The Sikh Human Development Foundation is “run out of our homes,” said Amarjit Singh Sodhi, a founding member and chairman of the Maryland-based group. Seven professionals, three of them from the World Band, manage the program from the United States.
The only paid staff member works at the Nishkam Sikh Welfare Council, a non-governmental organization in New Delhi, and monitors the distribution of the scholarships in India.
Nearly 90 percent of each donation goes directly as scholarship money to students, Amarjit Singh told SikhNN.
“Twelve years ago we started with a dream of empowering our youth in Punjab via professional education,” Amarjit Singh said at the charity’s annual fundraiser event in Vienna, Virginia. “Our youth, who were bright but poor, had dreams, ambitions and desires, but they were so mired in poverty and despair that they had no way to change the trajectory of their lives. These are the young ones we set out to help.”
Since its launch in 2001, the foundation has awarded nearly 2,400 scholarships, at a cost of nearly $1 million, he announced. Nearly 800 of them have graduated and are working as professionals in about 31 disciplines. Their starting salaries are up to 10 times more than what their parents are making.
Isharpal Singh’s father is a caretaker of a scooter stand in Amritsar, earning Rs. 4,000 per month. Isharpal began his career at a salary of Rs. 40,000 per month, Amarjit Singh said.
Shabaaz Kaur’s father is a chawkidaar (security guard) who makes Rs. 4,300 per month. Shabaaz began her career as a nurse at a salary of Rs. 30,000 per month.
Two other students from Punjab villages found jobs with Infosys, Limited, “at a much bigger salary than you can think of,” he said.
Amarjit Singh and other speakers recounted numerous success stories such as these to an audience of about 450 people at the fundraiser on Sept. 8.
“What a transformation in the life of students who are unable to see a bit of hope because they were deep down in the pit of poverty,” he said. They have educated their siblings, and are marrying off their sisters into good families. They are marrying fellow professionals and intend to educate their children as professionals.
“They are helping their parents live their golden years with a smile on their faces.”
In addition to college degrees, the foundation plans to help graduates build leadership and entrepreneurial skills. “Graduates need to abide by a moral and ethical system worthy of the best traditions of our community,” he said. “Imparting these skills will require more money than we had thought. This is in addition to the rising cost of the ever-increasing number of scholarships that we are giving.”
The foundation began with 22 scholarships in its first year, steadily increasing the number of awards every year, to 504 scholarships awarded in 2012. Each scholarship is worth $500 per student per year.
The foundation received more than 1,250 applications this year, but was unable to fund every meritorious applicant. Only four out of 10 students receive scholarships because there is not enough money for all of them, said Gurvinder Pal Singh, a Texas businessman and donor.
“Four out of 10?” he said at the fundraiser. “We cannot let that happen… With our combined efforts, I think every deserving Sikh student can receive the education he or she deserves.”
The students come from very poor backgrounds. Many are orphans, fatherless or have terminally sick parents. Their families’ incomes are less than a dollar a day, according to the charity’s Web site. Their parents work as drivers, bicycle repairers, small tailors, gurdwara sevadaars, milk deliverymen, agricultural laborers, and marginal farmers, among other menial jobs.
Missionaries are targeting them in India, said Harshivinderjit Singh Bains, a Texas ophthalmologist and donor, at the fundraiser. “We have first-hand knowledge from their leaders that Punjab now is being actively targeted as a place where they will place their own social services. It is a wonderful effort but there is often an expectation that the clients will convert their faith.
“Saad sangat jee, tusee apnay aap hee dhaykh lao,” he said. “Jeh tusee apnay nimaaneaan athay nihaasereaan noo nahee sambogay, kohee hor sambogaa. Fir thuaaday apnay apnay nahee raho gay.”