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A heart for seniors: Ishan Mandani awarded by state agency for programs that connect youth and seniors

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The awards keep piling up for 16-year-old Ishan Mandani and the youth-to-senior outreach programs that he and his family founded.

In December, the state Department of Elder Affairs honored the Mandani family of Dunedin with the 2011 Intergenerational Volunteer Award for their GrandKids and Close2Heart programs, which link youth with seniors in assisted living facilities and hospice centers. The award is given to only one recipient in Florida each year.

In January, Ishan traveled to Ottawa, Canada, during the National Hockey League’s All-Star weekend to be honored as one of three youth All-Star World Changers winners, selected from youth making a difference in their communities across North America.

During their March 24 home game, the Tampa Bay Lightning honored Ishan as a Lightning Community Hero, awarding him with $50,000 in grant funds to donate to the Morton Plant Mease Foundation, Suncoast Hospice and the Mandanis’ own charity, Our AIM Foundation.

“We were very honored and blessed to get this award,” Ishan said. “Once I got the award, I was jumping up and down and just going crazy. This is an award that will kind of help branch out the organization and let everyone know what we do.”

Ishan has been volunteering with his family to help seniors since he was 9, participating in the Friend-to-Friend Grocery and Pharmacy Shopping for seniors at Morton Plant Mease. He also would volunteer at Suncoast Hospice, saving his birthday and allowance money to buy small Christmas gifts for terminally ill seniors. Over the years, he and his family adopted several elderly people as their own.

“I always saw my grandfather and how lonely he is at times,” Ishan said. “I’m really attached to seniors. I bond with them pretty well. I know some people might not enjoy working with seniors, but that’s a passion of mine.”

Ishan said he’d like to work in the field some day. Nisha Mandani says her son has always had a “magical” connection with seniors.

“When he sees them, he instantly connects with them. He put himself in their shoes,” she said. “He really understands them in and out.”

Four years ago, the Mandani family started their own program to help seniors and youth connect. The GrandKids program is now at three local high schools: Palm Harbor High School, where Ishan attends, Dunedin High School and Robinson High School in Hillsborough County.

“Our goal is to spread this club of GrandKids to every school in Hillsborough and Pinellas County by the end of next year,” Nisha said.

GrandKids is a program where students adopt a senior as their grandparent for seven weeks. Each visit to the senior has a different theme. One day, the youth might make a friendship bracelet with the senior or show them how to operate a piece of technology.

They also spend time learning about a senior’s life, asking questions about their childhood, career, family and accomplishments in life. That information is complied into a memory book they give to their grandparent at the end of the program. The book helps seniors focus on the happy highlights of their life, Ishan explained.

“The senior looks back to his past and looks to all the memorable things and not to the near end of their life,” he said. “The importance of this memory book is life transforming.”

Many seniors who receive a memory book continue to treasure it for years to come. Ishan remembered one touching moment when an elderly gentleman first received his memory book.

“The senior held the book to his heart and he said, ‘I have nothing more precious and valuable than this in my life,’ and he had tears coming out of his eyes,” Ishan said.

The program also gives the students a new perspective on life.

“It’s a very meaningful program, not only that we’re catering to isolated seniors, but we’re developing empathetic leaders of tomorrow,” Nisha said. “Some of these children tell us that no matter how much their parents told them to be content, to be happy with what they had, they never understood it until they went through this whole session of seven weeks. And now they respect life a lot more.”

Ishan said he saw firsthand how disconnected seniors could be from younger generations, hearing stories from seniors of how kids his age would laugh at seniors instead of helping them.

“All these kids nowadays are getting so attached, more and more, to technology, and we’re losing the human touch,” he said. “That’s our biggest challenge: to get students involved.”

One easy incentive the GrandKids program uses to hook students in are volunteer hours they earn, hours they need for Bright Future and other scholarships.

“Once they get their fulfilled hours, usually most of our kids do over the amount of hours that they need, they’re in such love with the program,” Ishan said.

Ishan helps train his peers in how to connect with seniors. In two to three hours of training, students try to experience life from the perspective of a senior. They wear glasses smeared with Vaseline so they understand what blurred vision feels like. They try opening a medicine bottle with mittens on so they can see how hard simple tasks can become for seniors. They try rolling around in wheelchairs, are told to avoid inappropriate language and to speak loudly for their hard-of-hearing grandparents.

They also learn how to react when they find a senior on the floor or smell that they might have had an accident.

Often, students learn history firsthand and receive wise advice earned from decades of experience from a senior. The program tries to pair them with grandparents of similar ethnic background, or with someone who worked in a career they aspire to.

“It also helps them to bond with their own grandparents more,” Ishan said.

The Mandanis’ Our AIM Foundation also incorporates hospice patients with the Close2Heart program. Because of the terminally ill status of hospice patients, the Close2Heart programs take only one week. Students visit with a senior and then compile a memory book in the next room, presenting it to the senior that very day. Hospice patients don’t live as long, a fact of life Ishan has learned firsthand.

“Sometimes it’s very depressing. It can get very emotional at times,” he said.

“Death is natural,” his mother said. “I think it’s good that children have to learn that, because it can happen to anybody at any point.”

Ishan takes special care to manage his time well, visiting the several grandparents he’s adopted as often as he can.

“Every time I get a new grandparent, I enjoy visiting with them,” he said.

He still delivers groceries and medicine to some seniors, calling them whenever he can.

“Now that he’s driving, he’s more independent. I don’t have to drive him around too much,” Nisha said.

Ishan is in the International Baccalaureate program at Palm Harbor High. The 10th-grader has been on the varsity tennis team for the past two years and also enjoys basketball and football. He’s looking forward to an eight-week program at Harvard University this summer.

He said he often hears other students say they don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to community service. He doubts that.

“I somehow find time. I manage my time. Academics might be a priority, but it’s also a priority to help our seniors,” he said. “It’s very important that we visit them and show them our love.”

The family uses much of their “free time” helping seniors, Nisha said. It occupies their thoughts constantly and for her, the nonprofit foundation is a full-time job. Even Ishan’s older brother, Irfan, participates in the family pastime when he visits from New York.

“The four of us go together to visit our seniors who we adopted five years ago,” Nisha said. “It was like a family activity for us. We really enjoyed it.”

Her husband, Raj Mandani, said the activity creates a family bond.

“It’s an honor to have children who really care for others. Because that’s what you instill in them,” he said. “If one child can do it, why not everybody?”