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Dunedin woman takes AIM at poverty in Africa
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Photo courtesy of NISHA MANDANI
Nisha Mandani, shown in the center of the picture distributing goods to children, founded the Just One Humanity project, designed to bring sustainability to impoverished African villages.
DUNEDIN – Nisha Mandani is no stranger to helping others. The 51-year-old Dunedin resident has been a special education teacher for more than 20 years, is an active member of the Red Cross, and through the charity she founded, the Our AIM Foundation, she started the award-winning GrandKids and Close2Heart programs, pairing kids with senior citizens to teach today’s youth what it’s like to live with disabilities and infirmities.

Two years ago, Mandani turned her attention to people in need of help outside of the country. The foundation’s Just One Humanity project is designed to bring sustainability to impoverished African villages, providing wells, livestock, electricity and other necessities to areas that are lacking the fundamental building blocks of modern society.

“About two years ago, I found out about Malawi and one of the villages through one of my friends, Aja Estro,” Mandani said. “She is a USF student and she is doing her sustainability classes over there …and when I found out about it, I was in total disbelief. Complete disbelief. These villagers still lead a primitive life like it was 1,000 years ago. They have no toilets, they have no cell phones, they have no electricity, they don’t have access to water. It’s as if there is no hope, no life. They don’t know anything beyond 15 kilometers around their village because there’s no transportation. They’re just kind of born there and they die there without knowing about the real world.”

Mandani said she was moved to tears after learning of the situation, but she was also puzzled as to how such poverty and untenable living conditions could exist in a country that has seen an outpouring of support and aid from many organizations for decades.

“I had seen poverty in India, where I’m from, but I’d never seen this kind of extreme poverty,” Mandani said. “Ninety percent of the children have disabilities because of malnutrition. These children do not have proper food, and most of the children are orphans. The women, when they go for water, they get raped. They have HIV problems, they have early pregnancies. They don’t have toilets, so girls and women use the bathroom in the woods and have been sexually assaulted many many times. So unfortunately, there is no hope.”

“So when I found out that everybody says there is so much help going into Africa, I thought, wait a minute, where is the help?” she continued. “If these people are suffering, where is the help going? And then I realized most of the help is going into cities. The impact analysis is much higher in the villages, where one dollar can impact twice as many people than in the cities, but they don’t care about it. These people are dying. They’re literally dying. Every village I’ve been to, there’s funerals. Funerals of young children that have malaria because they have no access to water, there’s malaria and bacteria and other diseases. I didn’t even know where to start. I mean there’s nothing there. You would not believe places like this still exist in the 21st century.”

Mandani and her team quickly put together a plan to best improve the quality of life and provide sustainability for 13 villages.

The group identified seven areas of need – wells, stoves, livestock, permaculture/vegetation, sanitation, electricity and empowerment – and they decided to utilize a process-driven, community-centric approach to helping each village.

“We got local people over there to join the group, and we started getting the pictures of the villages, the names of the villages, the issues of the villages, and we started getting a better picture to be able to put the whole project together,” she said. “We wanted to make an impact from the ground up. Not starting from the top, but from the ground up so their basic problems could be resolved.”

With a plan in place, the foundation members quickly worked to affect change in the villages. Mandani said they installed 15 bore wells, at a cost of roughly $950 each, before they even visited the area, and they also began building toilets in every village, fixing roofs, and teaching empowerment classes. Recently, they identified a two-acre plot of land that will be the future home of a community center that will serve all 13 villages.

“We’ve already seen an immense impact in the year and a half, two years we’ve been doing this, and immense impact,” Mandani said. “The faces of the people, the growth of the people, the sustainability. But we’re not even halfway done in those 13 villages. Because our project will not be complete until we have built those seven steps into each village. We want to make sure very person in these 13 villages has every minimum basic need. We want to improve things so their lives turn around and they’re completely sustainable before we expand into other villages.”

Mandani said her foundation is looking not only for individuals who would like to contribute their time, money or other resources to the cause, but also for companies that might be able to help with the larger aspects of the program, including providing the solar electricity for the villages.

“We have not started the solar electricity in any village yet,” Mandani said. “We have been working with seven companies in the last six months, and we still have not been able to nail it down. So we don’t even know how much solar electricity is going to cost in these villages. We’re trying to figure out all the costs. There are a lot of things we are working on.”

Despite the many obstacles related to a project of this magnitude, Mandani remains undaunted. She said that following her first and only visit to the villages a year ago, her outlook on life changed to the point where she could only focus on one thing – helping the villagers get out from the seeming bottomless well of poverty and despair.

“My family had big plans to celebrate my 50th birthday last year, and I decided I didn’t want to have a party. I told them I wanted to celebrate my birthday in Malawi,” Mandani recalled. “So I celebrated my 50th birthday with my extended family in Malawi, and about 1,000 people came. The children never had cake in their life. They were taking small crumbs from the dirt and putting their fingers in their mouth and licking them for 10 minutes. I’ll never forget that birthday until my deathbed, and I’m never celebrating my birthday in the ‘normal’ way again. My best meaning of life has started. The impact I’ve seen is unmeasurable, and I just want to keep helping as many people as I possibly can.”

For more information on the Our AIM Foundation’s Just One Humanity Project, visit the organization’s website at justo­nehum­anity­.org.
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