Indian-American looks homeward to help the needy

Rakesh Agarwal, a successful businessman, has a track record of philanthropy in western North Carolina. Now he's extending his work to include his home country of India.

Patrick Sullivan/AP Photo/The Times-News
Rakesh Agarwal stands in his store in Asheville, N.C. Nearly 30 years ago, he arrived in the US with $20 in his pocket. Now the owner and CEO of a rug and home store, Agarwal has created a nonprofit to help the poorest of the poor in his native India.

Nearly 30 years ago, Rakesh Agarwal arrived in America with $20 in his pocket. Now a Hendersonville, N.C., resident and the owner and CEO of Rug and Home, Mr. Agarwal has created a nonprofit organization to help the poorest of the poor in his native India.

When Agarwal flew into the country all those years ago, he had no clue where he was going. He couldn't find a map in the New Delhi area that had Hendersonville, in western North Carolina, on it. Once in the United States, he scraped and scratched for more than two decades before fulfilling the "American Dream."

His nonprofit grew out of Agarwal's desire to help the people in remote parts of his home country. Agarwal financed a trip to India last year for eight people from Hendersonville and nearby Asheville, N.C.

"I come from an area where 50 to 60 percent of the people don't have running water or electricity," he says. "I wanted to go back and do something for that area."

The team traveled to Bahuti, India, in December of 2011 on a medical excursion. They weren't sure what the pressing needs were, but took antibiotics and other medical supplies to treat a variety of illnesses.

Expecting hundreds, the team was greeted by nearly 4,000 people seeking help. They encountered everything from gastric illnesses to mental illnesses and simple wounds. The most pressing need, however, was one that surprised the team.

"The longest lines were for eye care," Agarwal says. "Women outnumbered men 5-to-1 in those lines."

The biggest issue for women was cataracts, he says.

"I realized women's health care was nonexistent in these parts," he adds. "They are the lost priority when it comes to health care. They are made to understand they have a life of sacrifice. That's how Vision Express was born."

After communicating with doctors in India, Agarwal decided that Vision Express will begin to offer cataract surgeries. The procedure, which can cost thousands of dollars in the US, will cost $25 per eye in India.

Correcting the women's vision will be a major improvement for the region, Vision Express board member Carol Talbot says. "The impact is great because it lets the woman take her role back again," she adds.

The Vision Express team will return in March with more medical supplies and to begin setting up the surgeries. Every donation to Vision Express will be used solely for the surgeries. Any other trip expenses by the team will be paid for out of pocket, not from the nonprofit's funds.

"We're very adamant about that," Talbot says.

For Agarwal, the trips have two benefits. People in India need medical attention, but on the flip side, the visits provide cultural awareness. Agarwal wants those involved to experience the culture he grew up in.

"It's certainly a health-care initiative, but equally as important to me is building bridges," he says.

Agarwal came to the US in 1985 as a production manager for Spinning Wheel Rugs in Hendersonville. His wife, Dolly, and daughter, Aanchal, made the trip with him. He later began working at World of Clothing, where he introduced the company's rug line.

He eventually became the CEO at World of Clothing, before starting Rug and Home in 1995. The store has three locations.

It wasn't an easy road to find that success, he said.

"We were close to bankrupt in the first two years," he says. Long hours and hard work paid off, and now Agarwal is able to do things that he's only dreamed about.

He's donated $100,000 to Four Seasons Hospice in Hendersonville and has been a major contributor to the local nonprofit professional theater company, the Flat Rock Playhouse. Many times a year his stores sends bouquets of flowers to every resident in local nursing homes, he says.

"My thing has always been touching people's lives," he says. "As many people as I can. We just do it quietly."

Vision Express, however, takes his giving to another level. Agarwal's been back to India to visit his family, but now he can help some of the most impoverished people in his native country.

"Doing this was very emotional," he says. "I never thought I'd be in a position to do it."

It was that trip to the US with hardly any money that changed his life.

"This is the only country [in which] I could have done what I've done," he says. "People took us in with open arms."

• Information from: Times-News of Hendersonville, http://www.blueridgenow.com

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