DUNEDIN — Nisha and Raj Mandani of Dunedin wanted to teach their sons to give back to society. Saturday evening, they discovered how well their youngest son Ishan learned.
The Lightning hockey team honored Ishan Mandani, 16, as a Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation Community Hero at the game against the New York Islanders. The foundation chooses a community hero for each home Lightning game and awards $50,000 to the charities of their choice.
After the Lightning told Ishan's story at Saturday's game, he received a standing ovation from the crowd of more than 20,000.
"I felt so honored to receive the Community Hero Award," Ishan said this week. "It was a great experience to be recognized and honored for my work. The money will not be wasted."
Ishan will distribute the money among his own nonprofit, called Our Aim Foundation Inc., and the Morton Plant Mease Foundation and Suncoast Hospice. The latter two inspired Ishan to create intergenerational programs that allow teens to "adopt" lonely or ill senior citizens.
Almost as exciting as the fanfare for Ishan was spending time in the Lightning locker room. He met Coach Guy Boucher, owner Jeff Vinik and the players.
"It was cool," Ishan said. "I enjoyed seeing how down to earth and friendly these players are. I got to see the Lightning organization as a whole and it was very inspiring to me."
The team and its leaders were similarly touched by Ishan's story.
In 2005 he began volunteering with his mother through Morton Plant Mease's Friend-to-Friend program, providing comfort and companionship to patients. Ishan was only 9, but he felt a strong bond with seniors. He visited them, performed music for them, and took them blankets and other supplies.
By the time he turned 14, he had begun to wish he could clone himself. There were so many lonely seniors. He turned to his mother for guidance. Together Nisha and Ishan co-founded the Our Aim Foundation.
Then, Ishan initiated two other programs, GrandKids and Close2Heart.
GrandKids matches seniors in ALFs or nursing homes with 14- to 19-year-olds who adopt a "grandparent" for a couple of months. At the end of the period, the teen creates a biographical memory book the senior can keep.
Close2Heart is similar, but matches teens with Hospice patients.
The Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America helped the Mandani family create specific guidelines by which the programs operate. Before teens step into a senior's room, they go through compassion training presented by volunteers from the Red Cross and Hospice.
Training helps the youths understand the challenges seniors may deal with daily, like loss of vision and hearing. The youths' understanding and preparation are enhanced by smearing petroleum jelly on eyeglasses, trying to open a jar lid wearing mittens, and muffling their hearing with earmuffs.
Ishan recently persuaded the Pinellas County School Board to allow his programs into three local schools. In 2011, 250 students donated 16,000 hours to seniors, while also earning credit toward the Bright Futures scholarship. Ishan hopes to expand into other high schools.
Despite his successes, the Palm Harbor University High School sophomore and his family were surprised by the extent of the Lightning's tribute.
"Experiencing it live was out of this world," said Ishan's mother Nisha. "I had tears of joy ... . When Ishan's name was called in front of 20,000 people, the cameras flashed. Ishan and videos of the work he does appeared on all the big TV screens."
"From my heart, I had tears," said Raj Mandani, Ishan's father. "I have seen Ishan do quite a bit, but this was such an amazing honor, our son giving back to the community through us. When it happens to your own child, you feel so proud that the legacy will continue because your son is doing something you want to do."
The honor has only increased Ishan's determination to grow his programs.
"I hope that by giving to Morton Plant Mease and Suncoast Hospice, maybe the relationship between our organizations will have a greater bond," Ishan said, "so we can accomplish more work together."