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Vinya Vasu: A Motherly Approach to Service

--Janis Daddona, on Dec 20, 2012

 From her native India to the US, Vinya Vasu has embraced the hurting among us with a mother’s heart.  In our Forest Call with her—all the more timely given the tragedy in Newtown, CT—we all learned hoVinya Vasuw service can take us to places we could not have predicted.
Born to a family of privilege in southern India, Vinya’s first desire to serve grew from her observations of those who came to work for her family.  They had a hard life, working for Vinya’s family, going to school, working on their farm.  She noticed that her needs were easily met while these helpers—teens her age—struggled.  And so she joined a service club in high school.  There she had the opportunity to serve children in need and participate in medical camps and cleanliness drives.  Observation plus opportunity put her on a path that she walks to this day, continuing to inspire and be inspired by being in service.
Those on the call who know Vinya consistently spoke of her care and concern for others through conversations, her acts of empathy, her loving attention.  Imagine what it is like to be one of her students.  Vinya works with children grades one through eight who need the highest level of behavioral and emotional support.  They come from families of abuse and neglect, and having learned fear and anger they cannot function in regular schools.  To keep them out of juvenile detention centers and prepare them to re-enter regular schools, Vinya and her staff embrace them with persistent consideration and love.  Bus drivers make snacks and toys available on their rides to and from school so that they feel nurtured even in their commute.  Cafeteria workers make sure the food is appealing and warm.  Their efforts do not go unrewarded.  In a safe, caring environment, she said, ”these children share an amazing strength and spirit.  They forgive their parents despite what parents have done to them.” To learn love, teach love.
But to get to this point, Vinya had to travel to new places both inside and outside herself.  After her undergraduate degree she began her career working in Bangalore with intellectually challenged children.  But this only whetted her appetite to learn more.  The first in her family to leave India and go to graduate school, she traveled to Kansas to study. She then made her way to California where she has served in many capacities in a school for at risk youth.  But this path is vastly different from those her cultural tradition would dictate. As proud of her as her family may be, there is still the expectation that she should settle down and marry. It is difficult to take a different path, she said.  But even with that choice, she knows she has the support of a loving father.  Despite whatever disappointments he may feel, he is always there for her.

Vinya shared many stories with us of her work, how being open and available to these needy and often challenging children can transform them.  “By listening to people, you honor them, and you tap into their innate goodness.”  But even service can have a dark side:  Burnout.  After she was caught in the middle of a student fight and thrown against a wall several times, she had to absent herself from school a few days, traumatized as she was by this experience.   Then she thought, “If that one experience shook me up so much, what does that do to children who are assaulted on a daily basis?”  It renewed her commitment to them, enabling her to go back and continue to meet their need—their continual need—for love and healing.  She credits Service Space and meditation with her healing as well because it deepens her own faith and spirituality. But still the burnout was taking its toll on her job performance.  Vinya was not working as she needed to.  “I’ve had some job changes.  When I had to face criticism of my work, that it wasn’t what it should have been, it really shook my world!  But now when I think about it, I had to deal with the fact that I was looking for so much validation from my work, trying to prove myself and get results.  I was coming from a place of lack, trying to fill up a lack in my life with my work. You are constantly giving of yourself of on a daily basis.  I got so burned out I had to take a break for two or three months.” 
So she went on a pilgrimage to the Ganges in Hardiwar with Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, India.   The ashram performs wonderful services for residents of the surrounding slums.  This particular pilgrimage came out of a response to 108 grandmothers from these neighborhoods who had a lifelong dream of visiting the sacred river.  For Vinya it was a journey to her heart as well. 


She recalled the story of slum children on their train, singing and dancing for money.  The ashram’s group leader noticed one boy desperately needed to clip his fingernails and showed him how to do it.  He then asked Vinya to help him.  The little boy took the lesson in immediately, awed and moved by the generous attention.  And when given the clippers to keep, he secreted himself in a corner of the train to clip his toenails.  Then he returned little while later and introduced a friend to Vinya. On another occasion she and other members of the ashram decided they wanted to treat the 108 grandmothers to a head massage.  The women were so grateful for this that they turned around and returned the favor. In so many ways, the journey was filled with tender moments of love and sharing that filled her up again.  As Vinya remarked, she went on the pilgrimage thinking of all that she could do for these people.  In reality she received so much more in return. It helped her to go deeper into her spirituality and understanding of service. “Now it doesn’t matter what people think because I’m coming from a place from abundance.”
Vinya is currently working with her school to set up their new special education department which will support the integration of children with learning disabilities and speech difficulties in the classroom.  And in the light of the recent school shooting in Newtown, CT we can take comfort and hope knowing that people like Vinya are working with children who have special needs.  They will be watched over, nurtured, and prepared for a life of confidence, competence, and good will.