The winner of the Pride of Birmingham TSB Community Partner Award, which recognises incredible work carried out in our communities, explains how the Sikh value of equality is helping people in need from every background
Bumping into an old school friend in 2013 had a profound effect on Randhir Singh Heer. While out shopping with his wife, he spotted his former pal and stopped to say hello.
“His dad used to teach us boxing when we were kids,” says Randhir, a former doorman from Walsall. “While I was talking to him I discovered he was now homeless, and hungry. So I went inside Asda and bought some food. Then I went home and got him a blanket.”
“Helping him made me feel blessed, and that’s when I realised I wanted to do more.”
So Randhir and his childhood friend Parmjit Singh Bahyia set up the Midland Langar Seva Society (MLSS), inspired by 500-year-old Sikh traditions of offering open kitchens at temples for anyone of any background. Relying on food – never cash – donated by the local community, they started feeding the homeless in Walsall on a daily basis.
Realising their impact, they started doing the same in Birmingham, and the MLSS now has more than 200 volunteers across the UK – men, women and children – serving about 5,000 meals a week in 17 towns and cities, as well as supporting school breakfast clubs and children’s centres.
It has even gone worldwide. They now also have three big teams in India, and another about to launch in California.
“Maybe we should have called it the World Langar Seva Society,” says Randhir. “But we had no idea how big it was going to get. And the beauty of it is, it’s not just MLSS. Since we’ve set up, we’ve inspired a lot of other people to do it as well.”
Randhir is a warm and humble presence, even as he recalls some of the people he has helped – from the man who got ill and severely depressed while living in a tent in a local park with his girlfriend (Randhir and Parmjit paid for a flat for them for a month on the condition that they found work to keep it on themselves, which they did) to the man he approached at a bus stop because he looked upset.
“It was about a year ago,” recalls Randhir. “I went over to see if he was OK and if there was anything he needed. He told me he’d lost everything. His marriage of 27 years had ended and he’d lost job and his home. He wanted to end it all.
“He ended up crying on my shoulder. I could tell he needed some purpose so I told him we were short of volunteers and suggested he help out. He did, and so then I started sending him to Blackpool with a team of our lads every Sunday. He made friends. That same guy is now in India, having set up our Team Punjab, serving up to 800 people a week.
“He recently phoned me to say if I hadn’t come over to the bus stop, he wouldn’t be here today.”
But despite all the lives he has changed – and even saved – Randhir’s unassuming nature means that winning the Pride of Birmingham TSB Community Partner Award comes as a huge shock.
“I didn’t expect it at all,” he says. “To me, it’s nothing special what I’m doing. I’ve got a family at home but these guys, I see them on a daily basis. They’re my family, too.”
Andy Armitage, regional branch distribution director at TSB, said: “The winner of TSB Community Award could not be more deserving. This award is about us recognising local people working in partnership with other people to address a need in their community.
“Randhir Singh Heer and Parmjit Singh Bahyia are a great example of exactly that – how much we can achieve when we work together.”
For Randhir, the satisfaction of helping others is his reward, and his goals are focused on what more he can do to help those most in need. He and his team are currently raising money for their next project: Guru Nanak Langar Bus. “I want to offer somewhere where homeless people can come for shelter to enjoy a hot meal and a warm drink,” he explains.
It remains Randhir’s belief that the best way we can help the people who need it most is to give them our time. “Giving just a minute to a homeless person could save their life,” he insists.
“It’s easy for society to look down on them because they’re homeless, or assume it’s drugs or drink they want, but that’s often not the case, and it can happen to anyone. So ask them if they are OK, and find out what they need.”
And that’s why it’s a charity for absolutely anyone who needs help, regardless of its Sikh roots.
“Helping people in need spans every culture and tradition,” insists Randhir. “As human beings, we’re all equal. We may have different prayers, but we all have the same tears. We all bleed red.”
Randhir’s help in the community was further honoured by TSB this August with the unveiling of a personal portrait created by street art collective, the Graffiti Kings.