By Tonya Kelly, MEd, and Okon Ekpenyong
Teja Kancharlapalli is the promoter of Sahara, an organization that supports kids in schools and individuals experiencing homelessness and families who are struggling in central Ohio. Teja was born and brought up in India. She came with her husband to the United States to pursue their Master’s degree. They have been living in Columbus, Ohio for more than a decade and they have two boys, 11 and 8 years old. Teja is able to serve the community despite her work at American Electric Power, AEP and she revealed the works of Sahara in an interview with Tonya Kelly and Okon Ekpenyong:
I was always interested in doing something for the community but the day the schools closed in March 2020 was the day I thought about kids who rely on school breakfasts and lunches. We started Sahara to help school kiddos. But after realizing the impact of the pandemic we expanded to helping individuals experiencing homelessness and families who are struggling. We evolved and expanded per the need, we all know domestic violence increased during the pandemic, and the shelters are overwhelmed, so we try to help kids in shelters too.
We rely on community and individual donations and our main goal was to get kids involved. Sahara is all about kids in community service.
We collect monetary/food donations, and the kids help decorate, bag and maintain our GARAGE warehouse.
I think the beginning was easy because we had a lot of donations coming in but after a few moments, the influx has been very slow, and getting help has been hard since 2021 but thanks to friends and community we are still helping a lot of folks.
We work with schoolteachers, homeless organizations, shelters, CPD, and blessing boxes hosts to get the food to where it’s needed. These folks are the real heroes who are out there in the sun, rain, and snow. I really salute them for their dedication.
We discuss as a board and choose schools based on the percentage of kids depending on the reduced/free lunch program. We also follow news and media and see which organizations are more strained.
We wanted to thank the First Responders in May 2020 and a friend referred us to Nicole Banks. We made close to 200 Thank you bags filled with Candy in May and in November 2020 I reached out to police Starfish project if they would like to distribute blessing bags. Nicole and the officers are kind enough to collaborate with us. The police officers see a lot more need than we do in Suburbs, and they run into the people in need every day on their job.
I am so grateful to these great officers who are going above and beyond to help the community. And Nicole brings everyone together
We have three varieties:
1. Family Blessing bags-:
Mac and cheese, Ramen, canned meat, cake mix. etc
2. Blessing bags for individuals experiencing homelessness: Ready to eat canned food, tuna, chewy bars etc
3. Treat bags and movie kits for kids
4. We also do Hygiene kits, Books on special occasions.
We did a shoe drive and donated more than 150 pairs of brand-new shoes to school kids. We also donated care packages/movie kits to school kids.
It was a very humbling experience, my friend Nicole Banks from Starfish nominated me, and it was a pleasant surprise to actually get selected.
All the kids were super excited and were happy to be part of the ceremony. I think they deserve this recognition more than I.
It’s hard to track but we gave out more than 10,000 food bags to various organizations.
Not just my family being involved but my friends and all their kids are involved and they love it and it’s part of their everyday life now and I am hoping my kids and my friends’ kids will take over the organization when they are old enough.
We can accept Venmo.