IT was while their husbands tee'd off for a game of golf at the St Andrew's Golf Club that Rose Mohammed and Thelma Kumar, wife of the then Indian High Commissioner, Shiv Kumar, sat sipping hot tea, sharing with each other bits and pieces of their personal lives. For Kumar, so much of this small island nation reminded her of home thousands of miles away.
But there was no time or place for homesickness. In Rose Mohammed, Kumar had found a friend. Together they discussed ways in which Kumar could share with the people of Trinidad and Tobago the exotic clothing and jewelry she had brought with her from India. But both women also shared a mutual interest that was far more important than beaded saris and colourful bracelets — and that was helping society's underprivileged. The idea to form the first ever Indian Women's Group of Trinidad and Tobago (IWGTT) had been planted. Then the following year, in 1989, the IWGTT held its inaugural meeting. Today the IWGTT is made up of Hindu, Muslim and Christian women.
Extending a helping hand to the less fortunate has always been the common thread keeping the fabric of the IWGTT woven together — all of its members have that one goal in common. So when the third president of the IWGTT, Isha Ali, first found out about the children of Korea Village in Carapichaima, central Trinidad, whose parents were too poor to send them to a doctor for regular check-ups or even provide them with other basic necessities such as proper clothing and shelter, Ali knew that the group had to get involved. When it became apparent that several of the children — as many as 62 up to the age of 13, were not attending school, the IWGTT banded together and sprung into action and in 1992 the group of women 'adopted' the children of Korea Village. That incident would, in the history of the IWGTT, be remembered as a pivotal milestone. The association set up a school and raised funds to buy benches, tables, blackboards and other teaching materials.
That was just one of the many projects undertaken by the IWGTT since that day back in 1988 when Mohammed and Kumar huddled together and hashed out ideas that would form the core values of the Indian women's group. Fast forward 23 years later, the IWGTT is alive and well says its new president, Dr Caroline Singh.
For someone who has enjoyed a considerable amount of success in her personal life, Singh insists that nothing, not even the pur-
chase of your dream home or acquiring the luxury vehicle that left you salivating from the moment you set your eyes upon it in the showroom, can compare to the immeasurable feeling of accomplishment upon helping those in desperate need of assistance. She's only been the president for a year-and-a-half but every case that is presented to her and every time she sets out on a visit to a family in need of help, she is reminded of how much work is yet to be done.
"Being involved in the women's group made me realise how many people are still in need, how many people live below the breadline, how many children do not attend school," says Singh, shaking her head in disbelief. I have seen children who are autistic or have cerebral palsy who can't walk or communicate and children who live in orphanages after being abandoned for one reason or the next. "Because of my involvement in this group and being out on the field and visiting different institutions, seeing these things really touches me. It makes you wake up. There are teenagers 18 years and over who have never seen a dentist or a doctor in their entire life."
At the age of 34, Singh was not a professional looking to dive into just any cause to salve her conscience. She had the experience of seeing those closest to her sacrifice their time and energy in service to others. Her father, Deokaran Singh was involved in charitable orgnisations. Her mother-in-law, an attorney by profession left her job to manage the Jaya Lakshmi Children's home that her husband, also an attorney, had founded. Today, Singh and her husband (also an attorney) both sit on the board of directors of the home. It didn't take Singh long to find the true recipe for happiness and success, and one thing was certain — it couldn't be found amidst material possessions which are transient — here today and gone tomorrow.
"I have always been drawn to helping out others. I think that what makes me so willing to help out is because I realise that I have been so fortunate. I have been so blessed. When I see so many people in need, I realise that I have been lucky and that I have to be generous. It's not only kids that we at IWGTT help, we also help adults as well. I strongly believe that we could only receive when we give and I'm a true testament to that because I have been blessed because of my charitable nature," says Singh.
The IWGTT is part of the Interclub of Trinidad and Tobago, which is made up of about 18 women non-governmental organisations that champion several causes.
"We support each other, we are aware of what's going on in each other's groups, if I have a needy case and we can't help at this point in time, I would ask another group and vice versa," says Singh.
When Singh was approached by the women of IWGTT and asked to be president, she was apprehensive at first, doubtful that she could put her stamp on the organisation as well as past presidents have, today she has formed strong sisterly bonds with other members of the group whom she credits for her success.
"Once you have the willpower and you want to do something, anything can be achieved. I have gotten a lot of support from the older members of my group and that's why I've been able to accomplish so many things since becoming president," says Singh.
As anyone can imagine being the president of an NGO is not easy pickings, especially since Singh is juggling different hats as a dental surgeon, assistant treasurer of the San Juan Business Association and board member of the Jaya Lakshmi Children's Home, I ask her when does she find the time to perform her duties as the head of the IWGTT.
"I don't know," she says with a laugh.
"You have to really want to help, that way you'll always find the time. You have to have the drive. This is not about giving out hampers and building houses. You have to really want to make a difference. I guess I really don't know where I get the time, I just sacrifice some of my personal time. There are days when I have to leave my office to attend to some matters involving the IWGTT, or I may have to turn down an invitation to attend a friend's birthday party because I have club functions to go to," she explains.
Since taking the helm at the IWGTT, Singh has observed a trend among NGOs — a shortage of young people getting involved. Since becoming president she has drawn around 15 young women into the group in under a year and she is asking for more to consider actively participating.
"Because I am there, I have been able to draw a lot of young women into our group. We want everybody to get involved, especially young people, we want them to realise that they need to assist the less fortunate and we want them to take their energies and use it in a meaningful way. Young people bring fresh new ideas and with technology, it's so easy to communicate. It's not that we're asking for professional women alone, we're asking that anybody who has the drive and think they can make a difference — to come on board. You have to have the time to devote, if you don't then you're not going to be beneficial to the group," she says.
For anyone seriously considering becoming an active member of an NGO, Singh says there are many rewards that come from doing so, not only are there close friendships to be made but the satisfaction that comes from helping others can't be matched, she adds.
There are many ways to get involved.
This year the Indian Women's Group of Trinidad and Tobago will focus on creating public awareness on Lupus — a medical condition where the body's immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. Symptoms such as inflammation, swelling and damage to joints, skin, kidneys, blood, the heart and lungs usually occur.
On November 24, the organisation will host a cocktail party/ fundraiser at Jaffa at the Oval Restaurant. Part proceeds of ticket sales will go to the Voice of Lupus Foundation. It's the first year that the group will give a portion of its ticket sales to a foundation of its choice.
Anyone wishing to lend their support can visit the group's Facebook page and check out their website at www.iwgtt.com for more information on upcoming events and activities.