Teen Who Started Nonprofit At 8 Now An ‘eMerging Visionary’

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Sahana Mantha was just 8 years old and already leading a nonprofit for young, single, homeless moms when she and her sister went to a local bakery to ask what it did with any leftover bread.

Sahana wanted the extras for girls seeking help from her and sister Shreya’s foundation. From that point forward, the pair received two shopping carts full of bread and baked goods every Sunday.

“How could an 8-year-old child have such initiative and such a deep sense of social responsibility?” said Janet Ganoung, who owned the Great Harvest Bread Companies in Charlotte for 14 years. “At the time, I believed the request was a sort of one-off, that Sahana would feel the reward of doing a temporary good deed and then go on her way, just being a regular kid.

“Little did we know in 2014 that her commitment to social justice was long-term, rock solid and laser-focused.”

Weeks before collecting bread in December 2014, Sahana and Shreya created the Foundation for Girls, a Charlotte nonprofit that aims to economically empower homeless, single moms and support their children. Prudential Financial, a national insurance and investment management company, has named Sahana an “emerging visionary” for her “innovative solutions to pressing financial and societal challenges.” The Charlotte native and 15-year-old freshman at Providence Day School is one of 25 high schoolers across the U.S. who earned the award.

As a Prudential Emerging Visionary, the foundation received $5,000. Sahana is one of five Emerging Visionaries who will go before a panel of leaders from Prudential in April to seek an additional $10,000 for her nonprofit.

“Charlotte is one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities. It is also the third-largest banking hub,” Sahana said. “Yet, Charlotte is 50th and at the bottom of the list of major U.S. cities for economic mobility. This stark contrast shocked me and lit my fire to help the marginalized — particularly women and children.

“They are insufficiently prepared economically, educationally, and emotionally to support themselves. They have low incomes and experience economic hardships, particularly as many are disproportionately disadvantaged racial and ethnic minorities.”

A DYING GRANDMOTHER’S WISH

In the previous six years, Foundation for Girls grew from its Charlotte base to cover eight other states: South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Maryland, California, Nevada, Washington, D.C. and New York. Her team includes more than 75 coaches and 150 volunteers.

The nonprofit counts more than 2,500 homeless single mothers — many of them teens — and their children among people it has helped. The foundation provides group workshops, coaching and care packages. In 2021, it distributed 12,702 packages, which include four months worth of hygiene and feminine hygiene supplies and nonperishable food for a mother and child.

“I was and still am in awe at the level of awareness and humility Sahana must’ve had at (8 years old) in order to recognize an issue happening in her community and come up with a strategy to enact change and implement it,” said Khiana Deas, who is a member of the foundation’s board of directors.

The sisters’ paternal grandmother, Prabhavati Mantha, inspired Sahana and Shreya, a junior at Stanford University, to establish Foundation For Girls. Mantha, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2014, told her granddaughters to help young women.

“It’s really just seeing young women with children and realizing they have no support and they’re hungry,” Sahana said. “It’s so eye-opening. I couldn’t imagine.”

Surrounding people with a caring community makes the most difference in a person’s life trajectory, Sahana said.

“When we invest in women, we uplift women, their children, their families and their communities,” she said.

‘JOURNEY TO INDEPENDENCE’

Ganoung is a founding board member of Foundation for Girls, which is a 100% volunteer-based organization that raises about $100,000 annually. The Mantha sisters’ “passionate need to improve the world around them” sold her on getting involved.

“She and Shreya saw that by teaching these women important skills and developing nurturing, 1-on-1 relationships with them, the organization could have an impact that extends beyond these moms to their children and many generations to come,” Ganoung said.

A year before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sahana and her team started transitioning to virtual group workshops and coaching, mainly because coaches and some girls were from outside of North Carolina. The nonprofit’s goal, she says, is to reach single teen mothers as well as their children and put them on a journey to independence.

Sahana counts a 14-year-old teen girl’s journey among its success stories. The girl was abandoned by her parents and placed in the state of North Carolina’s custody while she was still in the hospital having her baby, Sahana said. During her time at a foster care facility, the 14-year-old met Foundation for Girls volunteers and began attending programming and working with coaches.

“She worked to create a budget and set up bank accounts for her situation,” Sahana said. “(She) worked through the college applications process and job search. She was accepted into four in-state colleges and two out-of-state colleges. (She’ll be) attending UNC Charlotte’s nursing program in the fall.”

Sahana says stories like that keep her anchored — especially when she’s balancing her nonprofit, school and a competitive golf career. She’s a member of the American Junior Golf Association, Carolinas Golf Association and Peggy Kirk Bell Golf Tour.

“I grew up watching golf with my dad; it is his favorite sport,” she said. “I would often go with him to golf courses and at some point, I picked up a club and fell in love with the game. It has taught me to make incremental progress each and every day which will yield results in the long run.”

It’s the same lesson she uses when it comes to her nonprofit.

“Age isn’t a factor,” Sahana said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re super young. If you’re really passionate about something, understand how you can go about making things better for others, and what resources you need.

“Then begin small and take small steps every day. Be authentic.”