An AboutThem Interview with Vimala Rajendran of Vimala’s Curryblossom Café
By Stephanie Baum
Can you give us some background on the Curryblossom Foundation? What is its mission?
My family and I have lived in Chapel Hill for 32 years, doing social justice work. If a social justice worker or organization can provide money for a specific cause, it becomes philanthropic; if not, it’s just social justice work. There are people who would like to contribute to our social justice work, but no model exists for a for-profit business to take donations of nonprofit money. We want to be able to accept donations and re-appropriate funds to enlighten and empower refugees and disadvantaged individuals within our community. The refugees, especially, don’t have much—many came from war zones and though they have decent housing, they have little cash to buy anything beyond food. Being already involved in the food service industry, our restaurant has been paying living wages to our workers. To meet some of the needs of the disadvantaged in our community, we need a funding agency. We want to become a fiscal sponsor for community needs for things such as education, for enrichment activities such as summer camps for children, and other types of needs for low-income individuals.
What inspired you to begin this project?
When I was a single parent without a steady, reliable income, I would trade food or services with instructors or institutions holding activities for children. However, not everyone is able to do that, so I feel it is a good idea to be able to provide straight-up funds for those who need them. As an example, in my social justice work, I don’t currently provide direct funding for activities like [children’s] camp, but I provide food that is worth more than the cost of a camp. It comes from my pocket.
Who is involved in the Foundation? Does it have a dedicated staff?
We’re just getting started and currently have no paid employees. We may need to hire a bookkeeper in the future, but we are not yet in that position.
How will the Foundation be funded?
We expect that our funding will come through cash donations, and occasionally through services people offer. For example, I sometimes receive an honorarium for speaking to groups. On occasion, I reallocate the funds from that to other nonprofit organizations such as Life Around the Table. I would like to donate my services to bring in funding to the Curryblossom Foundation. I am just one example of this type of work trade. For those who cannot afford to make a cash donation but who have time and talent, this is a way to give. An auction of goods would be another means of providing funds.
Right now, our restaurant does not make a profit because we give away everything we earn to situations like this, but we cannot continue this type of giving without a philanthropic foundation to support it.
How are you publicizing the Foundation’s efforts? Do you have plans to build a website?
Right now, we publicize only by word of mouth; we have no social media yet. We haven’t started a Facebook page—I’m waiting until after the new year (2018) begins because we have no fiscal activity. Even though the state of North Carolina approved our charter and our articles of incorporation in 2017, we must put our fiscal activity on hold because that’s how it works. We will also be putting up a website at that point.
What are the Foundation’s goals, and its measures of success?
Our goal is keep our ear to the ground in the community, perceive specific needs, and meet them with our time, talent, and money. For example, when we learned that a refugee family had no beds, we put out a call and received furniture donations, and then we needed cash to buy sheets for them. When we can solicit cash donations, we will be able to cover costs such as this.
We also want to spread awareness about healthy eating. The inspiration for this initiative is that the Curryblossom Café won a 2017 Public Health Champion Award from UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. I received the award and felt that I had to do something with it. Since we serve healthy homemade food in the restaurant, many local nonprofits and university organizations and clubs ask me for subsidized food for their events. Right now, those kinds of costs come directly from the restaurant’s profits. When we have a foundation, we will have a way for such organizations to apply for grants to do this, and we will be able to publicize this information.
What two or three things would be most beneficial to you at this point to keep the Foundation on track to meet its goals?
If we could obtain some state grant money, we could do some spring planting to grow more food and feed more families. At one point we did our own gardening, and we were able to cook the food and then give it away to people who needed it, like families with children in school. We currently have a plot but no means to garden there; the land belongs to a friend. For our new garden, we could use about $2500 in grant money to buy a tiller, pay two gardeners, and buy seeds. That much would help us garden for the entire growing season from February/March through October.
What is/are the most frequently-asked question(s) you get about the Curryblossom Foundation and its work?
People frequently ask how they can help us, and whether we are having any events. At this point, my response to most of these questions is that we’ll contact them when we have the federal tax ID number. In the meantime, we should be taking names for a mailing list of interested donors, and a friend is going to help with this.
What do you see the Curryblossom Foundation accomplishing within the next five years?
We hope that within five years, there will be many people who can provide testimonials about how the Foundation has helped to positively change the course of their lives, whether they have received direct grants of cash, food, or goods from us; or because they have attended a hands-on session on healthy food preparation or an educational seminar we have sponsored.