As we walked along the corridor of IIM Bangalore, I could not help but notice a small placard placed outside a conference room. It read – “Dare to Give? Join the conversation with the pioneers …Walk in”
It was too tempting not to walk in! As I stepped inside the classroom, 5 guys sitting inside greeted me with a smile.
Shivoo: Hi! Just wanted to meet you and wanted to know more about your social initiative
1st Guy (Joseph): Its great that you want to hear us out. Let me introduce myself, I am a MC (master of ceremonies) during the weekdays. In weekends, I work with my church to get a mixed team of expert volunteers to nearby villages and conduct science workshops, medical checkup, magic shows, music, games to teach life lessons for kids and eye/dental checkup! Kind of a “Lab on wheel” concept!
2nd Guy (Ram): I work with kids in destitute homes and counsel them on various things to ensure they don’t go back to streets. I also help them with employment based skill training so that they can be re-introduced to our society and live a respectable life.
3rd Guy (Ratan): I work with kids diagnosed with cancer. Medical reports might suggest they have another 3 months to live. But I believe, a positive reinforcement and a different approach towards illness will help not just to extend the defined 3 months but in many cases completely eliminate the disease. Of course with all the positive reinforcements and counseling, treatment goes in parallel. It just helps the same treatment to have a better affect on the patients.
4th Guy (Sameer): I started an initiative “Beautify Bangalore” to ensure we get back the same charm to Bangalore it had once. Making it greener, waste management, rejuvenating lakes, reclaim playgrounds and parks is all a part of this initiative.
5th Guy (Alan): I have my own Anglo Indian restaurant. We have a secret recipe for a pickle, which is quite famous in Bangalore. It’s the hot selling item both in offline and online segment. All the profits we make from this goes towards the charitable trust, which helps in many causes.
As I walked out, I suddenly realized, I was talking to one guy – “MARK”, who had these five faces. I started to wonder, ”How can one guy do so many selfless activities?” Mark, is the hero of our story today.
If one guy can make such a big difference to the society, just imagine the positive changes around us if each one of us take up one small initiative towards making our society a better place.
IN CONVERSATION WITH MARK REGO
How did you get started on your philanthropy journey?
About 14 years of ago, I was diagnosed with “Colon Cancer”. I got it treated. It was in the initial stages. The doctors were able to cure me with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. I recovered completely in about a year and could get back to work. But, after 3 years it came back with a vengeance. When I went back, I was told that it was at the end of 4th stage (final stage). It was pretty bad. My mother is a cancer survivor too. At 82 today, she still rides a scooter around the city. She is my inspiration. My wife and mother were my rock steady support, encouraging me to conquer this phase. I was given 4 months to live. When I heard this news, my kids were really young, they were about 7 and 4 years old. I could not imagine leaving my kids without a father. I decided then to fight it. I believed that I will be cured and will get better, as I had trust in the doctors, medical facilities all available to me. My only constraint was that I came from a middle class family and I did not have funds in abundance for my treatment. I had to go to government cancer hospital – Kidwai in Bangalore. That 2-3 years were the worst period of my life. But I never gave up. I kept working. In fact there was once, where I got operated and close to 80% of my intestines were removed as I had colon cancer; 2 days later I flew to Goa to MC a friend’s wedding, to keep up the promise I made to them 6 months earlier. I was in deep pain pumped with a lot of medicines and signed an undertaking that I was discharging myself on my own risk. I flew into Goa, finished the event and got back, checking myself back into the hospital. So during this period when I was fighting cancer, and visiting Kidwai regularly, I got to meet with other patients from lesser fortunate backgrounds from all parts of Karnataka who could not afford treatment. In fact some of them were from some remote parts of Karnataka. What used to disturb me greatly were kids suffering and in fact in some cases, newborns affected with Cancer. This incident also put my faith back in religion. I made a pact with God, ”If you save me for my children, one, I will come back to pray regularly and be associated with the Catholic Church. Two, I will do something for all these less fortunate kids.” I survived thanks to all the medical help, prayers and even alternate therapy.
I truly believe that cancer is curable, and that 80-90% of fighting cancer is in the mind (trust your doctor, believe in the treatment), especially with all the advances in medicine. To keep up my word, I went to Mumbai and did a course at The Tata Institute on counseling terminally ill patients and kids with cancer. Why children? Because I have a knack of connecting with them. They are like me ‘cause I am entertainer, musician and play games with them. Over the years, I am usually the go to person for all my connects who are fighting this battle or have a family member that’s fighting this battle to counsel them and also talk to them about how they can fight this battle. I also volunteer at Kidwai to counsel children and most times it’s the parents I need to counsel. In this journey, I have made some very close friends. One such friend is a young boy (aged around 4 and half years) – Ramalingam (Ramu) Gowda from Chitradurga. He has been battling cancer for the last 7-8 months. He is one of the patients at Kidwai. I share a very nice bond with him. He comes every couple of months and his parents bring him by bus to Bangalore. It’s an overnight journey and extremely taxing especially when you are on treatment. I get to know when he comes to Bangalore every time for treatment. He wants me to be there, else he won’t get onto the Chemotherapy table without “Marku” uncle not being there holding my little finger. This means so much to me. I don’t know if he will win the battle, as he is pretty advanced and in the final stage. But the fact that you are there for someone, and that someone waits for you (even if he comes to Bangalore only for treatment), it means a lot to me. It also goes to show that what you are trying to do is working, and this is extremely encouraging.
