Northview teen’s nonprofit helps African students

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – When Rupesh Sharma made the trip to Tanzania to hike up Mount Kilimanjaro, it became more than chance to cross off a goal on his bucket list. He also saw a lot of poverty and how little the country could do for school-age children.

Determined to do something, he knew he would return. When he came home and told his family about what he had seen, he saw that his then 13-year-old daughter Saloni was moved by what he had seen. They talked about it and she said she wanted to go with him on his return trip to Tanzania to do something for the children in need he saw there.

She connected to those students immediately.

“I visited a number of schools, and I saw no textbooks. Perhaps one or two pencils. I was motivated to do something,” Sharma said. “They had so little; I knew I could do something.”

Her father encouraged her to start a nonprofit organization, if she really wanted to get involved.

“We met people who were getting some help [in Tanzania] and I could see a small effort could have a big effect there,” he said.

So Sharma took his daughter on his second trip to Tanzania where they quickly made contact with people there who are trying to make a difference in that poor country.

Saloni said her impression of Tanzania was unlike anything she had ever seen.

“I guess shock is the best word, compared to our schools at home,” she said.

Like her dad, Saloni was determined to make a difference. That is when Project Darasani was born. Darasani is the Swahili word for “classroom.” It would become the conduit to funnel school supplies to a school in Tanzania.

“Just knowing what school is for us, others should have that opportunity. As much as we complain at school – these kids have no option,” Saloni said.

So Project Darasani began as a new club last year at Northview High School. Saloni found a teacher to sponsor the club and then recruited 15 members. The momentum began from there. They began conducting fundraisers to buy school supplies for Darasani.

They wound up buying 11,000 items for the students. The Tanzanian students’ needs are so basic that pencils, erasers, markers, pens, paper clips – all the normal items children take for granted – are almost nonexistent in Tanzanian schools.

Such normal school supplies are beyond the means of an average Tanzanian family. The average take-home pay is $15 monthly. Schools there are not free, so only the elite can attend any school.

“You can’t pay for school when you don’t have enough to eat,” she said. “Computers aren’t available. The schools have no electricity.

The school Saloni and her friends are helping is just the basic four walls. The land was donated by a couple. It’s in their front yard. The students at the school are orphans. Most of them lost their parents to the HIV virus.

The school also serves as the orphanage. Sharma said the husband and wife who have made their front yard available are not well off. But they have made a huge commitment to these children.

The Darasani members held neighborhood drives where they were allowed to place requests at the neighborhood doors for school materials. Volunteers came around the following Sunday and picked up 85 to 90 brown bags left in front the garage at donating houses.

“The generosity of people has been so amazing,” Saloni said.

The success of the past year has spurred Saloni and her friends to do more. This summer, she and two other students and three parents are making another trip to Tanzania to visit the schools they are supporting. They plan to bring materials to allow them to repaint blackboards that are so faded, students can’t read them.

“They don’t have textbooks, so copying from the blackboards is important,” said Saloni.

Saloni says she and her fellow students want to open more Darasani chapters in Johns Creek schools. Saloni is inspired to do more because of what she saw when she went to Tanzania last year. She talked to two young girls and asked them what they wanted to do when they grew up. One told her she wanted to be a lawyer, the other a musician.

“These girls were from some of the poorest families, yet they had a dream. That is what we can do is give these children the ability to dream,” Saloni said.

Through Darasani, the students have been able to partner with a professor in Michigan who takes 25 students who will teach in Tanzania. Darasani will send them items to pack in their luggage when they go.

Sharma said they have made contact with Georgia Tech to get students there involved as well.

Saloni says working on a project likes this makes her see how fortunate she has been to have so many advantages growing up in Johns Creek.

“They [Tanzanian students] help you realize what you have and see how lucky you are. It makes you feel the need to do more. You see so many kids without those opportunities, it makes you want to do more,” she said.

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