A Passion for Purpose

The inimitable Kaushik Roy

Kaushik Roy’s eyes light up when he talks about the dying man who altered the course of his life.

At age 26, with a political science degree from Cal under his belt, and the LSATs on the horizon, Roy was poised to become another American success story — the bright child of immigrants reaching up until he grasped glory. Instead, Roy felt stuck. Working, studying, even the promise of a lucrative career, didn’t fulfill the void he felt. So he took a leap of faith and stepped into the unknown, spending a year devouring books on theology, history and philosophy. At the end of this literary vision question Roy had his answer: He was destined for a life of service.

He signed up to volunteer at an organization he’d heard about on the radio: the Shanti Project, a nonprofit service agency that provides empathetic end-of-life care to terminally ill people suffering from cancer and HIV/AIDS. After going through the organization’s extensive 25-hour training, Roy was matched with a client whose prognosis was grim: Just the day before, he’d been sent to hospice to die.

“The doctors basically told him, ‘Enjoy life because this is it,’” Roy says. The man, in his early 50s, didn’t have anyone to turn to, no family or friends to offer comfort, no one he trusted to talk about his prognosis, or listen to his fears. So Roy met him once a week to play board games, share lunch, and talk about anything he wanted to, or nothing at all.

“I just showed up to be with him. The simplicity and subtlety in that is really profound,” says Roy, whose handshakes feel like hugs, and whose chestnut eyes never leave yours when talking to him. “When you’re asked to be this person offering unconditional compassion to another person, we so rarely receive that kind of respect and dignity from people in society, but we also so rarely have a chance to offer it.”

After about a year of working as a volunteer at Shanti, Roy joined the staff as a volunteer coordinator. Another two years later, he was named executive director, tasked with pulling the nonprofit out of near financial ruin, and caring for a legacy born from some of the darkest times in San Francisco.

In 1981, when the first cases of an unknown, incurable, terminal disease appeared in California, it didn’t even have a name. By the time HIV/AIDS had become an epidemic — an estimated 86,000 affected globally by 1986, and in 1990, the year Ryan White died, more than a million cases were reported to the World Health Organization — those living with it still had few resources to turn to for help. The medical community remained stumped on effective treatments, and the communities hardest hit — gay men and intravenous drug users in big cities like Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco — were further ostracized by the confusion surrounding the disease. Tens of thousands were left sick, afraid and alone. 

The Shanti Project was originally founded in 1974 to provide cancer patients with the most basic yet essential need of life: human-to-human empathy. A decade later it became clear to founder Dr. Charles Garfield that the mission needed to change. Shanti brought its volunteer support network to the AIDS community, becoming the first organization in the Bay Area to prioritize humanitarian work to these patients and their families, and often serving as the only human connection for many individuals in the late stages of the illness.

Kaushik Roy
Kaushik Roy, Photo Credit: Spencer Brown

In 45 years, the organization and its volunteer corps have helped thousands of patients and their families during their most critical times of need, sometimes with gestures so small they seem insignificant (turning the lights on, taking the trash out, reading a letter, listening to a story) and oftentimes in ways so profound it’s hard to put into words (finding a home for a dying patient’s pet, holding their hand while they take their last breath).

Many of us fear dying alone. But to live alone — through social isolation, not by choice — might be the cruelest form of human suffering there is. Shanti’s mission is to ensure that no one experiences this inhumanity. The work is hard, emotionally draining, and with an estimated 9,300 people living with HIV/AIDS in the city of San Francisco alone, the mission is seemingly never-ending. And yet, Roy is filled with hope, exuberant about new projects on the horizon, including the expansion of the organization’s PAWS pets-for-patients program to match shelter animals with homebound Shanti clients as companion animals.

“Kaushik is a very intelligent guy, he’s a very caring guy, and he’s a very creative man,” says Garfield, who still leads all Shanti volunteer training and frequently consults with Roy on the direction of the organization. “What’s truly special about him is that he has the capacity to see down the road a little farther in terms of what is needed. He also has great interpersonal skills. He can connect well with anyone. Some call that emotional intelligence.”

“What we have here is really special. It’s a way of being with each other in the world. Shanti is about being the difference between zero and one.”

—Kaushik Roy

Roy proved his networking prowess at this year’s high-profile San Francisco Interfaith Council prayer breakfast on Thanksgiving. It’s a magnet for the City’s politicos and prominent business and faith leaders. In attendance was Tom Nolan, the former executive director of Project Open Hand and a man whom Roy credits as a key mentor during his first years running Shanti. “This year, the executive director Michael Pappas was out of the state because his mother had just died. So Kaushik had to take over,” recalls Nolan. “He told me he was nervous, but it didn’t show. He moved the event along, he was inspirational, funny, and he talked to everyone in the room — from the mayor to Nancy Pelosi, everyone at every table. Those are high-pressure things, but he stepped in, and he did a great job. He’s multitalented. Shanti is extraordinarily lucky to have him, and the City is too.”

Roy is now 10 years into his job as executive director, and a well-liked figure in San Francisco philanthropic and political circles. In 2014, he was appointed by Mayor Ed Lee to the City and County of San Francisco’s Aging and Adult Services Commission, and he previously served on San Francisco’s Palliative Care and LGBT Aging Adult Policy Task Forces. He serves on the board of directors for San Francisco’s Interfaith Council and is an executive officer of the HIV/AIDS Providers Network. Looking back at it all, Roy can still empathize with that wide-eyed college grad seeking the same fulfillment he received while handing out food and clothing to homeless people with his mother while growing up in a Seattle suburb, or starting his high school’s first LGBT acceptance club.

“During my formative years I started to understand how much unnecessary injustice and suffering there was in the world. I knew I wanted to be a part of trying to fix that,” Roy says. “When I started volunteering I didn’t even know what an executive director was. I just loved the people who worked here, so I did anything I could.” That included leading trainings, facilitating support groups for clients, looking out for fellow volunteers and staff to ensure they took care of themselves while handling the emotional stress of the work. “I’ve had staff members come to me to say, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I can’t have one more client die on me.’ And what can you say? You allow them what they need.”

He also led Shanti out of the 2008 recession, a time when many nonprofits in the City closed due to a lack of government funding and dried up philanthropic funds. With no roadmap to follow, he pounded the pavement, attending every event he could, meeting and talking to politicians, business leaders, and influencers across San Francisco social circles, recruiting and retaining high-level donors such as Dede Wilsey, Ambassador James C. Hormel and Michael P. Nguyen, Thomas E. Horn and the Bob Ross Foundation, and Clint and Janet Reilly (owners of the Gazette).

Shanti is also where Roy met his wife, and when his daughter was born, he gave her “Shanti” as a middle name.

“I feel very lucky and I don’t mean to be trite. Our founder, Charlie, who has been a really great mentor, said to my wife once, ‘Kaushik would have climbed the corporate ladder and then reached to the top and realized that the ladder was on the wrong building.’ This idea that I stumbled upon this opportunity to do something I feel is so meaningful, I feel pretty fortunate. 

“What we have here is really special. … Shanti is about being the difference between zero and one. If you have one person to show up for you at the most critical time in your life, versus having no one, that’s the biggest difference any one of us can make.” 

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