Two years after he made his national debut in the 2014 National Para swimming Championship, Vishwas Kalahasthipura is now prepping meticulously to compete on the international stage. Come July and the 26-year-old para swimmer will head to Canada to represent India in the 2016 Speedo Can Am Para-swimming Championships.
Vishwas's dream of becoming a world-class athlete is being supported by BookASmile (BAS) – a philanthropic initiative of online movie ticketing website BookMyShow that supports special causes across India.
"We started BAS a few years ago because we wanted to give back to society. Our aim is to create smiles everywhere. To provide opportunities to those who hail from the disadvantaged sections, opportunities that we and you usually take for granted. And Vishwas is doing commendable work," says 43-year-old Farzana Cama Balpande, Head of BAS.
And indeed he is. Vishwas's story stands out not just because of what he has achieved today, but also how he came to become a strong individual and a determined sportsperson.
Around fifteen-years-ago, Vishwas's father had saved just enough money to build a house for the family in Kolar, Karnataka. One day, the then 10-year-old Vishwas went to the roof of the under-construction house, accidentally slipped and fell on the electric wires going through the site. When his father tried to rescue him with the help of a wooden log, he too was electrocuted and died on spot. Not only did Vishwas lose his father, who was the only earning member of the family then, but also both his upper limbs.
Vishwas went on finish his schooling and got a bachelor’s degree in Commerce, before he started looking for opportunities to earn. However, no one was ready to give him a job as they did not believe he could deliver what the work demanded. It was then, in 2012, that he took to swimming with the support of the Karnataka Para Swimming Association and Astha, a Bengaluru-based NGO and has been bagging medals in events since.
While most philanthropic initiatives work around pressing issues like education, rights or food, Farzana says they chose to focus on gifting "experiences and enjoyment" to the disadvantaged as "nobody else was doing it. We had a platform, and we could use this and capitalize on it."
Farzana Cama Balpande
Last month, BAS arranged for 4,500 children to watch "Jungle Book", one among several of their similar initiatives.
"We give them a fun, light-hearted experience and the response has been fabulous. Entertainment is always an ice-breaker. We hope people are learning something from it," says Farzana who has worked in the education space for over two decades.
Apart from gifting movie experiences, BAS also works on fundraisers, ticketing for sporting or musical events, circuses or cricket matches. It also liaises with NGOs and passes on the benefits to them; however, it does not specifically provide financial aid to individuals.
While their head-office is in Mumbai, BAS claims to work with people across the country.
"I didn't want any limitation on the work we do, which is why we don’t have any particular group or area on which we specifically focus on. Our programme is pan-India," she says.
A young women's football team in Ranchi is currently busy with their training sessions. They are among the two teams which will represent India in the World Street Football event in France this year and are being sponsored by BAS.
"When we work with kids, especially in remote areas, we see the dreams they have and the fire in them. It is heart-warming and inspirational," Farzana beams.
BAS, which runs on a non-profit model, provides several options for people to donate – right from Re 1 to Rs 500 – through its website. But are people really interested in contributing?
"To be completely honest," Farzana says, “they are more than happy to donate, but many don’t have a channel to do so. It is heartwarming to see people coming forward for charity."
Of the several future projects that BAS is working on, some include animal welfare initiatives, a video vans project, street theatre productions on women’s safety, and providing sports equipment and aid to an institution which works with mentally-challenged persons.
Vishwas for now is focusing on his "dream to bring pride to my country and inspire others to achieve success in life as well as lead a happy life" and can relax on the finances front.
"I am working hard to improve my timing. The support extended by BookASmile will allow me to focus on my training rather than worry about my basic needs. Otherwise I would have had to go from place to place and spend lot of time in arranging for finances, which is not only tough but stressful," he says.