The air was filled with excitement and the enticing smell of Indian cuisine as the sun began to set in Harrisburg.
Car after car arrived at the Scottish Rite Cathedral, quickly filling the parking lot as hundreds of women gathered to celebrate the kickoff of Mother’s Day weekend on a pleasant Saturday in May.
Women of all ages had gathered for the first annual JUL (Just Us Ladies) event hosted by the Harrisburg Telugu Association (HTA) to celebrate community, culture and female empowerment.
The origins of HTA started with a few dozen families who shared a love of Telugu, one of six languages recognized by the Indian government as “classical.”
A smile spread across HTA President Laxman Buddineni’s face as he described the language he holds dear.
“The alphabet contains 52 letters, and all words end in a vowel,” he said. “Some call it the ‘Italian of the East’ because it is beautiful and melodic, as is any poetic language.”
Buddineni went on to explain that India has 14 official and 256 unofficial languages.
“There are many gods in the Hindu culture, and poems praising the gods are written in Telugu,” he said.
To promote and preserve the language, HTA sponsors a Sunday school at the HARI Temple in New Cumberland, where students learn to read and write the ancient language, which is predominately spoken in the southern part of India.
HTA emerged from humble beginnings, starting out in 2002 with a few dozen families.
“Our goal was to reach out to needy people, promote the culture and preserve Telugu,” said HTA board member Venkataramireddy Sanivarapu.
Today, the nonprofit has grown to include 1,000 families, with 18 committee members.
“There’s a lot of satisfaction in helping people who come to Harrisburg negotiate their way around the community,” said board member Baba Sontyana. “We work hand-in-hand with many nonprofits.”
Smiles & Laughter
During the Just Us Ladies event, attendees spent time socializing and visiting a variety of vendors who had filled the halls selling items like clothing, jewelry and accessories.
Many stood in line chatting while waiting to partake in an appealing array of appetizers before making their way to a packed ballroom to hear uplifting speeches delivered by notables like state Rep. Patty Kim and Dr. Sue Mukherjee, an assistant vice chancellor for Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
Speeches were followed by a fashion show, dance performances, a DJ, dinner and an audience-participation activity, which energized the crowd and tested knowledge of Bollywood favorites. A line from a song was sung for the audience, and attendees were tasked with providing the next line. Smiles and laughter filled the auditorium, and, soon, groups of ladies were on their feet singing and dancing, competing to be the first to recognize the next line.
Buddineni said that the event was created to raise money for causes at home and abroad. Thanks to Just Us Ladies, orphans in India will benefit from the $3,000 raised during the event. Harrisburg’s Shalom House received a matching amount.
Denise Britton, Shalom House executive director, said that the money would be put to use helping area women with basic health and wellness needs, shelter, life coaching and education. The organizers, inspired by the rousing success of the event, have decided to make it an annual affair.
Just Us Ladies may be the newest event, but there are many others.
HTA kicks off the new year each Jan. 2 with Ugadi, a grand, full-day celebration that attracts about 200 performers and 700 spectators.
“We wear cultural clothing and celebrate our heritage with programs designed to depict Indian art forms,” said Buddineni.
Additional activities throughout the year include a summer sports program, an annual picnic, an Adopt-a-Highway event that includes a daylong cleanup, and a floral festival called Bathukamma, when the ladies of the community gather together to celebrate the patron saint of womanhood. The group wraps up the year with a Thanksgiving food drive, where members raise money and youth volunteers serve Harrisburg seniors.
Sambasiva Ellanki, general secretary, said that the group is accepting new members and can always use more volunteers.
“Finding people with free time is a big challenge,” Ellanki said. “Everyone is busy.”
Another challenge is financial, a situation that is shared by many nonprofits.
Annual membership dues are kept deliberately low at $35 a family to attract as many people as possible. Currently, the group is working on finding grants to help keep the organization on financially stable footing.
Buddineni is optimistic that the situation will work itself out.
“We have a few commissioners in the state who are trying to find out more information on applying for grants as a minority nonprofit,” he said.
Until then, the group plans to continue to forge ahead, working with other nonprofits, helping newcomers to America integrate into the community, promoting socialization and family life, preserving the Telugu language and imparting long-held values to future generations.
To learn more, visit the Harrisburg Telugu Association website at www.ourhta.com or their Facebook page.