Drexel Student Establishes Non-Profit to Educate Underprivileged Women and Children in India
Drexel student Rina Patel (center) during her most recent trip to India.
February 24, 2014
During a trip to her parents’ homeland of India, Rina Patel witnessed the pain of a starving woman carrying her crying baby and the suffering of four orphaned siblings. This experience together with the stories she had been told about her own parents’ childhoods forever changed her life. A student in Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, Patel wanted to help underprivileged women and children in India. For that reason she established Aahana, a non-profit organization that recently received 501(c)(3) status from the U.S. Government.
“From my visits to India I realized these children have so much potential to grow and learn,” said Patel. “They are just lacking the knowledge for what is out there and that is my basis for Aahana. I always knew I wanted to help people but needed to focus that down in some way.”
Aahana, which means “first rays of sun,” was founded on the principle that each woman and child is equal under the sun. It seeks to offer Indian women and children opportunities and hope. Patel had begun fundraising for those suffering from disasters in Haiti, Japan and other developing countries through UNICEF while in high school. By the time she entered Drexel, she was determined to officially launch her organization. At 20 years old, Patel is now throwing her heart and soul into restoring light to the darkest corners of Gujarat, India where women and children endure the kind of poverty and inequality one has to see to believe.
While Gujarat’s per capita GDP is well above the national average and the state is among the most industrialized in the country, approximately 44 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and the number of poor families has spiked 30 percent over the last decade. Nearly 40 percent of the women living there are illiterate as less than half of school-aged girls actually attend school. Ten percent of Gujarat’s children are disabled.
When she launched her organization, Patel also decided to partner with organizations in Gujarat rather than start from scratch. She established a contact with the principal of the Mamta School, who had been working with deaf and disabled children for more than 30 years.
In order to support the Mamta School Patel’s organization partnered with the Human Development Research Foundation, an Indian Non-Governmental Organization that sends monetary aid to Mamta. To date, Aahana has raised $20,000 and has helped the school increase its population from 30 children to 65. Aahana’s donations have paid for vocational training, food, bedding, clothing and various other expenses. Patel recently learned that a donor has provided land for a new school she wants to build and so she is gearing up to raise the $100,000 to make it happen.
Mamta also launched a 90-day program for 30 women from rural villages to provide them with vocational training in henna, embroidery and other beauty jobs. Once they complete the program, the women will receive a certificate from the government and 3,000 rupees—equivalent to about $50, a significant amount of money for India —to start a business.
But Aahana isn’t only about helping those at the lowest end of India’s caste system; it’s also about changing the perception of India in the United States — which is why the organization has opened chapters at University of South Florida, Purdue University and Virginia Commonwealth University.
“One of the main reasons for educating people in the United States on the issues in India is that youth here just can’t relate,” Patel said. “They haven’t lived or experienced what goes on in Third World countries. I wanted to create an idea that would help students educate themselves and give them an opportunity to move forward. By having students start chapters it gives them the opportunity to break out of their bubble and focus on what is going on outside their campus or state.”
Aahana is the first non-profit organization with incubator space in Drexel University’s Laurence A. Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship. The organization has also been encouraged by sponsorship from Drexel student organizations and local Indian-American organizations that have taken on Patel’s call to action in Gujarat, including the North Penn High School Indian Cultural Organization.
But still, the organization is fledgling. The goal is to make it sustainable — to be able to provide aid and educational programs to more schools in India.
“Right now I’m focused on having a new building for the Mamta School that will solidify the way the school is running,” Patel said. “In the future I would like to expand our reach and programs in India’s rural villages.”
As for her career goals, Patel will be graduating from Drexel in June 2016. She still has two more cooperative education experiences to complete and she hopes to find co-op jobs that will help her learn more about corporate social responsibility, start-ups or offer an international experience.