Alys Francis speaks to TIS Community Award-winners on what spurs them to work so relentlessly for those in need
“Doing something with the elderly was always something close to my heart,” says Sandra D’Souza, TIS Person of the Year
“Someone has to do community work. Otherwise community won’t run forward… and the community must always move forward,” Venkat Nookala, TIS Person of the Year
What does Indian classical music have in common with caring for the elderly? Both pursuits won recognition at this year’s TIS Community Awards – which celebrates the unsung community heroes of Australia’s fast growing South Asian society.
Few people would give up a high-flying executive career for Aged care. That’s exactly what Sandra D’Souza did, and she’s not regretted it for a moment. “Doing something with the elderly was always something close to my heart,” said D’Souza, who took home this year’s TIS Person of the Year, Female award.
Growing up in India, D’Souza said she would often spend time visiting Aged care facilities to offer comfort and a friendly ear to residents. She easily connected with the elderly especially the socially isolated.
After training as an Electrical and Electronics engineer and holding leadership positions in aviation, D’Souza opened Home Instead Senior Care Footscray & Hoppers Crossing in 2012. Three years on, the organisation has provided thousands of hours of in-home care for older people across Melbourne’s Western suburbs. But for D’Souza, it’s not a numbers game. “I never want the business to be based on numbers,” she said. “I want to make a difference in the community and do a great job every day.”
“As a corporate executive, I never walked away feeling that I made a difference to anyone’s life,” D’Souza said. “Now it is the most rewarding feeling knowing we are touching people’s lives every day”.
Sharing the winner’s podium with D’Souza was: Venkat Nookala, awarded TIS Person of the Year, Male, Pratima Swarnandan, who won TIS Young Achiever of the Year, Female, and Amith Karanth, who took home TIS Young Achiever of the Year, Male.
Like D’Souza, Nookala held an affinity for community from a young age, participating in student welfare activities while studying at Osmania University in Hyderabad. He continued serving the community after leaving India, moving first to New Zealand in 1994, and then Australia in 2001. Since settling in Melbourne’s West, Nookala has spent over a decade volunteering for Wyndham City Council. He also continues to support community projects in India. He helped raise Rs.20 lakh to build Shri Shirdi Sai Baba Temple in his home state of Telangana in 2010, and has supported relief efforts after natural disasters, including Nepal’s devastating earthquakes and recent floods in Chennai.
In 2013, Nookala founded Melbourne Telangana Forum Incorporated to celebrate the culture of Telangana – which became a new Indian state in June 2014. Since then, the Forum has grown to more than 500 members and its signature Bathukamma festival is increasingly popular. “We did the first festival Bathukamma on October 6 with nearly 1000 people,” Nookala said. “In the second year… nearly 1500 to 1800 people attended.”
Last year, Nookala returned to his roots in student welfare, founding Australian Bharatiya Students Association Incorporated to support international students. Helping students find the right courses, accommodation, and jobs has opened Nookala’s eyes to the unsavoury side of Australia’s student industry – such as unscrupulous migration agents who earn commissions to push students into courses. “So many students have been affected, it’s a real problem,” said Nookala, who’s helped nearly 200 students.
After so many years of work, why does Nookala want to keep helping the community? It’s simple. Because he sees the need. “Someone has to do community work,” Nookala said. “Otherwise community won’t run forward… and the community must always move forward.”
Nookala also made a point to thank all the people who voted for him to win TIS Person of the Year, as well as the awards’ organisers, for creating a platform to celebrate community work. “I’m very thankful,” Nookala said. “I’d also like to encourage people to please come forward and do community services.”
Karanth’s community efforts have also been focused on both Australia and India. Last year, the IT consultant helped found the India Australia Exchange Forum, which works with business, community organisations and government to enrich bilateral engagement.
To help bridge the gap between Australia and India, Karanth helps organise activities around common interests, like yoga. “It’s getting popular nowadays in both India and Australia,” he said. The Forum arranged for a renowned yoga guru to visit Melbourne University, and organised activities at 10 locations across Victoria on the world’s first International Yoga Day last June.
Karanth’s current community project involves helping villages in rural India. He’s organising a fundraiser to build 100 toilets, as part of the Indian government’s Swachh Bharat sanitation scheme.
Finally, Swarnandan was recognised for her lifelong efforts training, performing and teaching Indian classical music.
For those wondering how music aids community, Swarnandan can explain. “Hindustani classical music provides not only entertainment but also spiritual enlightenment and upliftment,” she said. For listeners, classical melodies provide “lasting bliss to the soul,” while they give singers “an opportunity to explore the entire gamut of notes – it’s not by rote or bookish,” she said.
Having trained in Hindustani classical music from the age of four, Swarnandan has been taught by renowned musicians, including Pt SN Sopori, Ustaad Bashir Butt, and Suresh Karhade. She regularly plays the harmonium and sings devotional songs at Sai Shiva Vishnu temple, in Hoppers Crossing, and has also performed overseas, at private baithaks and temples in Kenyaand India.“My most memorable performance in Melbourne was at an open musical night organised by a not for profit organisation, where I got the opportunity to sing a traditional Bhajan, devotional hymn, by Meera Bai, a 16th-century poetess of north India,” Swarnandan said.
In 2014, Swarnandan founded Swarnandan Music School and began teaching classical music to children and adults in Melbourne’s western suburbs. “My main aim in starting my music school is to spread awareness of this ancient form of music,” said Swarnandan. “This form of music helps in healing, [and]creating stronger inner values… My main target audience is children – to help them build a stronger character through good music.”
For Swarnandan, teaching music is just the beginning. Looking ahead, she aims to raise the profile of Hindustani classical music in Australia – not only among Indians, but also broader multicultural Australia.