the late afternoon, 15-year old Saanya Hasan Ali can often be
found in the comfortable family room of her home in
Potomac, Maryland. But she isn't doing homework, and she
isn't in front of a computer screen. She is cutting, drawing, measuring,
gluing and folding, surrounded by a colorful chaos of paper, rubber
stamps, buttons, stickers, ribbons and glitter.
"I just love arts and crafts," exclaims Saanya, whose talent for
designing and making greeting cards is matched by her dedication to
helping children and families in need. During the past six years, Saanya
has raised an astonishing $26,000 through the sale of her cards, all
while juggling the schedule of an active ninth-grader.
Saanya's unexpected success began in 2005, when her family was
moving from Houston to Washington, D.C. "My mother received an
e-mail from friends who had just founded the Pennies for Education
and Health (peh)
organization. They were raising money for children
in Gujarat, India to be able to go to school," explains Saanya, who was
nine years old at the time. Her mother, Salma, offered to donate $75 in
Saanya's name, a sum that would pay for one child's schooling for a year.
But Saanya decided she wanted to raise the money herself.
"I couldn't do it without my family," says Saanya, shown here with
her mother, Salma, brother, Zayd and father, Arif, who adds that
"sharing is a constant topic of discussion at the dinner table."
"I was in third grade then, and I couldn't even wrap my mind
around the fact that kids couldn't go to school over there," she says.
Saanya and her mom unpacked one of the moving boxes filled with
Saanya's crafts supplies, and she made cards to sell at a family wedding
that summer. To her own surprise, she earned $600—enough to send
eight children to school for the year—though her goal had been only $75.
"I kept on making cards, and the following summer I was able to
help support the kids for another year," explains Saanya, who by then
had established her own non-profit organization called "Children
Helping Children." By 2007, she had earned a total of $10,000 for
One of her goals now, she says, is to support the schooling of these
first eight children until they graduate from college.
"Saanya has truly been the most inspiring person and a great role
model, not only for young girls and boys of her age but also for
adults," comments Saleha Khumawala, co-founder of
peh. "She has
done this not only by making and selling innovative cards, which
have now become fairly well known, but also through her eloquent
speeches and articles, and—more importantly—by her passion, enthusiasm,
relentless hard work and humility."
Encouraged by success, Saanya began to support other organizations,
Children's Villages and the Central Asia Institute,
which builds schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as earthquake-
relief efforts in Haiti, Pakistan and, most recently, Japan.
In 2007 she led a card-making workshop at the World Children's
Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and in 2009, an
article about her appeared in Family Circle magazine. That not only
brought new orders, but also unsolicited donations of card-making
supplies. "We had Federal Express boxes full of supplies arriving at
our home," recalls Salma.
As demand for Saanya's cards rose, card-making became a familyand-
friends activity, too. "I didn't want card-making to become a
chore, because it is something I love to do and it makes me feel really
good inside," explains Saanya.
"I couldn't do it without my family," she emphasizes, adding that it
is often hard to find the time to make cards amid school and sports
activities. Her mother often helps assemble the cards now, and when
her younger, brother, Zayd, was seven, he used his toy dump truck to
help clean up. Now nine, Zayd is making his own cards. (See above
right.) Saanya's friends join her during the summer and school breaks.
"The most important thing we have tried to teach our children is
that it is important to give back at every stage of your life," emphasizes
Salma. Her husband, Arif, notes that "sharing is a constant topic
of discussion at the dinner table."
"I would love to continue making cards," says Saanya, acknowledging
that her project has helped her to see the world through different
eyes. "Now that I am in high school, I would also like to start giving
talks in inner-city schools to try to inspire other kids to do their own
projects. No matter who you are, there is always an opportunity to
make a difference. Making cards is my small effort," she adds. "If
everyone does their small part, it can grow into something beyond
is a Boston-based free-lance writer and consultant. Inspired by her first visit to Lebanon
many years ago, she has been exploring and writing about the Middle East ever since. She
is a frequent contributor to Saudi Aramco World and other international publications.
(www.aasilahmad.net) is a freelance photographer and photo
editor for Islamic Monthly magazine. He recently completed a project in Kashmir teaching
photography to children impacted by the 2005 earthquake. His photos of the Hajj were
featured in a series called "A Minox in Mecca" at the Contact Photography Festival in
Toronto. He lives in Washington, D.C.