Smile Collectors: Changing The World, One Water Bottle At A Time

While we are having some respite from the scorching summer heat due to the lovely monsoon, we all know that the seasons are not here to stay. They keep changing. Once again will come the hot summers next year and once again we will curse it, get irritated in the heat, drink litres of water and then go about our day thinking only about ourselves.

There are some people who are doing it differently. Some, who care selflessly about those who are not even able enough to take care of themselves. They are the Smile Collectors.

The next time, when you curse the heat as you step out of your air-conditioned cars and sweat after shopping at a posh mall, think about the people who spend all of their time outdoors, on the hot roads – day or night – only to earn a living. The summers for most of us and the summers for them are different. If you don’t know what you can do, Smile Collectors are here, leading by example.

Shailee Shah, the concerned samaritan behind the organisation, ‘Smile Collectors’ wanted to make a difference. A 43-year-old homemaker based in Gurgaon, with a lot of responsibilities and two teenaged kids, decided to do her bit when she was moved by a small kid whom she saw at a traffic signal.

Shailee Shah

She says, “In 2013, at the fag end of summer, I was on the way back home and stopped the car at the signal. I saw some kids there. It was a really hot afternoon. A small kid came towards my car and  I lowered my car window. I usually keep biscuits and pens so I offered him a biscuit. But he was more interested in the water bottle my daughter had. I gave it to him without thinking. When the signal turned green and we began driving away, I looked into the rear-view mirror and saw that that child and all the other kids were so overjoyed with that bottle of water! They happily shared it…that is when the seeds for Smile Collectors were first planted.”

“The joy on their faces was priceless. Thereafter, I began keeping water bottles in my car filled with clean RO water from home. I began looking for people who would be in need of water for the rest of the days. But soon, the summer ended,” she adds.

Shailee and her family moved to India from Japan in 2009. She is fond of cooking and gives cooking lessons in Indian vegetarian cuisines to Japanese expats as a gesture of reciprocation. Her Japanese friends were of huge help when the time came to shaping up her ideas about helping people with water in the summers. “My friends from Japan have been a huge support. Most expats prefer to drink mineral, bottled water. I noticed that once the water was consumed, the bottles were discarded. So I asked them to give them to me instead. Soon my storeroom was filled with these bottles. Now I was equipped to encourage others to give water to others in need.”

Shailee and her family collecting smiles

How did people join her in her initiative?

“I created a WhatsApp message and it kind of went viral. I started providing empty bottles to whoever wanted to do it. It continued for two years until we decided to take it on a more scalable, sustainable level,” she says and adds, “In 2016, when we were listening to Mann Ki Baat, our Prime Minister spoke at length about water conservation and quenching the thirst of others. This is also when we realised that social media was a really great tool if we wanted to work at the grass-root level and approach a wider audience.”

Post a simple dinner table discussion with her family, Shailee’s husband who is a photography enthusiast, created a Facebook page. Her husband would click the photos of the people who would smile and glow with joy on seeing the sight of that simple water bottle. And then, they would post those photos on Facebook.

Soon she began sharing those photos on other forums and the story was then picked up by a journalist. The publication of that story gave impetus to her movement and more people joined in. They were now giving water bottles to those in need and were also collecting ‘smiles’.

“In over a period of three years, we realized that the city that we live in, the comfort we enjoy, comes at the efforts of so many faceless heroes. Everybody knows Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal but in reality, he only financed it, he never picked a brick I guess. It was the hard work of countless workers, that made this a great monument. Same is happening with our cities, the countless, faceless people who are busy building the infrastructure and edifices are the real unsung heroes,” Shailee proudly says.

Furthermore, she says, “When we stop the car and call them with an affectionate voice, we only have one thing in mind – to give them water with dignity. And at that moment they come out with the best smile. We collect those smiles. This is the spirit of ‘Smile Collectors’, to increase the smile on the streets.  We salute every hero, be it a maid, a rickshaw puller, a construction worker or their small children, they all are part of every city and without them, we would be missing all the comforts.”

She also wanted her children to learn the spirit of ‘sharing the planet’. They are also actively involved in this initiative. She is proud of them.