“But, after 3 years it came back with a vengeance. When I went back, I was told that I was at the end of the 4th stage (final stage)”
“I truly believe that cancer is curable, and that 80-90% of fighting cancer is in the mind (trust your doctor, believe in the treatment)”
“Every day is a success for me. I am extremely positive and always look at the good side. This helps not just me but everyone around me.”
“There are many people who are suffering from Cancer and never tell their families until it’s too late. I know hundreds of cases like that. That’s where I feel half the battle is lost.”
Please tell us about the successes on this journey?
Every day is a success for me. I am extremely positive and always look at the good side. This helps not just me but everyone around me.
Everyone around me, including my family, do not like to talk about Cancer. It’s like a bad word. There are many people who are suffering from Cancer and never tell their families until it’s too late. I know hundreds of cases like that. That’s where I feel half the battle is lost. I have decided to talk about this and my success in overcoming Cancer. Access to me is also easy, because I am semi-celebrity thanks to my shows, MCing and being part of the Bangalore fabric. I actually went out and started talking about it. When I was being treated for Cancer, I used to go out and do Booze and Brains (A weekly pub quiz with a twist). There were days when I would have chemotherapy in the morning, but I would go out and do Booze and Brains in the evening, as I had already committed. People saw me fighting cancer, and I hope I have been able to inspire a few if not many. If you can do it, so can I.
I started giving interviews to media – both print and TV talking about cancer awareness and how they can seek counseling. I am also working with many Cancer associations – sharing my life experiences and also counsel the doctors and patients, parents associated.
I used to do Booze and Brains weekly in Bangalore, Pune and Mumbai. In Pune, the Booze and Brains used to be held at Malaka Spice, a popular restaurant, for 4 years. Every Monday I used to fly into Pune. I was continuing the same routine, even when I was fighting Cancer. Everyone in Pune knew about my battle with Cancer. Very sadly, 2 years later, the lady who owns the restaurant, Cheeru Chandawarkar (a good friend) was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She had 2 small children aged around 7 and 9 years. And she did not want to do. They came from an affluent family, and so had the funds to be treated in hospitals of great repute both in India and abroad. She used to call every day, talking about how she is feeling, what her reports were looking like, medicines she was on, etc. But sadly, Cheeru lost the battle to Cancer about a year later. Unfortunately, another friend of ours two weeks later also passed away from Cancer. So the two husbands (Praful Chandawarkar and Rajiv) started a foundation called Live Life Love Life in memories of their wives. The foundation undertakes a lot of philanthropic work. The trust gets its funds from the restaurant Praful owns and from Rajiv’s business. They have doctors on board, set-up a free clinic to treat women who are affected with cancer. Once a year they have a huge fundraiser program in Pune – if I remember right it’s on Cheeru’s birthday, where they get well-known artists and painters across India to donate a painting. These paintings are auctioned. The first year the founders thought they could raise 10 – 15 lakhs from this and requested me if I could MC the auction. This was very close to my heart, as Cheeru is like family to me and I had beat the dreaded disease, told them I would willingly do this for me with no fee. We had about 400-500 top businessmen, actors and actresses in India. I went on stage and told my story and also spoke about Cheeru and her story. I am guessing that touched a chord with the audience. As per our original assumption of raising 10-15 lakhs we ended up raising 79 lakhs in one hour. People don’t say I am one of the best MCs in India for no reason. People were bidding 3-4 lakhs for a painting, I told them add another lakh and you could pay for 10 more people’s chemotherapy. So audience also participated in this cause. A painting that was to go for 4 lakhs was going at 20 lakhs at the end of the bidding process. Year before last we touched about a crore and this year we have touched about 2 crores. People were forthcoming and were willing to be associated with the cause, only because they knew that the foundation was using the money to give back to people who really needed it to battle Cancer. The foundation had also tied up with cancer associations in Pune. This year, they also bought 4 busses fitted with medical facilities. These busses go through interior Maharashtra, into the poorest of towns and villages where medical help and facilities may not be available or is limited. The busses also go to these remote locations and spread awareness on Cancer, its symptoms and how it can be cured if detected early.
