It was in the 1970s that Jaya Manchikanti came to Australia along with her parents as an eight-year-old from India. The family settled in Bendigo where she got her first taste in volunteering—getting into charity and fund-raising activities for the Salvation Army and World Vision. The experience clarified a sense of vocation—she would remain committed to volunteering. This March, Jaya won the top prize of Premier’s Volunteer of the Year (2022), the Dame Elisabeth Murdoch Award and the Volunteering Leadership Award—a fitting applause for her work setting up IndianCare (more on that later).
After completing high school in Bendigo, Jaya completed a science diploma at Deakin University in Geelong. Soon after she went to India and got married. When she got back, she worked in the field of science for a little while and it was when the children came that she decided to stay at home to “pass on some cultural learnings”. However, it was also the time when she started getting involved with community service in a big way.
It was the late 1980s and by then Jaya’s own Telugu-speaking community was growing, giving her the opportunity to get involved with them. She also volunteered at her local Neighbourhood House. For the uninitiated, the Neighbourbood House is a friendly, informal place where community members meet for a variety of activities at minimal cost.
And it was the fortuitous circumstance of meeting the coordinator of her local Neighbourhood House, who suggested, “Looks like you really like your work, why don’t you study in that field?”, that made Jaya go on to study a Community Development diploma, and eventually, a Master’s in the same. She is currently working on a PhD on connecting community development with sustainable development.
The studies seem to have carved out the life and career she wanted. While doing her studies, Jaya worked part time in a range of range of community organisations and in different local governments and state government as well.
By the 2000s, with the massive growth of Indian population in Victoria, Jaya, along with a few like-minded individuals, mulled the idea of starting an organisation for the community. The team discussed the idea with the Victorian Multicultural Commission (VMC), who endorsed the idea in spirit,” not so much financially”.
“So, we took a year to consult the community and met community leaders to ask what they thought of the idea, and interestingly, the response was ‘good idea’ but perhaps not feasible given the very diverse nature of the community,” says Jaya.
“It was realistic feedback,” she reflects, “But it was good to have that feedback as it gave us a humble start.” Thus was born IndianCare, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to address the welfare and wellbeing needs of people of South Asian origin living in Victoria. It formally became a legal body in 2013.
It was the zeal that Jaya and her team brought to their cause that saw the setting up of IndianCare. “What made us stick to the plan was, the need was there. We could see that international students were not supported well, family violence was rising, young people were struggling with intergenerational issues, etc.,” says Jaya, adding, “We were and still are driven by the needs and that’s what it’s about. That’s why we thought ‘why don’t we just give it a try, we don’t lose anything from trying’.”
From being a co-founder, Jaya now plays a more strategic role- putting her expertise into fund raising and planning.
Fittingly, this March Jaya took out the top prize of Premier’s Volunteer of the Year for her work with IndianCare. “I am absolutely overwhelmed. I don’t think it has sunk in but what I think is that it gives me a platform to speak about issues I care about.” She also acknowledges that IndianCare is a result of excellent teamwork between board members, staff and volunteers. “I could not have done this without the team.”
Now that she has got this award, Jaya wants to push for greater recognition for the community sector, “because the business sector as also the government sector have a good profile in this country, but the community sector really needs to be seen for more than just being something that people do on the side but rather as an important part of society which is offering a lot.”
She wants to see the community sector getting a higher profile in society. “Community development is essential for sustainable development because it’s only when local communities get the answers to their problems—and they can do it if they are given the confidence and the capacity to do so—that we can try and address bigger problems.”
Jaya rues that funding and capacity are hampering growth of the community sector. “There are not enough resources to do the work that we need to do but also the capacity to understand the governance roles of, say, how to manage a budget, how to run an organisation effectively. These can be addressed through training and if that is provided really well, it will be a big role for community development.”
A lot about Jaya’s person—her personality, commitment to volunteering—is striking. And at the core of her personality is the “social justice mindset”. “I have to say right from an early age I had this bent towards working with the disadvantaged and marginalised,” she says.
As a charter member of the Monash Lion’s Club, which turned 10 last year, Jaya is truly appreciated for her tireless work. She also assists in community development network for interested professionals with another colleague of hers.
Jaya finds volunteering really has a ripple effect for your life. “I have met amazing, heart-warming people along my journey and that just keeps you going. Seeing the seeds you have sown grow, that’s a really nice feeling.”
Her advice to anyone wishing to volunteer is: Give it a try, the rewards are plenty in terms of the friendships you develop, skills you develop, and the learnings you gain through volunteering. Obviously, the best thing is you are helping towards an important cause. Giving and sharing are good for your physical health, mind and soul.”
Jaya does not see herself ever retiring from volunteering. “There are just too many things that need to be done, I will just keep going,” she sums up. Lifelong commitments like these are rare!
(IndianCare can be contacted here)
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This March, @JayaManchikanti won the top prize of Premier’s Volunteer of the Year (2022), the Dame Elisabeth Murdoch Award and the Volunteering Leadership Award—a fitting applause for her work setting up IndianCare. #TheIndianSun @indira_laisram https://t.co/6T1acfjYs6
— The Indian Sun (@The_Indian_Sun) March 31, 2022