For most, a birthday celebration is a time to gather with friends and exchange gifts with the person celebrating another year of life, but the gifts that Sanketh Y S requested for his most recent birthday were different from the usual wrapped packages.
Sanketh, 25, originally from Bangalore, India, moved to the United States in 2018 to attend Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated with a masters degree in business administration in 2019. For his last birthday, he wanted to do something out of the ordinary.
“I wanted to do something different than the regular so I put up a website with social causes I care about with an online link to donate,” he said.
Among the causes were support for free journalism and links to the profiles of artists who were selling their work. Sanketh figured that spreading some good around would be a great birthday gift.
“Anyone who wanted to buy me a present could go there and help others,” he said. “They could send me a receipt which would be a good gift.”
Sanketh called this project #Wishboard. The goal is to help causes that impact peoples’ lives in a positive way, one initiative at a time.
For a while, Sanketh said the project didn’t get much attention from him — until a few months after his birthday when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Seeing the struggles the pandemic caused inspired him to get involved again. His attention turned first to local animal agencies.
“I care about animals as much as I care about humans,” Sanketh said. “All the animal shelters had restricted visitors and they could not do any activities to support their operations or fundraising. I contacted Indiana County Humane Society to help them do an online fundraising.”
The shelter accepted his help and Sanketh, who has a passion for photography, set up a project that allowed folks to choose a photo from his Instagram account to turn into a postcard for a donation. This project raised around $30. He also helped raise money for Four Footed Friends in honor of his friend Judy, whose cat had passed away. With all of his previous experience in fundraising, he was able to raise his total to $261.26.
Sanketh has also helped with organizations back home in India. He has worked with an organization called Hasiru Dala, a social impact group that has been helping supply groceries to waste picker families who haven’t been able to earn income due to the pandemic.
“They have helped supply (around) 3,500 families with food and supplies,” Sanketh said.
His most recent and visible projects have been here in town, also helping to ease the impact the virus is having on the Indiana community.
“Cases were increasing everywhere across the globe, and the U.S. … is currently at the top,” he said. “I wanted to do something to help everyone, at least whatever and whoever I can. They are all my fellow Americans. I am an Indian citizen, but I call them fellow Americans because I am living with them here and I care about and support them.”
Sanketh decided to help by getting masks out to those who might not be able to afford them or might not be able to find or make their own.
“I see a lot of international students who cannot go back to their countries because international borders are closed. There are no on-campus jobs, and unemployment in the U.S. was rising and I heard stories of (people being) laid off. … In this dire situation, how can anyone buy a mask at a skyrocketed price? The prices were too expensive for many. I decided this is what I need to do — distribute masks to the homeless and needy.”
Mind made up, Sanketh began to look into getting as many masks as possible. He collaborated with people he knew who could sew but were unemployed due to the pandemic. Buying masks from them allowed them to earn a living and enabled him to bring masks to the market as soon as possible. As his planning went on, he also worked with a few companies that donated masks.
Since getting the masks, he’s distributed them in Indiana, Monroeville and Pittsburgh, and they have been sent as far as New York City, Detroit and Las Vegas. He has distributed them to groups participating in Black Lives Matter protests since he noticed some protesters were going without. There are even plans to distribute masks in India in the coming days.
“I want to distribute as many as possible to protect everyone,” he said.
He’s currently still on this mission.
“I’ve distributed masks by walking around the streets with a sign and by setting up pick-up boxes with masks,” Sanketh said. He has also had a few friends help him around town.
Sanketh is no stranger to helping out worthwhile causes. He’s done work with startups and nonprofits in India. Helping others is something that’s been a part of his life since he was young, he said.
“As a child ... I always questioned the two sides of the coin — one consisting of people who belong to the upper class or are wealthy, and the other side filled with people who are poverty stricken, who cannot afford a better life,” he said. “I was strengthened by many qualities which are vital to Indian culture, like serving without expectation and the embodiment of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, which is Sanskrit for “The world is one family,” which is from the “Hitopadesha” — “a collection of Sanskrit fables in the form of prose and verse that I was told when I was young.”
He said those fables are to help instruct young minds to look at things with a charitable philosophy and to help children grow to be respectable adults.
“This ideology of ‘celebrating the giving’ is endemic to Indian society. ... I believe our lives have a purpose and we are all better if we can help the less fortunate flip their coin,” he said. “That’s why I started #WishBoard ... to impact people’s lives, one thing at a time.”
The outcome has been rewarding so far, he said. Sanketh said he has seen “happy animals, happy people and more people now wearing masks,” due to his efforts.
Sanketh plans to continue working.
“I send out emails often,” he said. “Right now, individuals and companies can still donate funds or masks to distribute.”
To get involved or donate, visit www.wishboard.co for more information.