In Shailee’s family, there is a history when it comes to understanding the value of water.  Community-spirit and philanthrophy runs in her family. Speaking about it, she tells us, “My father-in-law along with his native villagers formed a self-help group and they dug up 17 lakes to make their village of Dethli (Bahucharaji, Mehsana, Gujarat) water-sufficient. Before they took up this decade-long task, his drought-prone village could barely store water for 3 months but with their efforts, the groundwater levels have risen and can sustain the village for two years without rains.

He started this when he was 75-years-old and continued till he passed away at the age of 85. His quest was to make sure, his village should not run dry. Thankfully Narmada water has started flowing and the main lake is not required for human need. My husband took over from where my father-in-law left and he is dedicating his time and efforts to create a bird sanctuary around the centre of the lake with great success. “

Shailee feels that we take water for granted. She thinks that we do not understand how precious water is as a commodity. She thinks that by looking at the smiles of children to whom they give water to, she really understood the value of it. She still cannot forget that day when she first met the child at the signal and gave him a bottle of water. The bottle of water was his prized possession!

She also feels that one should not waste the residual RO water and use it for various other purposes like gardening, washing etc. She ensures she does not waste any water while filling up the bottles, “Very soon Indian metros will be running dry and it is important to conserve water in every possible way.”

Once, when Shailee was out giving water bottles to the needy, a man asked for one extra bottle. She thinks this was one of the most unforgettable incidents in the last few years of her life, “When I was distributing cold water, one man asked me for an extra bottle of water. I asked him the reason. He said that in the last week when I gave him the bottle, he wrapped it in cloth and used it as a pillow. It helped him deal with the merciless heat. So he wanted another one for his wife. He had found an innovative way to beat the heat without air-conditioning!”

Another thing happened with Shailee recently that touched her heart. Talking about it she expresses, “On a hot scorching day, I just gave a cool water bottle to a mother who was with her small child. I stood by to look at them. They first took shelter and then the mother opened the bottle, took a little water in the bottle’s cap and slowly fed the child. A mother’s love and smile was something unforgettable for me.”

A lot of people have joined the initiative started by Smile Collections and not just in Gurgaon, but also in Mumbai and Bengaluru. People often leave bags full of empty bottles outside Shailee’s house.

“One of my husband’s colleagues came to our help in a different way. At his daughter’s birthday party instead of dustbins, he put up a Smile Collector box.  All the empty pet bottles were collected and we gladly took that as a big return gift,” says Shailee.

Another Samaritan from Ahmedabad recently donated caps, which they now distribute along with water to the people. “The kids loved the caps. We are counting the blessings! It is like this – caravan chalta gaya, log judte gaye.”

When we asked her whether she thinks that humanity has become more selfish than selfless, she answered, “I am never a pessimist and I think humans are filled with the desire to do the greater good. I got a platform to tell my story, many don’t get it. But that doesn’t mean they are not doing their bit. You are selfless if you vacated a seat for an elderly. You are selfless if you made sure the public transport you use is clean and you don’t litter. You are selfless when you put a smile on the face of strangers. Mine is just one of such stories, I think India is full of such stories.”

For Shailee and her family, the task is as natural as waking up in the morning and brushing the teeth. They define it as an ‘Any Body Can Do’ (ABCD) activity. Many people who have joined their initiative, post the photos of the people they gave water to on their Facebook page.

On asking her to give a message to the people at large she modestly said, “I have not done anything special to be able to give any message to people. But one thing I must admit that whenever I give water to them, I always thank them. Thanks for making our cities better
and thanks for accepting water from me. I think this feeling of gratitude is very important.” She signs off!

Water is a free, priceless and extremely important part of all our lives. If you cannot bear the heat, for others it is worse. Extend a hand of help – it will cost you nothing and give you immense happiness.

Visit the Facebook page of Smile Collectors here, to join their noble initiative.  

Heer Khant
Heer Khant

Traveller | Writer | Photographer | Maverick | Social Worker | Lawyer | A freedom-loving woman for whom words are like wings to her soul. She believes in aliens, hates boundaries and lives like the first human on Earth.

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