Kulwinder Singh is the voluntary, full-time general secretary of Guru Nanak Mission Medical and Educational Trust (GN Trust) in Punjab, India, which is supported by Canada India Education Society (CIES). His role is essential to the continuation of charitable work in rural Punjab, within an organization that provides education and health care to thousands. Along with a group of Trustees, he oversees leadership of a hospital, a nursing college and a primary and secondary school.
But, his story begins with another man, whose footsteps he walks in. His name is Mr. Budh Singh Dhahan. He is the inspiration behind CIES, as well as the founder of GN Trust.
In 1979, Mr. Dhahan, a successful Canadian home builder, visited his ancestral home village of Dhahan, in rural Punjab. (Yes, his last name is the name of his village).
Kulwinder Singh was 14 at the time. He lived in the village with his farming family.
Words that inspired a ‘dream’ for thousands
During his visit, Mr. Dhahan called an assembly with the local village leaders.
Kulwinder Singh and a few friends came to see the excitement of what was going on. About one hundred were in attendance.
The speaker (Mr. Dhahan), who came all the way from Canada, said something that stunned everyone: “We’re going to build a hospital and medical college here.”
Keep in mind, at that time, there was barely anything of this sort in rural Punjab. Besides people, animals, mud houses and small farms, there were few amenities providing public services. Many homes did not have indoor plumbing and toilets. Most villagers lived a hand-to-mouth, subsistence lifestyle.
As Kulwinder Singh puts it, “I didn’t even know if the huge potholes could be filled on the land here, let alone build a hospital.”
Understandably, to Kulwinder Singh and others, Mr. Dhahan’s words were just a dream. It wasn’t imaginable. Inspiring, for sure. Though, doubtful at the same time.
But despite his doubts, the Guru Nanak Mission Medical and Educational Trust was established.
The Dhahan and Kaleran villages donated 23 acres of land to GN Trust for the project. The group began plans to build. They even had a groundbreaking ceremony about two years after the initial call to action by Mr. Dhahan. The renowned social entrepreneur, Bhagat Puran Singh, was present to bless the venture. ‘Langar’ (community meal) was served to about 5,000 attendees, including Kulwinder Singh.
He still couldn’t imagine ‘the dream’ coming true.
Kulwinder Singh’s teenage years: when it took a fully built hospital to believe the ‘dream’
Kulwinder Singh was fortunate enough to come from a family that could afford him an education. He would cycle to Khalsa High School in Banga, about 4 km away.
The site of the hospital was on his way to and from school. During those years, he witnessed construction beginning on the once barren land.
Every day, more bricks would be laid.
By 1983, Kulwinder finished Grade 10 and began attending Ramgarhia College of Education in Phagwara, about 15 km away.
Construction continued at a steady pace. There were also functions and events to fundraise for the mission, which he always attended.
Then, the day came. He remembers it clearly. It was April 17, 1984. The Guru Nanak Mission Hospital opened with 40 beds to serve 100 surrounding villages. For this celebration, the Governor of Punjab, B.D. Panday, came to inaugurate it.
On the day of the event, tractor trailers made rounds to transport hundreds of people to the inauguration. ‘Langar’ was again served for the masses. Kulwinder Singh’s grandmother was there to gather women to make rotis. A Sikh religious ceremony was held to dedicate the building and the work.
What was once a stretch of the imagination for a typical villager had finally come true. It brought pride, and a sense of worthiness to the region.
Beginning his career at Guru Nanak Mission Hospital
In 1988, Kulwinder Singh graduated with his baccalaureate in arts. But, like many of his peers at the time, he was unemployed. The economy was simply not developed enough to bring jobs to the region.
He and a couple friends went to see Mr. Dhahan on a social visit. Learning that he had recently graduated, Mr. Dhahan asked him, “Do you want to work?”
Kulwinder Singh responded with a definite, “yes.”
