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Patel Foundation switches to a pointed emphasis on COVID response

The nonprofit Ravi and Naina Patel Foundation has long focused its charitable efforts in a wide variety of areas.

But last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic became a global emergency, Drs. Ravi and Naina Patel began to reconsider where they were directing their charitable giving.

The founders of Comprehensive Blood & Cancer Center in Bakersfield began to view the coronavirus pandemic as a new priority.

"One of our team members, a physician, lost his brother to COVID," Ravi Patel remembered.

"He died within 12 days. The reality — that this was taking people's lives — really hit home."

Helping to control the spread of the coronavirus and working to alleviate the suffering of those affected by the illness soon became the sole focus of the foundation.

The Bakersfield-based nonprofit adapted its donation approach from its previous emphasis on education, spirituality and the environment to a pointed emphasis on responding to COVID-19.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, the foundation early on focused funding through already well-established nonprofits. But they still did their due diligence by researching targets for their dollars by using charity assessment services that evaluate hundreds of thousands of charitable organizations.

"We use GuideStar and Charity Navigator," said Amar Patel, one of the couple's two sons.

They first concentrated funding in the United States, supporting the Covid Early Treatment Fund, a group trying to fund research and discovery of early outpatient treatments for those infected with the disease.

They wanted to focus on those most vulnerable to the disease: migrant workers, incarcerated people, Native Americans and the homeless. These relief efforts directed toward such nonprofits as the Dolores Huerta Foundation, Restore Justice, the Bakersfield Homeless Center, the First Nations Development Institute, CityServe Bakersfield and others.

Of course, the foundation has for some time directly provided meals to the homeless through its own Health and Wellness Café at CBCC. Those meals were then distributed through a network of churches by CityServe.

"Things had been sort of quiet in India," recalled Ravi Patel. "Then suddenly, the COVID numbers exploded there. Day-in and day-out, hundreds of thousands of people were getting COVID.

The Patels had already opened a string of cancer treatment centers in their home country. But they were shocked by the rapid spread of the virus, the shortages of some aspects of care that are considered basic and routine in the United States — and the rising death rate.

"While the U.S. was on its way out of the pandemic, India was descending into the worst condition it had been in since COVID-19 had first arrived over a year before," Patel said. "The country's medical system was completely overwhelmed by a massive surge in COVID numbers, leaving thousands of people dying from lack of oxygen every day."

The foundation focused its efforts on the Indian state of Gujurat. Ravi and Naina Patel are both from and familiar with the region and as CBCC India has cancer centers there, it meant the CBCC India team could help execute the foundation's initiatives on the ground, while also vetting the targets of their charity.

That benefit would prove invaluable.

After starting on a smaller scale, the foundation began funding the construction of hospital-based oxygen plants designed to provide high concentration and flow of oxygen to all necessary beds in a hospital for long periods of time. In the meantime, excess oxygen could be stored in canisters that may then sent to other places in need.

India's vaccination rates are extremely low, Patel said, and additional Covid surges are predicted to occur.

Then Ravi Patel received a heartening phone call from Bakersfield's own Barbara Grimm. No stranger to philanthropic endeavors, Grimm is the co-owner of Grimmway Farms and the founder and president of the Grimm Family Education Foundation.

"I had known the Patels had done a lot of work in our local community," she told The Californian.

She knew they had done much to help the underserved. She was also aware they were doing significant work in India. 

Grimm, too, had been moved by the dire situation in India and said she wanted to help.

"I said I'd love to piggy-back on what you are doing," Grimm recalled.

Patel was astonished.

"I was just so touched that Barbara Grimm called me out of the blue," he said.

"She donated $100,000."

Thanks to their contacts on the ground, especially Ramesh Bala, the CEO of CBCC India, they began identifying critical projects.

In a phone call from Patel's office in Bakersfield to Bala's home in India, the latter spoke with The Californian about his reaction when he learned that some hospitals and their patients were struggling with terrible shortages of oxygen.

"There is a huge supply and demand gap, which really bothered everybody," Bala said.

"Dr. Patel's team in India, which I'm a part of, pitched in to find hospitals that required oxygen," Bala said.

Ultimately, the foundation funded the development of three oxygen plants, one at a hospital in a predominantly Muslim area.

Bala, who acted as the foundation's eyes and ears in India, performed brilliantly.

"He has been critical to our mission," Patel said.

Besides oxygen production, the foundation was able to convert a hospital that is part of CBCC India’s cancer care operation into a COVID treatment site.

Additionally, due to the fact that many lung scans need to be done during the treatment of COVID-19, the foundation is donating a CT scanner to an underfunded rural hospital that provides services to all the villages in a large area.

Finally, they provided vaccinations to the volunteers at Manav Sadhana, a nonprofit doing COVID relief work around Gujurat.

"These volunteers face heavy exposure and protecting them through vaccination is of paramount importance," Patel said.

Ultimately, the journey has been less about funding and more about cooperation and the formation of partnerships, Ravi Patel said.

Despite the heart-wrenching and tragic loss of life, Patel said, he is encouraged by the way so many have come together to help, to make things better.

"It has been challenging, humbling, and rewarding battling the pandemic in every way we can," he said, "and it has been an honor to do so alongside such incredible partners."

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.