Saturday, December 3, 2011

Supply Chain of Service

I randomly wandered into Manav Sadhna the other day and was treated to a remarkable story from Virenbhai. It had to do with the large number of boxes neatly stacked up next to where we sat, in a corner of the main MS hall. Inside the boxes was over a ton (3,200 lbs. to be exact) of top-of-the-line Helix school supplies from the U.S.: pencil sets, rulers, compasses, easels, art kits, sketch pads, paper cutters, scissors, stationery. Easily, it was thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. It's all going to be distributed, benefit, and be enjoyed by many hundreds of slum children in the area for a long time to come. How on earth did all of these amazing school supplies land here in the first place? The story is even better than the end result.

Few weeks ago Virenbhai was in Chicago, where he spends part of the year working (to earn his living; the other half of the year he's in Ahmedabad to volunteer full-time with Manav Sadhna). Out of the blue one evening he got a call from a young woman, Shilpa Patel. Shilpa works in the marketing department at a warehouse/distribution center in the Chicago area. She called Virenbhai to tell him that there is 5 skids full of brand new school supplies from Helix at one of her company's warehouses. By midnight, all of it would be removed, possibly just discarded away. But wouldn't it be wonderful if we could take and send the supplies to the kids at Manav Sadhna? Shilpa had volunteered there before, so she knew how joyful the kids would be royally and fully kitted out for back-to-school. She had even gotten the go-ahead from her bosses to let it happen, but they would have to clear everything out of the warehouse by midnight.

It was then 7pm. Virenbhai immediately springs into action. He sends an email out to a group of local volunteers, seeking on-call muscle to wrangle the stuff. Within a couple hours he's got a team of 6-7 loaders, and a truck borrowed/rented by one of the volunteers. They all meet at the warehouse and manage to pick up the supplies. But where to store it all? Virenbhai calls up his boss to ask permission to store the stuff at one of their company facilities. Generously, the boss says yes. He has long known of Virenbhai's involvement with MS and has been supportive in many ways. The next morning Virenbhai goes early to work to unload. A few of his co-workers volunteer to come help, and with shirts off they get to work. They are finished by punch-in time and head to work.

Next task was to pack up all of the supplies to have them ready for shipment to India. Virenbhai blasts out another call to the local troops to come for a packing party. It was short notice and right near the holidays, but sure enough 16 people infected with a spirit of service and love for hundreds of kids thousands of miles away show up. At the company facility one weekend, Virenbhai's boss arranges for tables, boxes, packing tape, and any other supplies needed for the team. The team works for five hours to sort, organize and pack up the supplies. Right on call, some local moms hear about the work and show up with all kinds of food: donuts, home-cooked bataka poha, the works. They weren't even asked, they just sprang into action. An entire station had to be set up on the side just for food.

After the boxes were readied Virenbhai arranged to have them sent to India. He researched the most cost-effective solution, which was by ship. He had a contact for a guy who had helped him with MS shipments before. He is kind-hearted and resonates with the spirit. He agrees to deliver the boxes, from doorstep to doorstep, at a generous discount.

Virenbhai also figures that these supplies could benefit local underserved kids in Chicago, so 20-30% of the supplies are kept back. He arranges to deliver them to 2-3 local public schools. A wonderful, think-global-act-local decision.

The shipment arrived to Ahmedabad the morning Virenbhai and I sat in MS chatting about the whole thing. The truck arrives in front of Gandhi Ashram. How to unload? Meanwhile the local kids catch wind and are going bonkers with excitement. "We'll unload everything Virenbhai, don't worry!" And like that the kids themselves bring this wonderful gift the last mile to its final destination.

I'm dumbfounded as Virenbhai relates this whole story to me. So much goodness, I kept wowing in amazement after each turn only to be out-wowed by the next part. After finishing, Virenbhai gets up to leave and I walk over to examine the supplies more closely.

"I didn't tell you the best part of the story," he says, peeking back in. The boxes had come in some metal support scaffolds. Jesús and Kafhai, two architect-volunteers at MS, saw them and excitedly kept them aside. The scrap metal would be perfect for a school they were building in the slum. There was also tons of cardboard that the supplies came packed up in from the delivery truck. The MS team sent that off to a local recycling center and gets Rs.210. They use that money to feed bhajaiyas to the kids as thanks for helping to unload. Not a resource wasted, more good created.

There is so much to love about this story, a rich supply chain of service that blossomed from a small seed. One act of inspired kindness led to maybe a hundred individuals receiving a wonderful opportunity to serve in large and small ways. Not to mention the collective effort will benefit hundreds more children around the world. To me the biggest hero of the story is Shilpa Patel. And the kicker is, I am Shilpa Patel. And so are you, gentle reader. Each one of us sits in a metaphorical office working at Dunder Mifflin in our own corner of the world. But what separated Shilpa from the rest of us is in that moment was that she had her eyes, ears, and heart open. Tuned into the calls of service, generosity, kindness, compassion. What I call the Always Be *Serving* state of mind. It's what lifts the haze off of an ordinary moment and reveals an extraordinary experience.

Are you tuned in?


  1. Incredible!!! Great narration as usual Neil ... the way these type of things seem to come together at MS (and CF/SS) is truly mind-blowing!

  2. What a story! Hats off to everyone that was a link in the chain.

  3. Shilpa...err, Neil :) beautiful story telling bro, and a full-of-awe story at that! Wild blessings to you and MS over on the other side of the world.

  4. Super story. Thank you so much for sharing this...

  5. Beautiful story! Thanks for writing it up!!

  6. Beautiful ! Lovely :-)