So, Mr. Dhahan gave him three options: he could work as an assistant in the laboratory, the x-ray department or the operation theatre.
Without giving it a second thought, Kulwinder Singh chose the radiology department. He retells this part of his story as a funny punchline: he heard it was much faster to be trained in x-rays than any of the other departments.
In that moment, Mr. Dhahan called the head of the x-ray department over. He told him, “this is our boy.” It was a term of endearment known among Punjabis. “Take him to your department and train him to be a technician.”
The next day, Kulwinder Singh began his year-long, unpaid training with Mr. Thanu from Madras, India.
When the year was up, Mr. Thanu decided to return to his distant home in the south of India.
Mr. Dhahan looked at Kulwinder Singh and said, “are you ready to be the head of the x-ray department?” Kulwinder said, “yes,” and was handed the keys. He began proudly earning the exceptionally low wage of ₹700 (rupees) per month!
Kulwinder Singh remained the head of the department for the next 11 years. By that point, he was earning ₹10,000 (rupees) per month (thankfully, he got a raise!).
He became close with Mr. Dhahan, and participated in many fundraising and community outreach initiatives.
Becoming a full-time, volunteer trustee with a charitable mission
In 2002, Kulwinder Singh’s journey took a major turn.
Mr. Dhahan was planning a trip to Canada, where he intended to fundraise for the GN Trust. He needed representatives to accompany him. Having seen Kulwinder Singh grow in his position, he asked if he would be willing to become a full-time trustee of the organization. There was one catch: trustees are not paid. This would be an entirely volunteer position.
Kulwinder Singh considered the offer with gravity. He turned to his Sikh faith, which strongly emphasizes service for the welfare of others.
He knew he wanted to do this with his life. But, he had a family to think of. This would not only affect his wife and children, but his father and mother, along with his brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew.
To his delight, his family was entirely sympathetic. They promised to support him financially so he could pursue his call to service.
In 2003, Kulwinder Singh became a trustee at large of GN Trust. As years passed, he took on more and more responsibility.
Kulwinder Singh also made it to Canada, where, on a break from fundraising, he witnessed his first fan fight at a live Vancouver Canucks hockey game!
In 2006 he was elected as General Secretary of GN Trust.
Serving and pursuing higher goals
Kulwinder Singh’s ties to the GN Trust began at age 14. At that time, the ‘dream’ was a hospital and medical college.
As he grew into manhood, he worked closely with Mr. Dhahan – a visionary who became his mentor. It’s no wonder Kulwinder Singh carries on having high aspirations for the people of Punjab.
Building a hospital, nursing college and primary and secondary school were huge. They completely transformed the local economy. They employed hundreds, and graduated thousands. They brought word-class services to poor communities. They even benefited foreign nations by their skilled workers moving abroad.
But they’re not enough. And Kulwinder Singh is not complacent.
Along with Mr. Dhahan’s son Barj S. Dhahan, Kulwinder Singh’s aspirations include expanding hospital services, and completing the dream of Mr. Dhahan to build a medical college.
He realizes that all the lives GN Trust transformed was due to giving hearts. Financially, it came mostly from the Punjabi diaspora living in Canada, the U.S.A. and the U.K. It also came from institutions, like the University of British Columbia (UBC), Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) or Carleton University, by creating partnerships with CIES and GN Trust. Plus, many locals in India gave their time, funds and wheat and rice (in-kind donations).
It’s obvious to Kulwinder Singh that, to keep advancing, the work needs the support of a collective, global community.
Kulwinder Singh’s message is to encourage people to support this important work. From the wheat collectors who donate food, to the overseas professors and doctors who bring knowledge, to the financial contributors and everyone in between: creating an equal world depends on all of us.
“If it weren’t for GN Trust, I would have been in the wilderness, or I would have been walking in the dark of night, trying to see light ahead,” says Kulwinder Singh. “These sentiments would be spoken by many in the region.”