by Renée Tillotson
One of the ways you can recognize the authenticity of Neela’s commitment to community service is her reluctance to say much about it. It’s not something our Operations Manager does for show or for recognition. Maybe she shares the “justice gene” Jessica Munoz talks about. Neela – with all the volunteers she has organized – has directly served hundreds of people, spanning several continents over decades.
Neela currently volunteers one afternoon a week at the Women’s Shelter on Ka’a’ahi Street in Honolulu, part of the Institute of Human Services (IHS). She is one of the few women working there who has not been through the shelter herself. Curious, her co-workers wonder what on earth she’s doing there. She tells them that she just doesn’t feel like part of the community unless she’s giving back to it. “The ladies I work with are heroes – endlessly patient and generous,” demures Neela.
Women sometimes arrive at the shelter with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. After giving them an orientation to the program, Neela takes them to the shelter’s “store” where they “shop” free of charge for clothing, toiletries, accessories, etc. from the collection of donated items.
When Neela’s partner Colin learned that women were picking up second-hand underwear, he bought packages of brand new women’s underwear and sent them into the shelter. We give all of Still & Moving Center’s unclaimed lost & found items to Neela to take to the shelter. (Careful if you leave your stuff behind after class!)
Neela was the Artistic Director for Cirque du Soleil for many years before coming to Still & Moving Center. Volunteering through their community service arm, Cirque du Monde, was the favorite part of her position. No matter where they were in the world, Neela would find ways to reach out to the needy parts of the local population.
She remembers a time when she took Cirque’s “Saltimbanco” show to Manilla in the Philippines, and a nearby village was virtually flattened by floodwaters. The residents lost nearly everything they owned. Neela and the circus folks basically emptied their suitcases and wallets to donate to this village in need. Then she and her troupe of clowns, trainers, and acrobats delighted the village children with a joy-filled afternoon, painting their faces circus-style!
Another time in Estonia, Neela’s team invited 100 orphans to the circus tent for Christmas dinner and individual gifts from her team members, then the kids got to watch the show! The activity helped not only the orphans, but the circus team itself. One acrobat from Russia asked Neela, “But surely they are not ALL orphans, are they? They MUST have parents somewhere, don’t they?” That Christmas of magic was an eye-opening and heart-warming event for participants on both sides.
“Social circus” through Cirque du Monde serves to train at risk youth in circus skills that increase their sense of accomplishment and self-worth. Once you’ve successfully dangled upside down or survived being tossed through the air, ordinary life on the streets just seems a little less scary and a little more manageable.
During her years with the company, Neela organized dozens of events from South Africa to Cambodia in which Cirque du Soleil performers and trainers taught young people elements of their art. Community service runs deep in her veins.