Q&A with Tejaswini Narayanan, founder of nonprofit SwaJanam

Tejaswini_HeadshotWhat inspired you to start SwaJanam?

I have been volunteering for organizations from a very young age, thanks to my parents who seeded the interest in me with their involvement in scribing for exams for the visually challenged. During grad school at UCSD, I registered myself as a volunteer instructor for English as a Second Language (ESL). I was contacted for the ESL classes and started to teach ESL to visually challenged kids in a school in rural India. We used to conduct the ESL classes via Skype, and that is when I realized the hardships of schools in remote locations. Basic amenities such as power, chairs and tables are a luxury and I recognized that visual feedback is important but not necessary to learn a language faster. That’s when the idea of SwaJanam (“Swa” – Our; “Janam” – People) was born. I wanted to work with struggling schools and not only provide them with infrastructure but also collaborate with hospitals to conduct eye operations to potentially restore vision.

What exactly does your organization do?

Our organization’s motto is “Helping to Help.” While India is one of the fastest developing countries in the world, the differences in social strata are stark. A number of schools, hospitals and orphanages in rural India lack resources to operate fully. SwaJanam aims to provide the necessary amenities to mitigate these hardships, using funds from donations. SwaJanam partners with eye hospitals and funds eye transplants and cataract operations for the economically challenged and promotes eye care awareness.

How are your projects typically funded?

SwaJanam is an organization FOR our people, BY our people. We thrive on donations from corporations and the public. FireEye Inc. and Pure Storage are our generous corporate donors, with whom we have collaborated on multiple projects. The hospitals we collaborate with do their part of funding by providing us concessions or free eye awareness camps.

What has SwaJanam accomplished so far?

  1. FireEye Inc. conducted a water bottle drive and distributed more than a 150 bottles, notebooks, and pencils for Children’s Day at the PUP School, Varattinapalli, Tamil Nadu.
  2. SwaJanam sponsored Annual Sports Day at the Intensive English Language Center (IELC) School for the Blind in Bargur, Tamil Nadu.
  3. FireEye Inc. donated 12 study tables to the PUP school. The tables are used by more than 100 students.
  4. School stationary drive by PureStorage for schools in Chintagam Palli post and Chinnamatra Palli post.

What is SwaJanam working on now?

SwaJanam is collaborating with one of the biggest eye hospitals in India: Dr. Agarwal’s Eye Hospital. The hospital is working on a project called Glued IOL and the new surgical technique is now helping thousands of Aphakic patients. The cost of one surgery is about INR 60,000 ($927 USD) and Dr. Agarwal’s eye hospital is willing to subsidize the surgery to only be the cost of consumables, INR 15,000 ($231 USD) per eye. SwaJanam is currently sponsoring 15 elderly unsupported patients that are in need of this surgery. SwaJanam is partnered with Nethradhama Super Specialty Eye Hospital to sponsor more than 50 cataract operations for the year 2015.

Was there any class, professor, event, etc. that was particularly memorable to you, OR that led you to creating this organization?

My Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Shankar Subramaniam, and my friends from his lab knew when I was teaching ESL classes, (it used to be in the wee hours–there’s a big time difference in India), and they were all very understanding and supportive of this cause, obliging to any changes in my schedule for the next day. I am still very much in touch with my advisor, for without his support, while simultaneously being the best Ph.D. advisor one could have, this organization wouldn’t have gone into effect this early.