Natasha N Kochhar, an architect by profession, found herself somewhat bereft of a tribe after moving from Kuwait to Delhi post-marriage. Triggered to create a community based on geography and common interests, she along with her friend Sonali Mongia set up a WhatsApp group called VV Divas for women in their neighbourhood of Vasant Vihar in south Delhi, which later grew into a series of groups.
In 2020, when Covid struck, these very groups served as the biggest source of support and strength for hundreds of women and their families in the area.
“Raised in Kuwait, where we always had a close-knit circle of Indian families and friends, I found to my surprise that people didn’t even know their own neighbours in Delhi. I had no family here either,” says Natasha, now the mother of an 11-year-old boy and co-founder of an architectural firm along with other startups.
Natasha also developed kinship with Nidhi Agarwal who was in a similar situation, belonging originally to Lucknow. They decided to streamline the VV Divas group with some guidelines, and curate a collective pop-up show by women entrepreneurs from Vasant Vihar.
The group soon grew beyond the 256-member limit, and the ladies created VV Divas 2 and then 3 with the help of more than a dozen other admins and volunteers.
They also simultaneously created several other groups based on common interests – such as mothers who wanted to carpool to a particular school, or those looking to promote their home businesses, or order certain products such as mangoes from a faraway location, or even sports clubs. They also organised networking events for the women to meet one another in person.
“Nidhi and I have 68 WhatsApp groups in common, and counting,” laughs Natasha, who is currently pursuing her MBA in design thinking remotely from Parsons School of Design, New York.
When Covid struck in March 2020, the women got together with the local Vasant Vihar Welfare Association and doctors to set up a Google Doc to update residents of government rules and guidelines, Covid do’s and don’ts, and information on hospitals and testing.
They also helped the welfare association disseminate daily bulletins on Covid cases in the neighbourhood besides other news. The women also got together with other residents to create a helpline of doctors and a volunteer programme for senior citizens in the area, making sure their food, shopping, psychological and administrative needs were taken care of during the lockdowns.
“The first 30 minutes are the most crucial ones in any emergency, and that’s when it’s important to have good neighbourhood connections,” says Natasha, adding, “Covid has reminded us of the value of neighbours and building a community in our neighbourhoods. We need to know people who can reach us in 30 minutes even at 3 am.”
The senior citizen group (now led by Ambika Paul, Parul Agarwal and Bhavana Vadehra) has over 70 young volunteers at present, mostly women who assist with pantry runs, paying the bills, and arranging medical help for the older folks. “We started this initiative in gratitude of those out there doing it for our parents when we can’t reach them,” says Natasha.
There was even more work for the volunteers of the area when the second Covid wave struck Delhi in April 2021. Calls for doctors, oxygen and medicines intensified on their WhatsApp groups, and the doctors and volunteers often found themselves overwhelmed with the requests and cries for help.
As the oxygen crisis arose, Natasha and Nidhi got together with Nikki Malhotra to create a resource list of spare oxygen cylinders and concentrators that owners could share at no cost with others. “The first wave had trained people, especially seniors, in using WhatsApp and Google Docs. So, they were more willing and capable this time around in sharing information, and receiving and giving aid,” says Natasha.
The VV Divas volunteers also put together a medical helpline led by Dr Glossy Sabharwal and Dr Shikha Sharma, with the support of dozens of doctors in the neighbourhood; a legal helpline led by Neeraj Grover and Prachi Mehta to support people seeking e-passes during lockdown; and a mental-health helpline with Dr Natasha Kumar, Anveeksha Jain and Parul Parashar.
“None of the residents are doing this for money. We have managed to create a circle of help – when someone helps you, you are inspired to pay it forward and help others. Being able to help also gives you a sense of achievement in these dark times,” says Natasha.
She outlines three tips for those who want to create volunteer WhatsApp groups in their community:
Be willing to help and to ask for help: “Don’t be shy. Asking for help is a bigger sign of courage. You just need that one person to follow through, and that is enough.”
Let people promote themselves: “We encourage self-promotions through a certain format on our groups. Our intention was never to monetise these groups and that’s precisely why it works. There is now a growing preference for neighbourhood entrepreneur products in Vasant Vihar. We women must help other women get visible as visibility is the superpower to any entrepreneurship venture.”
Everyone needs to pitch in to pay it forward: “Some people may not have the bandwidth to get involved or follow groups. But give it time. When one is in the presence of so many others who help, or when one receives help out of the blue, it just inspires one to start pitching in! This usually creates a ripple effect and a sense of ownership by all in the group.”
Though the time spent on volunteering does take a toll on Natasha’s own personal time and pursuits, she believes she has received more than she ever expected in return.
“I feel like I have an extended family with a circle of care now in Vasant Vihar. I feel protected,” she says, expressing gratitude to all the women and men who helped make and grow the community. “I know that if I need a wheelchair or a cake at 3 am, there will be someone out there with a solution. I have finally filled the void and found my own tribe.”
Syndicated to Money Control