How does a woman feel after a mastectomy? Apart from the physical pain that goes on during and after the process, the emotional pain of losing breasts can leave a woman shattered. Some women say that they feel less feminine and attractive, followed by the loss of a positive self-image. While there are synthetic prostheses available in the market, knitted knockers by Jayashree Ratan, are non-allergic. These are crocheted or knitted prostheses which go easy on the skin that has already been surgically repaired. In a candid conversation with Jayashree Ratan, we got to know how her charity organisation, Saaisha India Foundation uplifts the lives of many cancer patients in the world.
1. What inspired you to establish the Saaisha India Foundation?
From a very young age, I was keen to provide social service. I’d go with my aunt, a social worker, to places like Mercy Home, Little Sisters of the Poor, and YWCA in Chennai to help the elderly and those in need. I also served as a youth volunteer in Sai Seva organisations. While working as Teller in a Bank I used to prefer the front desk where I could serve customers directly.
One New Year’s Eve, I visited one of the relatives of my daughter-in-law and welcomed 2018 at a small party in their house. The lady of the house is a cancer survivor and had a mastectomy performed on her four months back. She was explaining the difficulties she was facing. I remembered making crocheted breast prostheses, which are lovingly called Knockers, in the USA for an NGO and offered to make some for her. Subsequently, I made a pair and sent it to her. She loved them and suggested I do this for other mastectomy patients too.
This triggered the whole idea of the Saaisha India Foundation, a charitable organisation making Life meaningful for Women and Children.
2. How has the organisation evolved since its inception, both in terms of outreach and the services you provide?
When I started the project, I had three friends with me who shared the same passion. We registered ourselves with knittedknockers.org (kk.org) of the USA as their official provider of Knockers in India. There were several challenges before us – attracting more volunteers for the cause, finding the right type of 100% cotton yarn and filler to make the product, increasing awareness about the product amongst mastectomy patients (whom we call Beneficiaries), Oncologists, Radiologists, Breast Surgeons and hospitals. Sadly, despite offering the prostheses for free, some institutions prefer commercial substitutes that many cannot afford.
Over the past 5 years, we have reached out to many reputed institutions and government hospitals nationwide and successfully introduced our Knockers as a preferred option for breast prosthesis, especially among those who cannot afford the costly alternatives.
3. Being a women-led team, how important is the element of support and camaraderie among your volunteers in achieving your mission?
Saaisha has a group of hardworking and wonderful volunteers. We do not have any paid employees. From knitting and crocheting Knockers & Beanies to training new volunteers, running our Social media platforms, our web page, our Outreach activities and maintaining our records, our volunteers do everything. Whenever we call for group activities, our volunteers participate enthusiastically. They even take up outreach activities at their own expense to visit Hospitals, Doctors and NGOs to create awareness about our initiative.
4. Could you elaborate on the challenges you’ve faced in scaling up your efforts to reach more women?
We have over 450 active volunteers, primarily in India and the UAE. We have a few volunteers in the USA, Singapore, Kuwait and Oman. Volunteers outside India also have to procure approved yarn from India to maintain uniformity and quality. Volunteers take the yarn, knit/crochet the Knockers and send it back to us. Before bringing on new volunteers, I personally interview each one, explaining Saaisha’s values and methods.
I make it clear to them that the ‘Volunteer-Saaisha’ relationship is for Life. I am fully aware of the background of every volunteer. It helps me to understand why sometimes they are not able to contribute even though the desire to contribute is there. There are no targets set for the volunteers and they are free to do whatever they can and whenever they want!
5. What are your long-term goals or aspirations for Saaisha India Foundation, say in the next five to ten years?
The main objective of the Foundation is to take up activities in the medical and educational fields to make life meaningful for women and children. The first two projects are providing knitted/ crocheted breast prostheses to mastectomy patients and cotton Beanie caps to children undergoing chemo.
We have so far assisted over 7500 mastectomy patients and 2000 children. I am afraid we have hardly scratched the surface. Considering these are handmade, relatively difficult to master patterns and applying the Pareto principle there is a limit to scaling up in a short period.
We do have plans to take up other activities in these two fields to help more beneficiaries. We are not very aggressive in fundraising but we do welcome small donations trickling in throughout the year which would support us. I hope that in another 5 years, Saaisha will become a premier supplier of Free breast prostheses for mastectomy patients.
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