Similarly a famous fashion designer, Maheka Mirpuri also started a similar initiative in Mumbai called – “Move for Cancer Awareness” christened MCan. Maheka’s charitable foundation provides financial assistance to the underprivileged towards cure for cancer as a whole and Head & Neck cancer in particular. She asked me if I can help her raise awareness on Cancer and how people can beat it. I spoke about my story to the audience of a fundraising show she had put together and we were able to raise over a crore of rupees for the foundation.
About a year back, Ravi, a good friend of mine called me and said he wanted to have a chat. I was at the Mangalore airport post a show and was all set to get back to Bangalore. I asked him immediately if it is about Cancer, he said yes. I asked him is it you having Cancer, and he replied silently yes. I said give me an hour, and drove straight to his house. His wife, daughter and son were there along with him at home. He was diagnosed with cancer in the first stage, and luckily it hadn’t spread. He had just finished the first cycle of Chemotherapy and said he couldn’t take any more treatment. He told me it’s going to be a tough call, but I prefer to call it quits with the treatment but I cannot go for this treatment. There were tears rolling down his wife’s eyes. Chemotherapy is horrible especially the first three cycles and I knew how miserable Ravi was feeling. I spoke to him for over 2 hours talking positively, explaining the treatment he was going through. I made him a promise that I will come and hold his hand and sit next to him. I inspired the guy to go back. I kept my promise and went back with him for 2 cycles. He had 6/7 cycles of chemotherapy over 5 months and today he is Cancer-free. He is one person, I can actually say I saved him. Had I not gone and spoken to him and encouraged him to continue the treatment or gone with him to the hospital, there is a high possibility he may not have completed the treatment.
It’s extremely fulfilling that I do all this with my restaurants that I run, the game company which helps me do all the events, the counseling and other fund raising activity I do for Cancer patients. I also work with Jeevarathni Foundation which provides shelter to 67 homeless, orphaned and abandoned children. They are mostly from poor backgrounds, some are orphans and others have parents who are unable to take care of them. I love gardening and with these kids I make Terrariums. When there is any event, these terrariums are sold. Proceeds from the sales go back to the trust. We have a ritual. I play a game of football whenever I visit them. This brings them a lot of joy, that there is someone there to hear or listen or play with me. In fact, I have promised to color and spike their hair if they do well in the final exams. These kids are doing so well in school, which has helped boost the morale of the kids.
I am a volunteer with Samarpan Foundation. We take the sex-workers off the streets, and we have built proper dormitories for these women. We also run schools for their children. These ladies fill the plastic bottles with sand. The ladies are paid 3 rupees for a 500 ml bottle and 5 rupees for a 1-liter bottle. These ladies fill about 350 bottles a day, earning legally. A bottle filled with sand, has the same strength of a brick and is 37 times cheaper than a conventional house. The foundation was finding it difficult to find bottles to fill. Because of my work with all watering holes and my connections with the restaurants, all the large pubs, restaurants, clubs across Bangalore called me and offered to help. So from 500-600 bottles we went to 20000 bottles a day. We have a nice problem, how do we fill these extra bottles. We went and picked up more people from the street and house them here. Our team of volunteers have been working with many developing countries to help them with rehab houses made of plastic bottle.
I am a chef and love cooking. I come from a big family of 47 cousins and tens of uncles and aunties, that let me tinker in the kitchen. In fact when my grandmother passed away, she gave me her handwritten cookbook, which has sheer gems – recipes of Anglo Indian dishes, which have been long forgotten. The book also has a collection of pickles and chutneys that Anglo Indians are known for. Through my restaurant, I sell the pickles and chutneys and the funds from these proceeds go into funding the orphanages and homes I am associated with. These are things that keep me going.
“Had I not gone and spoken to him and encouraged him to continue the treatment or gone with him to the hospital, there is a high possibility he may not have completed the treatment.”
“In fact, I have promised to color and spike their hair if they do well in the final exams. These kids are doing so well in school”
What are your future plans?
I have a professional career. I have mapped out this part of my life for the next 3-5 years. I know where I want to take the restaurant business, my MCing or music. But this side of me, I haven’t planned it all out long term. If anyone needs help, I am all out to help.
We are looking at creating a mobile ecosystem of sorts – a free health or dental check-up, hardware diagnostics or any sort of help the people in and around Bangalore staying in small towns will benefit from. We are planning to visit these towns once in a Sunday every month and maybe offer them a free health or dental check-up; or help fix their set top box, donate old computers etc. That’s what we want to do. We used to do these a few years ago, and I am looking to see if we can get started again. If each one of us help out a person, we can CHANGE the world.
There is a goodness in everyone and lots of people want to help, but don’t know how to help. That’s why I put up the work I do on Facebook and other social media channels, to see how they can help or inspire people to see what causes they can be associated with too. Please feel free to reach out to me, and I can get you connected to the orphanages, causes or homes where you can go and make a BIG difference to someone’s life. Giving money is not the solution. Many a time, people need someone to talk to.