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The Banyan Fundraiser Rakes in Over $13,000 for India’s Mentally Indisposed

By Kalyani Giri

HOUSTON: Try to imagine the unimaginable plight of the mentally indisposed. Trapped in a mind you have no control over, you hear voices that no one else  hears. You’re paralyzed with a terror you cannot fathom…and you stumble, trying to shake loose those infernal voices in your head. Suddenly, in a rare moment of clarity, you glance around and see people averting their eyes or staring at you in naked disgust. And you cringe, unable to comprehend the rejection. If you’re a woman already rendered vulnerable by gender, a disease of the mind makes survival a harrowing hour-to-hour battle.

From left: Gopal Bathija, Latika Bathija and Balraj Vasudevan at The Banyan Brunch, a fundraising event

In India where there is a greater stigma attached to mental illness, activists in that country and in the USA are striving to garner support in helping those hapless women through a Chennai-based humanitarian organization, The Banyan. The non-profit group, formed in 1993, reaches out to women who have been thrust into the streets by their families and left to fend for themselves.

“These women are the most marginalized faction of society, and if we do not extend a helping hand, then there is no hope of their survival and that is such a tragedy,” said local spokesperson and liaison for The Banyan, Latika Bathija. She visited the organization’s headquarters in Chennai last year and moved by compassion, decided to further The Banyan’s reach by creating awareness  through fundraising endeavors.

Lathika Bathija, holds up a poster for the Banyan Tree Project

“I saw how well these women were being taken care of, and how much effort was being put into teaching them life skills and preparing them to be independent so they can assimilate back into society when they are ready,” added Bathija. The prolific young woman and former owner of Ashiana Indian  Restaurant became actively involved in the organization about two years ago when she sold her business. The Banyan fulfilled her philanthropic need to give back to her former hometown, Chennai.

On Saturday, March 5, Bathija and her husband Gopal hosted The Banyan Brunch, a fundraising event, at their sumptuous Lakes of Parkway home. The soiree, that garnered over $13, 000 for the worthy cause, drew a distinguished and affluential gathering from the diverse communities of this city. Guests   mingled over cocktails and relished the delectable buffet catered by Ashiana Restaurant, with desserts created by Rumki Das Gupta, all aesthetically arranged by Bathija. A special guest visiting from Chennai was Balraj Vasudevan, a trustee at The Banyan and a long time friend of Bathija and her husband; Vasudevan was also present at the first fundraiser hosted by them at the Mumbai Spice Restaurant last year.

Following brunch, guests were acquainted with The Banyan by Bathija and Vasudevan. The organization was formed sixteen years ago by two young social work students Vandana Gopikumar and Vaishnavi Jayakumar, who were deeply concerned that there weren’t any core support facilities in place for mentally ill and homeless women. Recognizing the dire loophole in the system, they started The Banyan as an NGO and rented a three-bedroom building to run a care and rehabilitation center which they called Adaikalam, which means Refuge in the Tamil language. Since then the organization has mushroomed and has helped change the lives of over 5000 women. More than 1,500 women have been rescued from the streets, given medical attention, rehabilitated, taught job skills,  and are leading productive lives in the community. The organization has three care centers in Chennai with full-time employees and part-time trained psychiatrists and psychologists; it also operates largely through the dedicated support of volunteers who tirelessly render crucial service. The Banyan runs outreach programs that educate and teach lessons in sensitivity to the public about mental illness. The annual budget for The Banyan is $700, 000, an amount the organization often falls short of.

“We make up the money by requesting donors from all over the world to fill in,” said Vasudevan.

Elated that The Banyan is receiving a wider audience, and grateful to her guests who opened their hearts and pocketbooks to help, Bathija is even more convinced of the vital role she has in the endeavor.

From left: Hiru Mathur Latika Bathija Mandy Kao at The Banyan Brunch

“It is evident in the care that the women are getting and in the enthusiasm  of the volunteers that The Banyan is a worthy cause to support,” said Bathija.

For more information on The Banyan visit http://www.thebanyan.org and http://www.fotb-usa.org.

To donate funds, visit  http://www.facebook.com/l/dabcdA8n-MtsbNdVOhXeNbj7mTw/www.fotb-usa.org.

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