California Teen Starts Nonprofit to Empower Youth in Developing Countries

Daily Point of Light # 6381 Oct 30, 2018
Mahika Halepete, 16, founded AYANA International, a nonprofit that empowers youth in developing countries to design and implement projects that improve their communities./Courtesy Mahika Halepete

Mahika Halepete is just 16 years old, a junior in high school. But yet, she founded and is running a nonprofit organization that spans across the globe. She knows that people didn’t take her seriously when she started out because of her young age, but that’s what she wants to change. Instead of the saying “The Youth are Our Future,” she wants it to be “The Youth are Our Present.” She wants to show young people all over the world that they don’t have to wait until they are adults to start bringing change to their communities. They can start now. That’s why she started AYANA International, a nonprofit empowering youth in developing countries all over the world by providing a weeklong program that enables them to create sustainable solutions for their community.

Mahika is today’s Daily Point of Light Award honoree and we spoke with her to learn more about her program and passion for global development.

Describe your volunteer role with AYANA International.

As a freshman in high school, at 14 years old, I was really confused as to why developing countries were so underdeveloped. I saw that one trillion dollars of foreign aid had gone to developing countries, but I was so confused as to why it wasn’t working at the scale it should be. I was living in so much privilege and never had to face any of those issues. So I really wanted to do something that was sustainable and involved youth like myself and allowed them to discover their leadership potential. We talk a lot about how the youth is our future but I wanted to do something with the premise that the youth is our present and allowing them to start making changes in their community from a young age. That’s when I launched AYANA International, which is a nonprofit organization and we hold a youth innovation program. The Youth Innovation Lab is a curriculum I wrote when I was 14 to allow young people to realize their leadership potential and develop skills like communication, problem solving, team building, and start to design projects for their own community. We work in developing communities directly. We launch this program through local NGOs and they implement it for us. I have also gone and implemented it myself and so we are really creating community driven development work. The whole point is that I’m empowering others to lead themselves and they have been able to create change for over 2,500 community members. What I definitely didn’t want to do was go travel there with no understanding of the problems and try to go solve them in a short amount of time. I live in California and I don’t understand the problems in Tanzania. Young people living in these communities understand the problems better than anybody else so that’s what I wanted to do when I first started out. We did our first program in Moshi, Tanzania. Now, we’ve scaled that to seven different cities in Africa and over 325 young people.

Students at Majengo School in Tanzania holding the supplies needed to make a proper handwashing station at their school. The project, started by a participant in Mahika’s program, helped increase school attendance because fewer students were getting sick from not washing their hands./Courtesy Mahika Halepete

What does your curriculum entail?

Our curriculum starts with the personal development module so what we want to do is not just start directly with solving problems, but we really want them to think about themselves and their strengths and potential. We do these strength analyses that help them figure out what their biggest leadership strengths are and we help them figure out what a leader is and identify leaders in the lives. After that is when they start learning about sustainable development goals, which are a set of 17 goals set by the United Nations of what we want our world to look like in 2030. And so they learn about those goals and then start to identify their own goals in their communities. This young 14-year-old girl went through our program and identified that handwashing was a big issue and she said my peers have to stay home from school because they’re getting all these illnesses from not washing their hands. At the time, the only handwashing system they had set up was this tippy tap, which is just a gallon of water with sticks. You push the pedal and the gallon of water tips over, but there’s no running water or soap or anything like that so the kids weren’t washing their hands at that time. I wouldn’t have ever known to approach that issue as somebody that’s never lived in that community and had that experience. But this young girl was able to because it’s her community and so we were able to fund that project and as a result, they saw for that whole school year, an increase in school attendance. So that’s an example of sustainable solutions that are community driven that all stem from this leadership program that we start with.


How do you implement your program in all these different locations?

Our curriculum is all digital. It’s a PDF that we send out and it has all the exercises and even a script for the facilitator to use. We just send it to them via email and they’ll print it out. It’s all guided by the community. We don’t send anybody in to teach it to them. When I went to Rwanda, I saw that it is best facilitated by local members of communities with whom the participants are comfortable with. We modify the curriculum based on the resource needs of each community.

We have a team of young people, high school and college students from all over the country, and also from Canada and South Korea. We’ve worked with people all over the world. We all work remotely and communicate via Skype calls. We get new data from each program and refine it.

What was your experience like when you first visited Africa for your program?

I had been to developing countries before, but I had never actually been anywhere in Africa so when I was there, it really changed my outlook. On one hand, I was glad that I had been working remotely for all this time because I hadn’t rushed into it and just decided to book a trip to Africa with no knowledge of the problems and no connections there and try to accomplish something in two weeks when it really took many months of work to do something substantial. But I also recognized that it was really important for me because when you are interacting directly with the members of the community you are trying to help, you’re able to create an even greater sense of empathy because that’s a human connection. When you’re able to hear the stories firsthand, meet people and shake their hand, it’s a completely different experience than working remotely. Rwanda was such a beautiful country. My goal with this work was to stop the narrative that developing countries are less than or inferior and that it’s our job to go save them.   

