Pleasanton teen Jiya Patil has been dedicated since 2020 to supporting homeless people and those with financial difficulties through her nonprofit organization Gold Bear Foundation.
Patil first became aware of economic disparity when she visited extended family in India as a child. Her friends in India went to schools that had no desks, relied on natural sunlight, and closed when it rained.
"I don't think I initially recognized that as poverty, but as I got older I wanted to contribute because I got opportunities that I was really lucky to have, and I would like to give back so that more people can have the same things I have," Patil told Livermore Vine.
Determined to help those with limited food supplies, Patil decided to build on her love for cooking and baking, making biweekly meal donations of pasta and bread to Building Futures, a homeless shelter in San Leandro.
Hoping to interact with more people, Patil started handing out sandwiches and brownies at Oakland encampments. One interaction from her first time sending donations at an encampment has continued to stick with her.
As a woman grabbed a sandwich on her way out of church, she commented "it's so hard out here." Pointing at the tents set up behind her, she said: "When they hurt me, the hospitals wouldn't even help me. And then they took my car and left me with nothing. God bless y'all."
After that conversation, Patil resolved to reach as many people as possible. She began selling handmade bath scrubs on Etsy and worked a part-time job at Stoneridge Shopping Center to support those living in shelters, on the streets, and those who were economically disadvantaged.
In less than six months, Patil had raised over $1,000, with which she purchased and donated hygiene products and meals to nearby homeless shelters, from Tri-Valley Haven to Building Futures San Leandro.
As Patil's donations increased, her friends and fellow classmates also expressed interest in contributing to her cause. In 2020, she decided to turn her passion for volunteering into an organization, named Gold Bear Foundation.
"We had a group chat and talked about other stuff we could do to help out. We were like 'let's do a little bit more or let's try donating items this time instead of meals,'" Patil said. "Bears very much remind me of strength, and gold is like a pure color, so we want to share that pure strength with other people."
In Patil's words, their efforts "snowballed" from there on out. Her original team of seven swelled to almost 100 in little under a year, with chapters in the United States, India and Switzerland. In the past year, Gold Bear Foundation donated over 5,000 items to more than 1,000 people in need.
"The Tri-Valley Haven staff and I would like to sincerely thank the Gold Bear Foundation for their generous donation of feminine hygiene supplies," Tri-Valley Haven Executive Director Ann King said. "Having the appropriate feminine hygiene supplies and toiletries is essential for our residents feeling safe and comfortable while they heal from the trauma they've experienced."
In one of Gold Bear's most recent events, Patil directed 20 volunteers in Muirwood Park to assemble and package 300 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to distribute at an orphanage and homeless shelter in Oakland. For Patil, witnessing the expressions of joy and surprise on people's faces when they accept the donations makes her work all worth it.
"It makes my heart so happy to interact with them and feel like you're making at least a little bit of an impact in their life. Even if it's temporary, it's something to help them keep going," Patil said. "We are very item-based, so hopefully people we're donating something to will feel we put a lot of thought and effort into it, because we want (our donations) to be very personalized to every person's needs."
Patil wants to continue expanding Gold Bear Foundation both nationally and internationally, and hopes to emphasize the fun and rewarding side of volunteering to support one's community.
"I know with community service sometimes it feels like a chore, but my biggest thing is I don't want it to be a chore. I want it to be something people want to do and enjoy, like a two-way street," Patil said. "I don't know if I can change someone's life entirely, but if I can support people in a lot of different areas through Gold Bear, that would be really awesome to see."
For more information about the foundation, visit its website at goldbearfoundation.org.