After years of serving those without homes on the weekends, Nathan Ganeshan was sure the simple act of feeling clean and refreshed would not only renew their spirits but grant them dignity.
He set out fundraising and planning. Then, as he watched a truck hauling a trailer with showers into the First Presbyterian Church’s parking lot in 2018, Ganeshan said he was almost overcome.
“When the shower truck pulled over, I choked. It was very emotional,” Ganeshan said. “It was a dream that became a reality. I will never forget that day.”
Now, twice a week, a Dignity on Wheels truck stops at the downtown church with showers, bathrooms and washers and dryers for homeless residents to use.
Ganeshan was struck by the gratefulness of those who have so little. After showering, a homeless man profusely thanked him, the community and all who made his showering possible, Ganeshan said.
Ganeshan has always been motivated to help others—and to make dreams real.
A giving kid
When he was a young boy growing up in India, he was inspired by Mother Teresa to feed those in need on his birthdays.
“If you make their hungry belly full on your special day, it’s more meaningful and gratifying,” he said.
On special occasions, Ganeshan and his family celebrated by giving back to the community and have inspired others to do the same.
“When you do something good, it’s important to involve your family, then your community,” Ganeshan said. “I wanted to be a role model for my kids.”
Almost 10 years later, Ganeshan was walking past a park one day and impulsively bought pizza for a homeless person. Feeding those in need became a way of life, especially after being laid off in 2012. That’s when he and his family started going to St. James Park on Sundays to give pizza, bananas, cookies and water to the unhoused.
Word spread on social media and soon, his friends started sponsoring him in celebration of their children’s birthdays, sometimes joining in distribution.
“It was heartwarming for me,” Ganeshan said. “People were getting food.”
One Sunday morning, Ganeshan skipped his regular visit to the park—his son had a tennis tournament. On the way to the game, his seven-year-old son Saicharan asked him: “What about the people in the park? Won’t they be waiting for us? Who will feed them?”
Ganeshan said that little spark ignited the idea for Community Seva, which feeds the hungry and serves the homeless.
Since its start in June 2013, the nonprofit has grown to 2,900 volunteers. It has served 190,000 meals at six homeless shelters and encampments.
During the winter months, the nonprofit distributed more than 8,000 blankets. After a homeless man told Ganeshan he found carrying the blanket difficult, Community Seva started providing backpacks filled with a blanket, beanie, gloves, socks, rain poncho and a hygiene kit. Today, more than 9,000 backpacks have been distributed, as well as 3,600 feminine hygiene kits.
“Nathan’s an amazing human being,” said Assemblymember Ash Kalra. “He saw not just the need but felt compassion for those he served.”
When parents asked Ganeshan how they could involve their younger children in philanthropy, Ganeshan suggested the families sponsor care bags the children could fill at birthday parties. Soon hygiene kits filled were filled, complete with personal notes of encouragement. Community Seva has distributed more than 8,000 care bags.
It’s the little things that mean the most to Ganeshan. He was moved to watch a mother serve her children breakfast at LifeMoves homeless shelter, knowing Community Seva had made it possible by providing the meal.
During the pandemic, Community Seva has continued to serve about 1,500 meals a week. Since it could no longer prepare meals in homeless shelters, Ganeshan rented a small commercial kitchen in San Jose and enlisted the help of four restaurants, providing groceries and paying them to cook.
As people lost their jobs and homes, Community Seva started supporting 75 families living out of RVs and cars in parking lots, bringing them hot meals, milk and water.
For his 16th birthday, Saicharan raised $300 on Facebook for bags of macaroni and cheese, ramen, beef jerky, energy bars and fruit for the seniors.
Although helping the seniors was supposed to be a one-time thing, Ganeshan has been going every Sunday for the past seven months.
“Nathan never says, ‘No,’” said housing rights advocate Shaunn Cartwright. “He’s always there to help. He might look like a soccer dad, but he doesn’t have any fears or judgment.”
Ganeshan’s dream now is to open a homeless shelter, providing mental health care and job preparation as well as beds and hot meals.
“Opening a shelter is something he could actually pull off with that spirit,” Cartwright said.
As his mission grew, Ganeshan turned to annual fundraising galas to propel Community Seva’s goals. Donations can be made through PayPal at [email protected]
“There are hungry people waiting for us,” Ganeshan said. “The community is behind us. We are committed.”
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]