Family Engagement Insights
August 18, 2016

South Asian Center for Kids with Special Needs Facing Eviction

By: Ling Woo Liu

After 13 years at its headquarters in Milpitas, the Bay Area’s only organization serving South Asian American families of children with special needs is facing eviction.

Jeena, which means “to live” in Hindi, was founded in 2000 by Rajni Madan and her now former husband, Praveen Madan. Two years had passed since the couple’s only child, a 16-month-old daughter named Gina, had died from complications related to an undiagnosed neurological degenerative disorder, and Rajni says she was “looking for meaning.”

Rajni met Jeena’s first few families through volunteer activities at a local swimming pool and at Parents Helping Parents, a San Jose, CA-based nonprofit for families of children with special needs. “From there, word spread among the South Asian community,” says Rajni.

What initially started as casual family meetups flourished when the Jeena Center was opened in 2003 in Milpitas, CA, a city where Indian Americans comprise a tenth of the population. In the nine Bay Area counties, the Indian American population grew by 53 percent between 2000-2010 to more than 240,000. Nationwide, Indian Americans are now the second largest group of Asians, after Chinese Americans.

Today, 500 families take part in Jeena’s programs, which include activities such as Bollywood dance, yoga, and functional skills classes for kids. Jeena also shares information about resources for families, administers online forums, and organizes a regular “Moms’ Night Out.” The organization manages to run on a shoestring budget of $250,000 from individual donations because everyone in Jeena volunteers their time and talent.

Jeena provides much-needed emotional support and information for community members, many of whom came to the US on H1B specialty occupation visas, spousal or student visas. Insurance coverage available to these immigrant visa holders may be limited, says Rajni, and deductibles can be very high. “If you’re on an H1B visa and you have a child with a disability, you can’t afford to leave your job,” she says. For immigrant families, it’s also more difficult to rely on support from extended families that live halfway around the world. Jeena has become an important lifeline in place of such family support.

Since launching Jeena, Rajni also has dedicated her professional life to helping families with children who have special needs. A former IT technical trainer, she went back to school to earn a master’s degree in social work, and has spent the past 10 years as a social worker for the San Andreas Regional Center and the Santa Clara County Mental Health Department.

On December 31, the organization will be evicted from its Milpitas office space. The entire strip of offices will be torn down to make way for condominiums and shops. Rajni says there are no alternatives within the organization’s price range in the area, but that hasn’t stopped her from looking. “For our families, this is a home away from home,” says Rajni. “We have no choice. We have to find a place.”

Want to help? Readers can contact Jeena by calling (408) 957-0481 or emailing contact@jeena.org.