“We need to be the change we want to see. Plant seeds and watch what grows.”
“Praveen Sunderlal embodies the best of the human spirit” says Donna Govender, “he is kind, gentle, generous and sticks to his principles.” Donna believes firmly that so much good has come about because of this man’s vision and values and joins him in his charitable work as much as she can, adding “We will always reach out our hand to help him.” They work together at the Mooi Toll Plaza, where it is obvious that Praveen is well liked by the lane cleaners, tea lady, and toll gate manager alike. His enthusiasm, commitment and sense of humour see them all through challenging times.
Although he loves his job, being incident manager for the busy N3 is no picnic. Analysing accidents, reacting to reports, identifying hotspots and building capacity to prevent problems are all in a day’s work. Rising at 4.45am, Praveen makes school lunches for his kids and gets them to school before heading up the highway for work. That is unless he has been up all night with emergencies and didn’t get to bed at all.
Family is very important to Praveen and he believes that N3TC is like a family too, offering a supportive and nurturing environment to employees. “I love the quick reaction of management to new ideas. Before the thought can dim, the answer is usually ‘yes’ and the idea is put into action” Praveen is full of bright ideas and has made a big impact on the road.
The Driver Wellness Programme is just one of these ideas.. It is now a collaborative effort with the Department of Health, Trucking Wellness, RTI, KZN Road Safety Police and Municipalities who get together ten times a year, to offer roadside health checks to truck drivers. These are very popular, as often it is the first medical support drivers have had for many years. Wherever possible, assistance is given immediately. For instance, if poor eyesight is diagnosed, glasses are issued right away. Physiotherapists provide advice for drivers with bad seating and there are nutritionists on hand too. “This is also an opportunity to highlight the efforts of demoralised government health workers” says Paveen, “they enjoy being in the limelight and appreciated for once.” Wholehearted describes the way Praveen tackles things.
He is soft hearted too. His mother was very involved in community work and after she died, he really wanted to do something special to honour her memory. “One of the most distressing parts of my job is attending an accident scene where small children are involved. They are very frightened and I felt we needed to find a way to comfort them. I started taking along teddy bears for the kids, just so they would have something to cuddle.” This small start has led to the Duduza – We Care project. Duduza now visits state hospitals two or three times a year to distribute 800 teddy bears to children (not just those involved in road accidents). As usual, Praveen includes other organisations and he says with a smile “the children love to get a toy, but you should see how their eyes glow when a big, brave fireman comes in to give them a hug!” Everyone at N3TC contributes part of their year-end bonus to the Duduza fund, which is now also able to distribute blankets to traumatised children and to help local orphanages as well .
Praveen grew up in a large extended family in Howick where they produced almost all their own food and built their own houses. He recalls a huge orchard and has happy memories of planting potatoes and beans with his grandparents and picking avocados with his cousins. “My parents taught me to appreciate what you have and to achieve what you can. My uncles taught me how to build and repair things.” Now Praveen enjoys teaching his own children how to hammer and dig. “I think it is sad how no one seems to be able to even fix a door handle anymore.” Family holidays are also full of life enhancing experiences. Recent visits to India and Zimbabwe reminded them all not to take their good life for granted and renewed their resolve to contribute to their community. They also decided to live more simply and healthily and head for the Pietermaritzburg Farmers’ Market early each Saturday morning to stock up on fresh, organic local produce. First stop is the flower stall for a bunch of fresh flowers for his wife, Astrid. “We always buy compost and lots of seeds and nuts and I just love the mielie bread!” Praveen and Ashika want their children to be proud of them and ensure that they leave a legacy of helping others less fortunate than themselves.
Building relationships is probably the most important part of Praveen’s tasks and he reacts constantly to needs and opportunities along the N3 corridor. “We need to stay grounded in our communities. Small manageable projects have more chance of making a real difference.” The recently installed Mooi River ambulance service illustrates this point and is something Praveen is really proud of. There has never been an efficient service for the Mooi River community, but by negotiating with the Department of Health and providing the necessary infrastructure, Praveen has really been able to save lives in the area.
“It is really a privilege to be able to change someone’s life for the better. Often the whole family benefits as well.” In a world where so many people do generous things not because they want to, but because they want to be seen doing them, it is refreshing to find a man like Praveen who believes so passionately in creating opportunities to improve lives. In his words “I’d love to be a genie to everyone.”