When the tsunami struck communities in south India in December of 2004, faculty and staff at the Tata-Dhan Academy, a development institute, were in the midst of their yearly retreat. They rushed back to assess the damage and lend support where they could, the whole way brainstorming the role of a development organization in a disaster like the one they were facing.
Until then, the Dhan Foundation had never been involved in disaster response. But when the team got back to Tamil Nadu, they learned something new: that people engaged in Dhan Foundation's long-term savings groups and federations had been the first to respond to the tsunami in their communities.
"They had the networks and the resources they needed to respond," says R. Sangeetha, who at the time was a faculty member at Tata-Dhan. This gave the team an idea: Dhan could respond to the tsunami in the coastal areas, but not just for the short term.
"Instead, we decided to commit to working there on a long-term basis," said Sangeetha, to provide relief and rehabilitation, but also to reduce the risks and vulnerabilities of those communities to future disasters. Oxfam helped the Tata-Dhan Academy take this commitment a step further, supporting them to create the Advanced Center for Enabling Disaster Risk Reduction (ACEDRR), an institute within the academy that helps communities that participate in Dhan's development programs reduce the risk that a disaster will undo their hard-won gains against poverty. Sangeetha became the coordinator of the center.
The goal, says Sangeetha, is to "help development professionals to see every development action in a disaster risk reduction perspective."
A life of caring
People her whole life told Sangeetha that she would thrive in a service job, working with the very poor, and she agrees. "It's in my nature," she says.
She studied agricultural management at university, and decided to take a two-year job in social work to see if she liked it.
Her first job was with a tribal community in the north of the country. She lights up when she remembers it. "I loved it there," she says. "You would always find me in the communities, playing with the children or talking to people. I never wanted to leave at the end of the day."
It was early in her tenure there that she observed some children playing ball, and one girl sitting out. She asked the girl why she wasn't playing. "She said she had cancer in her legs," says Sangeetha. "The other children knew she had cancer, too. But no one knew what it meant to have cancer."
Sangeetha knew that cancer untreated would be deadly, and took it upon herself to get the child the care she needed. But when she took her to the hospital, she got some terrible news: The girl would have to lose her legs.
Sangeetha fights tears discussing this experience, even so many years later.
She counseled the family and the community, who were skeptical of harsh medical interventions like this one. Eventually, though, they decided to opt for surgery. "It was a very hard time," Sangeetha says. "I was with her every day in the hospital."
Now, seven years later, the child is 17 and healthy. Sangeetha has done her best to keep in touch the girl and her family, though it's been at least a year since she's heard anything. That experience made her decide to continue helping people as best she could.
Of her career choice, Sangeetha says "it's such hard work, but it's such important work. Even if you just help one person, it's worthwhile."
"And everyone here feels the same way," she says, gesturing to the Tata-Dhan Academy. "They all care so much. That is why this is such a wonderful place to be."