CERRITOS, Calif. – This was the irony: the best testimonials for the organization came from those who had undergone the most pain. In an ideal world, the kind of victimization and abuse that an elderly couple and a woman had undergone would not have happened; but when they narrated their stories and spoke of how SAHARA had not only helped but empowered them, the support group had the audience members readily pulling out their credit cards to pledge funds for its operations.

With fundraising as its central goal, Sahara’s 28th Annual Gala held here Sept.14 at the Cerritos Performing Arts Center netted more than $350,000.

The event was headlined by Indian American Congressman Ami Bera (D-Calif.) who put in one of his rare community-related public appearances in Southern California. In support of the bid to raise funds he said, “Of communities and people that have much, much is asked. And when you are asked, you have to step up.”

Speaking of the rising incidents of elder abuse, domestic violence and the stigmatization of mental health issues, he said, “While we are the most affluent community in America we also know that there are lots of members of the South Asian community that are hiding in the shadows.” Bera said, “organizations like Sahara allow us to have those conversations which say you are not a victim, you are a survivor.”

The politician also pledged: “I have made it my mission that when we reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, to make sure I am looking to see if there is anything there talks about the Asian American woman because in every community, every issue is not the same and I want to make sure the resources are there for our community.”

Bera’s role in public service might have been informed at an early age. In the tribute that was paid to his recently deceased mother Kanta – from the podium by his father Babulal and in an audio-visual presentation – it was clear that public spirit ran high in the household. The family has sponsored 300 relatives from India and Africa and Kanta Bera urged them into higher education, mostly at Cal Poly Pomona. A teacher herself, she nurtured and vested in those in need.

Earlier, the event opened with SAHARA president Brinda Gandhi and vice president Miji Vellakkatel reiterating the services the organization provides – free clothing, food, shelter, therapy, legal services, employment and transportation help – saying that people come as “victims” but leave as “survivors, empowered and independent.”

Executive director Marilyn Neece told the audience, “With your support we are the arms of safety and security for the community.”

Indeed, the group’s culturally sensitive and linguistically specific services have couples like the Shahs, who at the event told the audience emotionally, “we are nothing without SAHARA.” Kanhaiyalal Shah, 84 and his wife Ranjanbala, 81, immigrated to the U.S. in their 60s and were abused at work, not paid their wages properly, and, among other things, were also saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid medical bills of their daughter. SAHARA found housing, paid their bills and supported them.

There was also a moving story by an anonymous victim who narrated her pain-filled journey from being an independent working woman to being abused and closeted by her husband and, finally, with SAHARA’s aid, becoming free and independent again.

Asha Gandhi, the director of shelter, who helped both parties, as been with SAHARA for seven years. She told India-West, “I am never stressed when I am dealing with clients. I feel like I am learning more about myself. People want many things or want to go to places like Kailash, but for me, if I can put a smile on a person’s face, its everything.”

She went on to say, “Respect is the most important thing for a person and if we can give them that, the smile follows.” Gandhi said she tries to abide by the motto, “Don’t expect anything, just keep doing what you can.”

To meet needs like this, SAHARA is dependent for about 47% of its funds from donors. At the gala, the major contributors included the Babulal Bera family, the Sarva Mangal Family Trust, Chugh LLP, the Tarsadia Foundation, Wells Fargo Bank and CIBC Private Wealth Management. Others pledged from $100 to $5,000. Monies was also raised through a silent auction, travel packages and a guitar signed by the Rolling Stones.

The event was emceed by comedian Dan Nainan who riffed on his Indian-Japanese ethnicity and drew the most applause for his Donald Trump impersonation. Dinner was catered by Dilliwala restaurant.

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