Sunday, 8 April 2012

Volunteering with ECO Kitchen

Apologies for the lack of blog posts! This past week has been extremely busy with organizing my research, searching for a flat and getting started on my volunteer work. The organization I am working with on my HIV research, YRGCARE, is part of a larger organization called the Y.R. Gaitonde Medical, Educational and Research Foundation. Under the umbrella of this organization, there are two sides: YRGCARE and ECO Kitchen. While YRGCARE focuses on the prevention, treatment and care activities associated with the local HIV/AIDS epidemic, ECO Kitchen seeks to focus on the social issues at work within Chennai society.

ECO Kitchen's Facility

The name ECO Kitchen has two meanings. First of all it stands for Enhancing Community Opportunities Kitchen, which highlights the main role this part of the Y.R. Gaitonde Foundation as a method of improving the lives of vulnerable and underprivileged individuals within Chennai. Secondly, "ECO" is also in reference to the extreme care the organizers have taken to ensure that the kitchen is as green as possible by including many different types of innovative and eco-conscious technology. For example, the machinery is powered by 'briquettes' that are made of sawdust and other bio-friendly materials. These burn cleanly and therefore do not contribute to air pollution. Other efforts include: solar powered water heaters, a condensation recovery system, and a waste water treatment pant that irrigates the garden.

View from ECO Kitchen

There are three programs through which the ECO Kitchen seeks to serve the local community. The first is called "Kathir" and is designed to allow local women to have source of income on their own schedule through entrepreneurship. The women buy ready-made, nutritious and healthy meals from the ECO Kitchen at a very low rate and then sell these to the public from kiosks around the city, keeping the profits they make. This allows them to have a steady income, which in turn improves their home lives. The funding for this program comes primarily from the second of ECO Kitchen's programs: "Out of the Box".

"Out of the Box" is the corporate side of the organization where ECO Kitchen prepares meals for corporate canteens and provides servers to distribute the food. For example, I visited two sites where I saw first breakfast (dosa, pongal, and sambar) and then lunch (curry, chapatti, rice, poppadom, dhal and dessert) being served. Corporations hire ECO Kitchen because not only are they getting delicious food, but they are also able to make an impact through the charitable contributions of ECO Kitchen. The "Out of the Box" program also serves private catering events, which allows the message of the organization to reach a wider audience. Another way this happens is through the final program.

"Kathir Dhan" is the food donation program through ECO Kitchen. To celebrate birthdays or special events, many Indians like to give to charity in order to share their happiness with others. One way they can do this is through a donation to "Kathir Dhan". With every donation, ECO Kitchen is able to feed vulnerable individuals within the city of Chennai. Donors can specify a group of people, such a particular orphanage, where they would like their donation to be distributed and ECO Kitchen does the rest. If a location is not specified, ECO Kitchen will choose for the donor to ensure the gift is used to its fullest potential.

Staff motorcycles at ECO Kitchen

Overall, this is such an amazing program, just as YRGCARE is for the more practical side of HIV/AIDS. I've been so impressed by all the individuals I've met through these organizations: so passionate and driven to help their fellow Chennai residents in any way they can. I'm really excited to be volunteering with ECO Kitchen as it allows me to step completely out of my comfort zone and work in areas that I'm unfamiliar with. For example, the following is my current list of projects with them:

1) Creation and implementation of a training module in hospitality for the corporate and catering servers. This will focus primarily on things like customer service, presentation, etc.

2) Designing posters to help spread the word about the Kathir Dhan program, paying particular attention to upcoming festivals and holidays.

3) Brainstorming other advertising ideas that allow the existing methods to be used to their fullest potential.

4) Creation of a google-style calendar that will allow for reminders to be sent to past donors about upcoming anniversaries. For example, if someone donated last year on their birthday, it would be good to send them a small reminder to check if they are interested in donating again.

5) Creation of a small take home card to distribute to student groups who visit the ECO Kitchen which would inform parents about the mission of the organization and hopefully spread the word about the three programs.

I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with all these unfamiliar areas (Marketing?! Sales!?). But luckily, I have a wonderful colleague at ECO Kitchen, "S", who is not only capable but also kind and patient. She has been invaluable in helping me to find my feet and even gave me my first ride on a motorcycle. Despite her excellent driving, I think I'll stick to auto rickshaws!

View from my "office" (folding chair) at the ECO Kitchen facility 

Meanwhile, my research is progressing slowly as I'm currently waiting for the Tamil translation of my participant information and consent forms to come back. Really excited to get started! Once I have those, I'll meet with my mentor at YRGCARE, "K", to organize the ways in which I'll find participants and other practical concerns.

Festival on the way to ECO Kitchen

Finally, I'm moving into my new flat tomorrow! Nervous but excited to be living with other young people here in the city and looking forward to exploring my new area. Blog post with pictures of the new flat will be up soon! 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent work Caitie! Love the entrepreneurship angle for the women. Big on that myself. Samantha, my youngest, is just getting into goats, for milk and to make soap. Maybe such an idea would work for your women there. See this site for info