Banking on Divine Providence
Iris C F Gomes
Street Providence is the new buzz-worthy NGO around and the changes it has accomplished in less than a year give one hope for humanity. The man behind the NGO is the unassuming, God-fearing Donald Fernandes who introduces himself as a simple salesman – a salesman who allowed Divine Providence to touch his heart and inspire him. Donald’s NGO is one of the most prolific in aiding the homeless and hungry in Goa and has diversified in a matter of months to alleviate suffering in various ways. The 8th of April 2018 saw Donald give a TEDx Talk and galvanise more individuals to join his endeavour in transforming the lives of the poor and underprivileged.
Donald is a remarkable man in his own right, with a Limca Book World Record for cycling for 40 kilometres while playing the violin in 1996. He also attempted another world record for playing the guitar and harmonica while riding a motorbike, which was not seen through owing to other pressures in his life. He is a self-proclaimed multitasker and cannot be satisfied with simply earning a living without reaching out to his fellow man.
December 2009 was a time of confusion and a search for something Donald was not able to put down into words. In 2010, he had moved on from three jobs, still in search of the means to satisfy his soul. Finding a job in a dairy company brought financial security in 2011, but there was still that longing for true happiness that eluded him.
The next year, Donald was fortunate to be blessed with a mentor who would explain to him how he was to achieve that inner joy he was looking for. After being blessed with a baby girl in 2013, Donald and his wife began cooking out of their own kitchen for about 50 poor people in the vicinity out of gratitude to God for the gift that they had received. They would awaken at 6.30 am and cook the food, which would leave for its destination at about 8 or 8.30 am, leaving Donald and his wife to get back to their own work.
In 2015, Donald bought an ambulance and began picking up poor people who could not afford transport to hospitals. The following year he installed a tap in the compound of his house on Chogm Road in Sangolda, which offered filtered water freely to the underprivileged to quench their thirst. Although he continued supplying food through 2014 to 2016, it was not enough to assuage Donald’s passion to achieve more.
The constant gnawing at his soul coupled with the flagrant wastage of food that he witnessed as a salesman led Donald to start the food bank in 2017, which included a fridge. Invitations were extended via social media to people to donate their extra food, packed in food grade plastic. Donald says, ‘It took six months to stabilise, to move the idea forward, to explain the concept to people.’
From June 2017, as they were carrying out the work of distributing food every Friday and Saturday, they began collecting vagabonds and abandoned men to give them a shave, a haircut, a bath, warm food and rudimentary medical treatment and then they would be dropped back to wherever they had been picked up. Donald began to realise there was a need to offer these men a chance at rehabilitation and soon a house was rented to house men who were sick or dying.
The momentum that the work of Street Providence, now a registered charitable trust that is a confluence of various charitable works, has gained is indeed remarkable. It has 28 fridges now, thanks to people’s generosity, located in different parts of Goa being run by 28 different people who have a number of volunteers under them. In the beginning it was 100 meals a day saving 3 lakh rupees worth of food a month, moving on to 2,500-3,000 meals a day saving 40 lakh rupees worth of food per month. ‘All this food would have been lost and thrown out,’ says Donald. He has set a target of 50 fridges all over Goa and feeding 8,000-10,000 people, leaving the stewardship to volunteer groups individually connected to a particular area’s food bank.
The trust’s volunteers are recruited from among likeminded people. Full-time volunteers Anselm (Anselm is also a trustee who takes care of the four houses where the vagabonds undergo rehabilitation), Benny and Anil travel across Goa collecting food from caterers, bakeries, restaurants, hotels, etc, which is taken to Sangolda and checked. The next day it is allotted to the different fridges. The volunteers at these other locations then take the food home, heat it up, pack it and distribute it among the poor and the homeless.
The initial contact with the homeless opened up to the volunteers a whole set of problems faced by the homeless and the poor, namely the need for medicines, clothes and rehabilitation.
At the moment Street Providence has four houses to shelter these vagabonds. Most suffer from alcoholism or are lost here without money or the means to get back to their villages. There are a few who have genuine mental problems. Donald says, ‘Many have been stabilised without medicines. It’s not feasible to move them back and forth to psychiatrists because of the cost of treatment. We play a CD of the Word of God regularly for them to hear, and they are not exposed to the violence, sex, and alcohol that they experience on the streets. And so a lot of them stabilise normally.’ There are 30 men who are being sheltered at the moment and most of them seem willing to participate in the rehabilitation process.
Of the few who do not adjust to the changes and are belligerent, Donald says, ‘Whoever does not want to stay, we allow them to go. I have one rule though, if you leave, you cannot come back.’ There have been happy success stories reflected in men like Anil and Rajesh. The two men seized the opportunity to alter their situation and are now volunteers at Street Providence. Anil is involved in the distribution of food and Rajesh manages the main house where the more problematic cases reside.
The homeless men are allowed a 6-month rehabilitation period after which they are offered jobs. Donald finds that Goans are more likely to stay on and work with the NGO while the non-Goans choose to go back to their villages. The ones who stay back at the shelter are those whose families will either not accept them or the inmates prefer not to return for fear of falling into old bad habits. In the case of those who work with the NGOs, they are paid in kind and the same may be delivered to their dependent families.
The beauty of this organisation is that it functions on the principle of decentralisation. Multiple projects can run at the same time as units on their own. Donald gradually weans them off dependence on the centre. ‘Everything works on faith. I don’t need to know what is going on in every house or bank. It is the Hand of God that is working,’ says the man of deep religious convictions, describing how one of the fridges broke down only after it was totally emptied. When there was food to be stored, there was a fridge available. Money not being the driving force of the NGO is what allows for its smooth operation.
After eight years of working steadily and being completely satisfied with his life and family, the father of three looks forward to having a rehabilitation centre for 500 people, including abandoned women, HIV+ patients, handicapped persons, etc. ‘People have resources but nobody wants to do anything. People are more concerned about money than about the poor,’ says Donald, who has taken the first steps to changing the situation for the better and is in the process motivating others to take on the mantle of caring for their less privileged brethren.
Street Providence has taken up a number of projects which you can assist with or donate supplies to (the virtual blood bank, medicine bank, clothes bank and so on). There is also a scheme bank that has volunteers aiding the poor and illiterate to work their way through legalistic and official jargon to avail of various government schemes. The NGO can be contacted on WhatsApp (8380097564). Stay updated about the charity’s work and be inspired to make a positive change by liking its Facebook Page (https://www.facebook.com/Street-Providence-1239769299485483/).
(*The photographs of Donald Fernandes and the food distribtution have been taken from the Street Providence Facebook page.)