‘Service above self’

Inspired by the Hindu concept of “sewa,” or service, Professor Sree Sreenath helps organize rescue missions around the world. For that and more, he’s to be inducted into the Cleveland International Hall of Fame. 

When Sree Sreenath was growing up in India, volunteering on community projects and assisting less-fortunate neighbors was part of the family routine.

“I came from a family where service was a part of our life,” said Sreenath, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Case Western Reserve University.  “We didn’t think it was anything special.”

People in his new hometown think otherwise. On April 16, Sreenath will be inducted into the Cleveland International Hall of Fame, which honors outstanding members of the region’s international community. The award ceremony begins at 5 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom of the Marriott at Key Center.

Sreenath is being honored as an educator and as a researcher who shed new light on cancer as a systems biologists for the Case School of Engineering. But what brought him to public attention was his work as a humanitarian.

For the last decade he has served as president of Sewa International, a nonprofit Hindu faith-based group inspired by the motto “Service above self.” Sewa specializes in disaster relief, rescue and recovery. It works in 22 nations of the world, including the United States.

Its volunteers often appear at places where people have been left bereft by floods, earthquakes and fires. They tend to arrive with emergency aid and stay to help organize rebuilding efforts, lending Sewa a reputation as an aid group with staying power.

Most recently, Sewa teams mobilized to help people burned out by the California Camp Fire, where they are now helping to build tiny homes for the newly homeless.

In Greater Cleveland, Sewa runs tutoring and mentoring programs in area schools. The Cleveland chapter of Sewa staffs its ASPIRE program with students from Case Western Reserve.

“Our inspiration comes from our Hindu roots but we serve all people in the world regardless of their religion,” Sreenath said.

He describes community service as an honor and a privilege, something that adds meaning to life. That’s a lesson from home.

He was born and raised in Bengaluru, India, in a large, close and scholarly family that emphasized service. That meant boarding rural students, maybe 20 at a time, providing groceries to orphanages and maintaining a pastoral retirement home for milking cows.

“My grandparents did this,” he said. “When you serve, you gain an enormous  amount of satisfaction that money cannot buy. You’re giving your time, which is more valuable than money. You’re putting yourself in the shoes of people needing help. It is humbling. It is uplifting.”

He came to America in 1983 for advanced studies and earned his doctorate in space robotics from the University of Maryland. In 1987, he joined the faculty of the Case School of Engineering. Soon, he began volunteering with Sewa, which had mobilized to help families in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In 2009, he became the volunteer president of the organization. 

On Saturday night, March 23, he addressed the youthful audience at Naach di Cleveland, a South Asian dance competition at Music Hall in downtown Cleveland. The high-energy cultural event featured more than a dozen dance teams from colleges around the nation. The evening benefited Sewa, and the students cheered to hear the name.

Speaking from the stage, Sreenath described Sewa’s work in India, in Houston after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and in nearby Euclid, where Sewa volunteers from CWRU help to tutor and mentor teens toward college.

“Sewa’s mission is to serve humanity in distress in local communities,” he said. “The impact is felt all over the world.”

The impact was certainly felt at the Sreenath home in Solon, where he and his wife, Shobha, raised two CWRU graduates, Apurwa and Abhijit. Both have been active in community service.

Meanwhile, Cleveland's Sewa chapter has enhanced the image of the Indian immigrant community within the larger international community.  

Since its founding 10 years ago, the Cleveland International Hall of Fame has inducted more than 50 people. Sreenath will join a pantheon that includes U.S. Senator George Voinovich, entrepreneur Monte Ahuja, lawyer Jose Feliciano, chemist Jeanette Grasselli Brown and civil rights leader Rev. Otis Moss.

For tickets and more information about the hall of fame inductions, go to http://clevelandinternationalhalloffame.com/

For information about Sewa and its local chapters, go to https://www.sewausa.org/