Generosity sparked by tragedy


Passing of AAHOA Member’s 5-year-old daughter leads to outpouring of support for charity


Mya Vimal Patel, a 5-year-old girl with a passion for dance and an irresistible smile, had her life cut short by a stray bullet in March. But even that most tragic of events can’t stop her from making a positive impact on the world.

Mya was the daughter of Vimal Patel and his wife, Sneha Patel, of Shreveport, Lousiana, who own and manage branded and independent hotels primarly located in the state.

On March 20, Mya was with her mother in a Super 8 motel in Shreveport, LA, when two men got into an argument in the parking lot. Police say Joseph Lee Smith, 34, fired a shot at the other man, and the bullet grazed Sneha Patel before striking Mya. The little girl had been playing by the window. Sneha Patel was treated at a local hospital for a minor injury and released, but Mya succumbed to her injuries two days later, a crushing blow to her family and the tight-knit AAHOA community.

The child’s death left all around her stunned and deeply anguished. Jena Johnston, a lead dance instructor who worked with Mya at Vicki’s School of Dance in Shreveport, described Mya as “so full of life,” and “just a precious, precious soul that we’re definitely going to miss,” according to the local ABC affiliate, KTBS-TV.

“It’s something unfathomable,” Johnston said. “No parent should ever have to bury a child and especially in this way. We are covering them in prayer, and I hope they know that they’re so loved.”

The last time Johnston and her fellow dance instructors saw Mya, she was happy, having just tried on a dress for an upcoming recital.

“We’re just happy that she got to try that on because that’s something that she looked forward to,” Johnston told KTBS-TV.

After her death, Mya’s family became determined not to let her story end in tragedy. They donated her organs to save the lives of others, and they organized a Facebook fundraiser to benefit Tiny Smiling Faces, a nonprofit that helps underprivileged children in India. The response from AAHOA Members and the public was overwhelming, with $60,805 donated to the charity, shattering the organizers’ modest goal of $2,500.

Tiny Smiling Faces was founded by AAHOA Member Arun (Andy) Patel, the CEO of Visions Hotels, a hotel management company based in Corning, NY. The group’s mission is to “aid and advance the development and well-being of disadvantaged children by providing proper food, medicine, clothing, opportunities for educational advancement, and safe and meaningful recreational activities.”

Arun Patel said that as more wealthy families in rural India send their kids to private schools in nearby cities, move out of villages, or emigrate, the money and resources that support rural government schools shrink. The result is a cycle in which rundown schools lead to lower attendance, and vice versa, he said.

Tiny Smiling Faces provides a wide array of services to these rural schools. Since the students typically are poor, the children of subsistence-level farmers, they often arrive to school hungry, so the organization has set up a free breakfast program.

“If they come to school hungry, in my opinion, they’ll never be able to study,” Patel said.

Tiny Smiling Faces provides medical checkups, school supplies, uniforms, computers, internet service, and extracurricular activities such as field trips and science fairs. In the poorest and most remote villages, there often are no schools, Patel said, so parents send their children to live in dormitory-style hostels attached to schools. The buildings often are dilapidated, so the charity renovates them or builds new facilities.

The charity only works with schools that are funded by the government or charitable trusts and provide a free education to students. Private schools that charge tuition are ineligible to receive aid, Patel said. To date, the group has helped approximately 150,000 schools, which each getting about $2,000 to $5,000 a year in funding. Since Tiny Smiling Faces is a volunteer-run organization, there are no administrative costs, and every dollar donated goes to help kids.

Patel said he was inspired to start the charity after visiting his own primary school in India about a decade ago and seeing it in bad shape. The charity encourages AAHOA Members and others to donate to their former primary schools, and it matches the first $1,000 donated to each school. In addition, it will fund 25% of any large-scale project aimed at upgrading school facilities.

The group’s biggest sponsors include Hilton Hotels & Resorts, which has contributed $20,000 annually for the past four years. AAHOA also plays a vital role in the group’s fundraising efforts by providing a free booth at its annual convention, enabling Tiny Smiling Faces to spread the word about its important work.

“We’re very grateful for AAHOA’s support,” Patel said, adding that Mya’s fundraiser has showcased the generosity of AAHOA Members.

“It was a horrible, horrible thing that happened,” Patel said. “As far as something good coming out of this, nothing will be as good as having that child alive, but at the end of the day, people are coming together for this. To anyone who contributed any money, I’ll personally make sure it’s spent wisely.”

Mya’s story also will help another worthy charity that encourages people to become organ donors, following in her footsteps. That charity, Samaj Saves Lives, has inspired more than 3,000 people to register as organ donors in just the past four years, according to founder Bhupen B. Amin, President and Chief Operating Officer of Lotus Hotels Inc., a Walnut Creek, CA-based hotel management company.

Mya’s family decided to donate her organs independently, but Samaj Saves Lives is committed to serving as a resource for those families who are unsure whether to donate a loved one’s organs. Amin, an AAHOA Member, said the charity works to answer questions and address the concerns of family members and serves as a liaison between the hospital and the family.

Amin said grieving family members may not feel equipped to make a decision about organ donation. Moreover, in India and other parts of the world, many people are reticent to register as organ donors because they fear they will get substandard care in the event of a health emergency, given that organs can fetch high prices on the black market.

“Organ donation in India historically wasn’t done very properly, legally, and ethically, so there have been a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about it,” Amin said. “We’re trying to make sure people realize that in the U.S., it’s a very well-handled system, and it’s done very ethically. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to better educate people about organ donation. Everyone is going to be treated the same, so you can be confident no one is going to take advantage of you.”

Amin said Samaj Saves Lives also helps potential donors connect with potential recipients within the South Asian community. Given the community’s strong social ties, it’s highly likely that a potential donor knows someone on a transplant waiting list, he said.

According to Samaj Saves Lives, more than 119,000 people in the United States are on waiting lists for transplants, and 22 of them die each day. Although 95% of U.S. adults support organ donation, only 48% are actually signed up as donors. Only three out of every thousand people die in a way that allows for organ donation, but a single donor may save as many as eight lives.

Like Tiny Smiling Faces, Samaj Saves Lives gets a free booth at AAHOA conventions so it can highlight its lifesaving work and encourage attendees to become organ donors.

“AAHOA has been a fantastic promotor and has really given us a platform to communicate our message,” Amin said.

Ahead of National Donate Life Month in April, Samaj Saves Lives erected billboards in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi to encourage organ donation. Amin said the group has used Mya’s story in social media posts to reach potential donors, and her story will appear on billboards.

“This really was a tragic situation,” Amin said. “Just every component of it is so sad. She’s such an innocent victim, and for the family to be able to put aside that grief and think about how they can turn this horrible situation into something inspirational is just so amazing.”

AAHOA Chairman Biran Patel said supporting Tiny Smiling Faces and Samaj Saves Lives reflects the association’s ongoing commitment to rallying around its members and providing support in even the most difficult circumstances.


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