VCCF Donor Spotlight: Interview with Meenal and Kris Kelkar

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VCCF’s intern Daniel Whitworth had the opportunity to speak with longtime VCCF donors Kris and Meenal Kelkar and learn more about them. Kris and Meenal were both born in India and came to the U.S. at a young age. They got married after college and moved to the West Coast together, living in Ventura County for the last 27 years. Meenal and Kris retired in 2013 and have since put their focus on how they can use their talents to serve the community and make the world a better place.

Describe your first time giving back to your community, whether it was philanthropy, volunteering, or otherwise.
K: I wasn’t raised with a good foundation of philanthropy, especially when I was working in high tech. I was much more of a follower and let Meenal lead. And so, it’s very recently I’ve gotten much more in touch with and can articulate what I look for in my philanthropy. And for me what really motivates my philanthropy is some form of transformation. Personal transformation, group transformation, community transformation. Where the result is people feel more empowered, they feel more able to create new possibilities for themselves and their communities and their families, et cetera.
M: I have in some ways what feels like an unusual background when it comes to community, but then I’m realizing actually maybe it’s more common than I realized, which is when I came to this country in 1967, I was less than a year old and my parents were told by the pediatrician to stop speaking to me in my native tongue, otherwise I would be confused when I went to Kindergarten. So, I would go back to India and would never really feel like I belonged there because I couldn’t speak my native tongue and, in the U.S., as I was Indian in a place with not many Indians, I felt like there was this lane where I never quite belonged.
So, I’ve always been seeking community and I think the first time really I found it was in 2002 when I had gotten wind of the fact that the senior minister at the Camarillo United Methodist Church started hosting these talks about the different world religions and different philosophies after 9/11. I remember I went there, and it was really the first time that I felt like I was in a community because everyone was showing up knowing that a change was needed. I could speak up and my voice was welcome, I didn’t have to know the answers, but that somehow together we would find our way through it and I don’t think I had ever thought of it in that way before. I think that is my first experience with community and then even being invited to join the church even though I kept saying I’m not Christian, and it was like, “No, we want people like you. We want a difference of opinion because that’s how we all learn from each other.” I was then invited to teach courses and lead meditations, and so that was my first opportunity to give back.

What inspires you to give?
M: Part of it is we don’t have kids and so oftentimes for many people, changing the world or leaving the world a better place than when I came is often tied to having kids or grandkids. But for us in the absence of having kids, it’s because we’ve been in Ventura County now longer than we’ve ever lived anywhere else in our lives; it’s home. I tend to be a root cause person. It’s like I’d rather go fix things at the source to find that solution and then you don’t have to keep dealing with the ramifications of it. And so, I just feel like there’s a lot of opportunities now in Ventura County given the size of the county, given how the leaders know each other, given the way they came together like after the Thomas Fire, the Woolsey Fire, and then during Covid. All those things invited us to think in a new way because the need was so great.
K: I like to support efforts and organizations that teach people to fish rather than just give them fish. What also inspires me is looking at new ways to do things that really open up new possibilities to create the kind of world that I want to live in. And so how do we work better together, how do we work across organizations because the problems we have are not just structural, but they’re larger than any one non-profit. So how do we work together to actually focus on things that create new possibilities?

Do you have any specific local nonprofits that you connect with in your giving?
M: Our most consistent giving has been to CAUSE (Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy). We used to be involved in the Social Justice Fund which was one of the funds at VCCF and we would do grants as a giving circle. We would do grants to local community organizing efforts. It just seemed like all of the innovative ideas that were coming through were somehow or another CAUSE was behind the scenes pushing for those things, in the best of ways. CAUSE has this long history of community organizing and teaching people who have been left out of the process, how to participate in the process and seeing some really profound results.
K: CAUSE also has this theme of activating the community. It’s helping the community feel empowered. Rather than advocating for change themselves, they help the community understand the ramifications of change and help them advocate for themselves. The other organization that came to mind was Family Justice Center. I find the Family Justice Center inspiring because it’s so many different organizations coming together to provide services to a particular group of clients. But it’s client-centric. So, a person doesn’t have to run all over town and fill out thirty different kinds of paperwork and negotiate forty different mazes to get the services that are available to them.
The other organization I would put in there is Future Leaders of America. I feel inspired by the youth engagement and it’s not just from the client perspective; it’s also the staff that are very young. There’s a lot of hope that comes up in me by seeing the youth step up and teaching other youth skills that allow them to create change in the world.

What is your best advice for others who would like to make a difference?
M: Everything is needed, so find what you’re passionate about and start there. All of us hold a piece of the puzzle, so it’s not that one piece of the puzzle is any bigger or more valuable than the rest, and it all then needs to come together.
K: Find what’s important to you, and really connect with what you want the world to be and find things that are aligned with that.

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