What inspires you to volunteer?

My mom has always been very adamant about my sister and I being involved in the community. . I remember we would sit on the floor, sprawled out with art materials like paint and canvases and we would paint with my friends. My mom would auction off our paintings to raise money for a local women’s shelter. We would make little blankets together to give to a local animal shelter and all these different projects for the community. So I’ve always had this mindset that doing good for the community is an obligation and I was always taught to be very caring for others and to think about people other than myself. I credit my mom completely for that. I think that I’m naturally very entrepreneurially inclined because I love solving problems in everyday life, but I don’t think I would’ve had that mindset and I think who you end up as depends a lot on who your parents are and how they raised you. I am so grateful to my mom because I know I have found such a great sense of purpose from doing this work in this global community. Getting to people in a very empathetic and sustainable way really boosted my self-worth and feeling of belonging and purpose.

A mobile library that brings books to local schools in Moshi, Tanzania. The idea was conceived by a young woman who took part in Mahika’s program./Courtesy Mahika Halepete

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

I think what makes it all worth it for me is being able to create a change that’s positive in the world. Especially this work that I’m doing where I get to see that my actions aren’t only empowering people through giving them stuff, but giving them opportunity and agency over their own lives, that is so incredible to me. I think the most rewarding thing is that I know every day that my worth doesn’t depend on what other people say or what grades I’m getting in school. I just feel this huge sense of gratitude that I’m able to do this work and know that I’ve made a difference in this world.

We’re currently working on a project in Rwanda. I am so proud of it because I was actually there at the workshop and I saw these youth go through the whole process. At first, they weren’t as outspoken. Then suddenly, I saw them going up on stage and talking about their ideas so I was so proud to see that this is exactly what I envisioned for my program. These young 14 to 16-year-old kids going up on stage, talking about the issues that are plaguing their communities, and starting to come up with actual solutions. Being able to firsthand participate in one of those programs was really meaningful to me.

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

One of the biggest things I’ve learned is to not be a lone wolf and to engage other people in your work. I think that’s one of the most empowering things, not only to other people, but to yourself. Also, to approach everything with empathy. I think a lot of the times we think that we’re being empathetic and everybody who does volunteer work has good intentions. But if you really take the time to empathize with the community you’re trying to work with and understand their needs, and talk to them rather than jumping in with a solution, you’re going to get solutions that work a lot more effectively.

Mahika leading a Youth Innovation Lab in Muhanga, Rwanda where students were able to learn the skills they needed to solve a problem they saw in their community./Courtesy Mahika Halepete

Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?

We’re actually working on developing this program in different countries with youth partnerships. Initially, I reached out to a bunch of people and not every organization was able to work with us. We were able to find more in Africa just because there are a lot of NGOs there doing similar work. But we’ve been working on different partnerships especially in South Asia and Southeast Asia. We’re launching a new project in Asia right now and we’re trying to get some leads in Central and South America. With this kind of model of working in developing communities, the whole premise is that not every country is the same. You’re going to see some of the same issues `in every country, but each community has its own needs and it requires its own customized solutions for the problem.

Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?  

Just being here in California, I feel like I’m so privileged to live here in this awesome community. I live in the Bay Area, which is so diverse and I look around and I’m so grateful to be here. So when you give back to your community and any community in the world, you’re giving that opportunity to other people. If you really feel a sense of gratitude for your life, that sense of gratitude is even more greatly deepened when you give back to other people. When you do volunteer work, it’s not just helpful to the people you’re working with, but you really feel a sense of empowerment in yourself. It goes both ways.

What do you want people to learn from your story?

I’m a huge advocate for young people bringing their ideas to life. When I was 14 years old, I had to gain credibility to my name. I wasn’t even a high school graduate, let alone a college graduate. But over time, people were even more impressed that I did this and that I had the courage to go forward even though I knew that I might fail. People might tell you that you can’t do something because you’re only 13, 14, but everyone is a changemaker. We need to really start encouraging young people to start making changes in their communities because if we don’t and we wait for them to become adults, they’re already going to have lost that faith in themselves that they could’ve gained from starting to bring their visions to life when they were young. So my biggest message I want to communicate is that I did it. I didn’t have any experience. I just had a desire to do good in the world and an idea. Anybody of any background can do the same. So don’t feel that there’s anything holding you back from creating the change that you want to see in the world.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Mahika? Visit All For Good for local volunteer opportunities.

Post written by Alicia Lee.