Chicago-based Soondra Foundation provides cash medical emergency grants to needy in India

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Founder and CEO of Chicago based Soondra Foundation, Gayatri Mathur, with one of Soondra Foundation’s first grantees in India whom Soondra helped get a surgery for a complex thigh bone fracture in her high school year. Now she is finishing up her final year of BSc Maths from Mumbai University. She’s also learning how to code in R and Python so she can get a great job when she graduates next year. Photo: courtesy Gayatri Mathur.

Gayatri Mathur based in Chicago has shown to the others that anything is possible if you have the conviction and the determination. Even if you are one person. If one wants, one can help one person, and, also extend a helping hand to one hundred. That is exactly what Mathur has done, establishing Soondra Foundation which provides medical emergency cash grants in India.

Founding Soondra, named after her beloved nanny in India, was not Mathur’s whim. It took a lot of preparation and hard work, a lot of thinking through, and creating a blue print of every single aspect in her mind, Mathur told News India Times in an exclusive interview.

How Soondra came to be

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A medical emergency incident she witnessed during one of her visits to India, when a household help had to first raise cash to admit a son for emergency treatment, provided the trigger to think deeply about the problem for Mathur. “In India, patients have to come up with cash upfront before being admitted to the hospital,” Mathur said.

Founder and CEO of Chicago based Soondra Foundation, Gayatri Mathur, with a grantee of the Education program in India. Photo: courtesy Gayatri Mathur

The incident kept Mathur thinking about the daily wages workers and household aids in India who do not earn enough to have any spare funds for such emergencies, and no financing system as they do not qualify for Indian government’s financial aid for people below the poverty line.

Aware of the need and want for service in India, Mathur kept thinking something must be done for such people. “Healthcare access should be a basic human right,” she said. Being Indian, and having a strong emotional and mental connection to India, she had always wanted to do something in India, Mathur said.

Hard work and perseverance

But putting her idea into shape was a gigantic task for healthcare professional Mathur who had no idea how to start and operate a business, and a not-for-profit business at that. Mathur had reached the highest position in her chosen career of Physical Therapy. She has an undergraduate, a graduate and a Doctoral degree in the field with more than thirty years of varied professional experience as a clinician, a professor and a researcher. No business person, Mathur took the route she knew well, that of being educated, getting informed, and coming up with a streamlined American organization which operated under American laws.

Founder and CEO of Chicago based Soondra Foundation, Gayatri Mathur, with a grantee patient with kidney failure and a Teach For India staff member in India. Photo: courtesy Gayatri Mathur

Mathur’s long journey to founding Soondra began with attending the start-up incubator programs and workshops of the Polsky Exchange at the University of Chicago. “I was the only non-profit in my cohort,” Mathur said. The program taught her business practices, how to develop a good business model, and provided a crash course in start-up, Mathur said.

“It was incredibly hard,” Mathur said, speaking of the learning process. New to this coursework, Mathur had worked for more than 30 years in her professional capacity with people with chronic pain and spinal injuries, requiring tremendous effort on her part to bring them out of that pain, Mathur said. “I was used to long and persistent hard work,” explained Mathur. “But being in the program made me a novice after being at the top in my profession and a mentor and guide to others,” she said.

Logistics of Setting up a trustable Soondra

Creating a non-profit with transparency, accountability and scalability was also hard on another emotional front for Mathur. She said everything was new to her. “I did not even understand some of the terms in the class, and had to google them as the class went on,” she said. At times, Mathur felt she could have continued in her profession for another 10 years at her senior position and salary. But seeing the stress everyone was going through during the pandemic firmed up her determination, accelerating her resolve, she said.

Founder and CEO of Chicago based Soondra Foundation, Gayatri Mathur. Photo: courtesy Gayatri Mathur

Mathur said her main concern was to create a believable, trustable and workable non-profit, transparency and accountability being the uppermost in her mind. It also had to operate smoothly, she said.

Mathur said she had instinctively known that she would have to plug into the system in India to create a working model. There were many non profits doing good work. “It also became my goal to lift them up,” Mathur said. Working not for profit in two countries was not easy but partnering with other non-profits in India solved the problem of logistics for Soondra, she said. Mathur said her challenge was to find partners with a good and long track record. “Today the longest time I take is to whet the partners,” she said.

Accountability and Transparency for Soondra

Chief Executive Officer Mathur has made sure that Soondra nonprofit has accountability and transparency. She has done this in 3 ways.

  1. Soondra works only with Fair Credit Reporting Act licensed organizations. “I don’t work with mom and pop organizations. I don’t work with individuals. I only work with organizations with a track record, organizations which have the infrastructure to deal with all this,” Mathur said.
  2. Mathur has set up strict measures to make sure that 100 percent of the donations go to the program, that not even a small amount is used for the operating budgets of the partner organizations. “We have created programs and under the program, the cash is directly deposited into the hospital accounts,” Mathur said.
  3. Mathur said she has made sure that Soondra pays only the actuals. “The partners have to provide me with actual receipts for all the services, and all have to be the doctor’s receipts,” Mathur said, adding, “The bills are paid directly to the healthcare provider.”

Soondra’s Long Term Partners

Soondra currently has three long term partners in India. According to Mathur, these are national level big organizations having a set of criteria of their own which must be met by the patients’ real need.

  1. Soondra’s partner Milaan is based in Guru Gram, Delhi, working on empowerment and education of adolescent girls. Soondra is conducting a pilot program since 2021 with Milaan, making covid medicines available to 600 children in a school in Uttar Pradesh. Soondra’s pilot health insurance program has set up a school nurse and temporary health insurance which would help the children get long term health insurance in future.
  1. Soondra’s second partner, Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation (LLF) of India is a national organization based in Mumbai. Under Soondra’s Blood Cancer Hospital Access Program (BCHAP), LLF helps cancer patients from anywhere in India with hospital admission, chemo therapy and antibiotics. BCHAP aids patients for whom it is crucial to begin timely treatment.

The LLF treatment costs vary between $200 & $250 per person. For $250, LLF gets patients admitted into the hospital and start on medicines. “We open the door for them to get them admitted which allows local social workers to buy time and apply for local aid,” Mathur said. Other money comes in after they start the process, without which the patient would not have a chance. “We work with the account department of the hospital and the money goes directly to the patients’ treatment. “The proess is set up such that every dollar is accounted for,” Mathur said. This program has been making a real difference, she said.

  1. Soondra’s third long-term partner in India, Teach for India, is another national organization with schools in about 9 cities. Mathur said Soondra’s Health For Education Program (HFEP) helps get emergency healthcare for 30,000 children in urban slums.

Donations and Internships

Mathur wants to achieve two goals for Soondra in immediate future, get more donations, and get more people to see Soondra’s vision and believe in its cause.

Mathur is already working towards the second goal. She has set up an internship program with the University of Chicago and with Middlebury College in Vermont. She said she hopes to see an awareness and exchange of new ideas, creating important mentorship for Soondra.

Soondra’s base of donations is not yet where Mathur would like it to be, with few recurring donations. “I am looking for people who will join our cause,” she said. Donations can vary from $25 to $250, and more. In India’s context, medical emergencies create intergenerational financial catastrophe and poverty, Mathur said, adding, “There is a high impact to this donation.”

“People can made a big difference in someone’s life so that medical emergency becomes a thing of the past,” Mathur said.

More information about Soondra Foundation is available at info@soondra.org, Insta handle@soondracares, The Soondra Foundation on Facebook. Donations can be made at soondra.org/donate.

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