not take anything for granted but to put it all to good use. We address this ingrained attitude that "Westerners give us stuff" by not allowing any visitors or donors to give our kids anything directly, except for snacks. All donations of stuff (bags, clothes, toys, etc.) go to the manager, who stores them in our storage area and uses them as needed. Donors are sometimes disappointed that they can't give things directly to the kids, but we're firm with this rule.

So, some of the people we help are so far gone in terms of destitution that we are there not to get them to be independent but to simply make them start to feel like a human being again. We knew this when we started this work, specifically because of the group we are targeting. But that independent streak often comes out once they see that they have some support of some kind, from someone, after living their entire lives with no support (try to imagine what that must be like).

And I'll tell you, these people give back in their own ways -- they send other destitutes to us who are sick or need help, they help us and stand up for us while we're on the street, they try to give us things -- vegetables, flowers for our hair... sometimes our volunteers are absolutely floored when this happens.

The kids are another story, and we and they expect that they will grow up to be independent, self-sufficient adults. They just need what we "have's" had as kids -- support, education, and proper guidance during their formative years.

Hope that makes sense?

Ben Kim: It does - very insightful, thank you. One last question for now: how is Operation Shanti doing fiscally? Is the state of our economy affecting donations that are essential to keep your programs healthy?

Tracy Kunichika: Despite the economic downturn that is affecting everyone, we feel like we've got good momentum with our programs.

We have received a lot of help this past year, help that may seem relatively "small" in size but huge (and greatly appreciated) especially given the tough times that we're all facing. And it really does add up!

A lot of this help has been from your readers, and we thank you so much for this! Most importantly, we really believe that we are helping our kids begin to live different, improved lives -- not just because they're getting an education, but because they are being exposed to more productive elements of their society is having a positive impact on their growth and development.

Ben Kim: Thanks Tracy. You're clearly doing meaningful work, and we're definitely rooting for everyone involved with Operation Shanti.

Tracy Kunichika: Thanks Ben.


To learn more about Operation Shanti, please view my original post here:

Operation Shanti - Empowering the Poorest and Neediest

To support Operation Shanti with a donation of any amount (every dollar is extremely helpful), please visit:

Operation Shanti


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