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“When I got my visa for the U.S. I was so happy,” Usha Shrivas said. “It’s very rare for a young person living in a slum to get a U.S. visa.”

The young Indian woman was addressing the sold-out crowd at at Black Stallion Winery in Napa, which hosted the 20th annual fundraiser for Asha, a community service organization dedicated to improving the lives of the slum dwellers of Delhi, India.

Shrivas’ story was a powerful illustration of what Asha has achieved since its founding by Dr. Kiran Martin in 1988. A young doctor from Delhi, Martin went into the slums of her city to give vaccinations during a cholera outbreak and left determined to change the lives of the millions of slum dwellers.

What began as an effort to train residents as community health volunteers has grown into Asha (Hindi for “hope”) an organization that has brought clean water, better housing, business opportunities, and, perhaps, most importantly, education to Delhi’s slums.

Shrivas described her life, growing up in the slum of Ekta Vihar in Delhi, where she lived with streets filled with garbage, with open sewage drains running through the community and one public toilet.

“My three siblings and I have seen poverty all of our lives,” she said. Her father, an illiterate gardener, earns about $200 a month, she said. “Do you know? I never had breakfast and never took lunch to school. Chicken was made in our home only once in three weeks. I always wore old clothes that my mother would get from homes where she worked.

“I would go to the market to collect just one bucket of water as there was no water supply in my community,” she said. “As a child, I remember waiting half an hour to use this dirty public toilet. I thank God that since my life has changed and we have our own toilet.

Asha, she said, changed her life. “I first entered the beautiful Asha center when I was 9 years old. I joined the Asha children’s group. I would love to come there after school. We played games, read books and learned about our rights and responsibilities.”

Through Asha, she learned English. “Without Asha, I would never have been able to stand before you today and speak like this,” she said. Asha workers also encouraged her parents to let her stay in school.

“When I was younger, the girls in our community would be married by the age of 11 or 12. Hardly any girls went to school. I was one of the few lucky ones whose parents allowed me to go.”

She was able not only to finish high school but to apply to study at the University of Delhi.

“Asha assisted me with educational resources for my high school exam and showed me how to apply to university, which was something I had no idea about. Dr. Kiran paid my university fees.

“In fact, I was so ignorant that during the university admission process period, I went to my village with my family. I did not realize the mistake I was making. The Asha team kept phoning me to return. But by the time I came back, I had missed the deadline. Just imagine, Dr. Kiran phoned the vice chancellor of the university and through his intervention I was able to get in. I can hardly believe what I did, when I think about it today.”

Initially, Shrivas said, she was nervous and anxious at college. “Everyone had smartphones, were from highly educated and rich families, and spoke very good English.”

Nonetheless, she succeeded, graduated, obtained an internship, and was accepted to the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. Today, she works as a television journalist. “I am the daughter of a gardener, but I hold my head high with the belief in the equal worth of every individual that Dr. Kiran taught us.”

The Napa connection

Napa made its connection with the work of Kiran Martin when U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson and his wife, Jan, made a congressional trip to Delhi more than 20 years ago. Jan Thompson, a nurse, toured a slum and learned about the work Asha was doing there. Returning to the U.S., they enlisted the help of K.C. Chaudary, a Napa businessman, and native of Delhi.

Chaudary became the driving force in organizing an annual fundraiser to support Asha, and Dr. Martin makes an annual trip to attend and share the progress of her projects, bringing with her young Indians, like Usha. The 2018 Asha Day was the 20th event in Napa Valley.

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Mike and Jan Thompson were at the Asha Day fundraiser on Sept. 8, and where the congressman led a fundraising auction noting that “$50 provides health care for one person for a year. Nowhere in the Fifth Congressional District can $50 provide that.”

Thompson also provided congressional recognition for Chaudary and for Harjeet “Jeet” and Prabhjot Bhangoo, owners of Aroma Indian restaurant in Napa. For the past five years, since opening Aroma, the Bhangoos have donated a meal for the gala, and this year, they also donated one of the top lots at the event, an opportunity to work with the Aroma staff and prepare a dinner for 10 friends. Bidding was so spirited they agreed to double the lot.

“I’ve been thinking about what this Asha journey has meant for so many of us in Napa who have shared many Asha days,” said Lana Stanley, a long-time Asha supporter. “I became acquainted with Dr. Martin 14 years ago. We heard the tale of gradual transformation of life in the impoverished slums of Delhi in a cozy living room in the Napa Valley.

“My husband, David and I also attended the Asha fundraiser that year. At the time, we didn’t have a lot of resources to donate to NGOs (non-governmental organizations) but from the very beginning Dr. Martin’s message was compelling…one where a small donation could mean so much.”

Stanley was inspired to visit India and see the work of Asha. “During that visit, in two brief days, I had the opportunity to meet with the Asha team ... we gathered with the health workers, the leaders of the women’s groups and the impressive 11- to 12-year-old leaders of the children’s groups, and concluded with a meeting with the college students. All of these leader/participants had a focus on core Asha values and on helping those around them.

“Like Usha, they did not gloss over the difficulties of living/ growing up in poverty. But they were living with the knowledge that Asha had improved their health, their living conditions, their opportunities and there hearts were full of gratitude and the knowledge that they must give back.”

It was a message that Usha Shrivas confirmed as she spoke in Napa. “Just as I had a mentor, today I am mentor to many Asha students who would like to make a career in journalism,” she said. “Together we are determined to work hard to make our vision come true. And we will not stop until we have reached every slum in the capital of India.”

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Features Editor

Sasha Paulsen has been features editor at the Napa Valley Register since 1999. A graduate of Napa High School, she studied English at UC Berkeley and St. Mary's College and earned a Masters in Journalism from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.