HYDERABAD: Did you know that for children with cancer, nutrition can mean the difference between life and death? Purnota Dutta Bahl, who till recently was a globetrotter as part of her work, says that nutritional support to cancer-affected children means one less thing for parents to worry about.
They don’t have to choose between the life of their child and the fate of their family. And, children don’t drop out of treatment.
An alumnus of the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, Purnota’s Cuddles Foundation is perhaps the only non-profit organisation providing this service in the country. ‘Feed a child, starve cancer,’ is the credo of Purnota’s organisation.
“We are present in 30 government and charity cancer hospitals in 21 cities across India including Hyderabad. We provide free nutritional counsel and support to all children seeking treatment for cancer in these hospitals. Last year alone, we conducted about 1.8 lakh counsels,” says Purnota, Founder and CEO of Cuddles. They currently work out of MNJ Cancer Hospital, Lakdi-ka-Pul.
“The first challenge we faced was that we were starting with a clean slate. There was no organisation doing what we were – focusing on nutrition for children with cancer, that we could fall back on for guidance and benchmarks. But we were lucky that we had a good team of advisors – all the doctors at TATA Memorial, who were championing the cause had our back from a clinical perspective. And, we just grew from that knowledge and support,” says the recipient of UN Global Compact Award for contribution in nutrition.
The second challenge, she says, is actually what most non-profits face – the need for funds. Because nutritionists had to be paid and for a programme to scale, one needs to be able to attract and retain good talent. “Besides, we weren’t going to stop at counselling. We had to provide children free food, supplements, and ration. When we started out, more people wanted to donate towards treatment than food. That was surprising given that we are a country that celebrates every occasion with food. So, I used all that I had learned at B-school and in my corporate avatar, and started raising money from within my friends and B-school networks.
Soon organisations like TATA Trusts, Goldman Sachs, HT Parekh Foundation and many more joined us. But it’s our individual supporters, who have put their faith in us, given from their monthly salary, and brought in their friends and family to support us too. We love them,” says this B-school grad who quit her fulltime job in 2013 to chase her dream to do something substantial for these affected children.
Today, most youngsters dream of quitting their current well-paying jobs to dive into volunteer work. They want to explore a social enterprise where they can work, but for a cause, not a corporate. What is her advice to them? Is the time and environment conducive for taking up causes in a professional way?
“This is absolutely a great time to shift careers to non-profit or impact organisations. That is because of the growing awareness regarding organisations like ours and the need for great talent to solve social problems. Donors are also beginning to see the value that professional talent brings to organisations and are keen to fund these roles. That apart, if someone is not able to move gears and shift careers, it’s important to see how one can create social value in the role/capacity they are in currently. They can always support the mission through their gift of influence, gift of voice or gift or their wealth,” she adds.
Purnota believes that public hospitals don’t have the ability, time, and skill to do what they can do. Eventually, in an ideal world, she would like the government to carry forward the work they do and make nutrition integral to treatment, no matter what the disease.
She recently received the Panna Dhai award from the Maharana Mewar Foundation, Udaipur, Rajasthan. “The award is special to me because the late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam also won an award under the same category. Being a huge Kalam fan, this was an absolute honour and my opportunity to get as close to his legacy as space and time would allow. Such honours which place a lot of importance on the integrity of the awardees helps social entrepreneurs like us to establish faith.
About her plans for 2020, she says, “We want to reach out to 100 per cent of all children undergoing cancer treatment in the country. Now whether we do it ourselves by tying up with hospitals as we do, or through collaborations with other foundations working in these hospitals, or train those working in public cancer hospitals by giving them the tools to do what we do – we are open to all those possibilities. That’s the goal we’ve set for ourselves in the next five years – give every child seeking treatment for cancer in India, a chance at cure through nutrition.”