From Colombia to Charlotte
Lela Aragon-Rico had been living a mostly typical, happy life in Colombia as a 9-year-old when she was devastated by the news that her best friend, Juan Sebastian (JuanSe), had been diagnosed with an often-lethal form of leukemia.
But she was determined to help her friend through his ordeal, and the experience ultimately would lead her to become a global ambassador for a children's foundation.
The journey to that role began when she was unable to visit her friend when he was in isolation during difficult rounds of chemotherapy. So she sent him a box of surprises to cheer him. Eventually she ran out of ideas for gifts to put into the box — until inspiration struck. Why not reach out to dozens of her home country’s celebrities — from athletes to musicians to politicians, including the country’s president, Juan Manuel Santos — to ask them all to send JuanSe a message of encouragement?
Undaunted by the fact that neither she nor anyone she knew had connections to anyone on her list, she borrowed her mother’s phone and contacted everyone she could think of to ask for help. The effort snowballed. Eventually, video messages from each famous person, personalized for JuanSe, rolled in. Lela compiled them and sent them to her friend, who found the strength to complete his treatment.
Then, another ambitious idea sparked. Lela’s mother, Carolina (who goes by Nina), is a longtime volunteer for the Prema Foundation, a leading children’s charity that builds play centers for ill or impoverished children across Colombia.
So the family hatched a plan to reach out to one of the musicians who sent JuanSe a get-well message, multiple Latin Grammy-winning artist Fonseca, to ask if he would give a benefit concert for Prema.
The resulting event raised enough money to build two new children’s play centers for Prema. It also kicked off Lela’s still-growing role as junior ambassador for Prema. (She’s also now a singer who has produced her own CD single to benefit Prema). “I realized I could make (JuanSe) happy through music, and then I realized I could do that for many other children,” Lela recalled. “And, I stayed (in this role) because I realized that I really enjoy service.”
Her Prema work has continued even as the family relocated to Charlotte two years ago and enrolled Lela at Providence Day, where she’s now in eighth grade and has younger brothers in 4th grade and TK. They were lured by previous family members who had already moved from Colombia to Charlotte to seek economic opportunity — and by Providence Day’s global focus. “We connected to how Providence Day values education,” says her father Andres. “For us to be open and see the world is very important.”
Lela travels to Colombia several times each school year and during vacations to perform and give inspirational speeches to conferences, universities, and corporate clients. A second benefit concert in December, with a world-renowned Colombian concert violinist, raised enough funds for another Prema children’s play center. And until recently, this side of her life was almost invisible to the PD community. “I don’t really talk about it much,” she said. “Doing service, I feel like you have to do it in silence. I don’t feel like it’s something I need recognition for.”
“This is literally someone who is making a global impact,” says Michael Magno, head of middle school, who encouraged Lela to speak to middle schoolers about her work with Prema during Global Week this April. “She’s been doing this since she was 12 years old, which shows there’s no boundaries to the impact you can make.”
At Providence Day, Lela stands out for her talent in visual art and her warm personality. She’s known for her ever-present colorful hair bows and love of tutus. When an art class assignment asked her to paint a person who has served as one of her biggest inspirations, she created an acrylic painting of her art teacher Andrea Downs, now installed in the ceiling of the dining hall.
“She is very inclusive and accepting of all people,” said Downs. “To me, this is what makes her inspiring and this is why people are always surrounding her.”
Downs added: “I think that her artwork is her way of making her world beautiful and showing others what beauty can look like. She also has a confidence and courage in using her voice for the good of others that is way beyond her actual age. I'm so proud of the young person she is becoming.”
Although Lela laughs at the idea of choosing her career this early in life — “I have no idea what I want to have for lunch!” — she believes she will find a way to continue what she has started. “I want to try something with public speaking. I want to be in the service world, and help a lot of people.”
As for JuanSe, he underwent a bone marrow transplant at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in March 2018, and has surpassed his 100th day, a milestone that indicates success. A ninth grader in Colombia, he remains Lela’s closest friend and attended her December concert.
Says Lela’s mother: “Every time Lela comes out on stage, at a conference or concert, I feel like people leave with something different. And she has such a wonderful light that I think she plants a seed of love in the hearts of every person she can reach.”
Her vocal coach Yanetsis Alfonso echoed that sentiment. “Lela’s dream that began with a little seed has grown, and now it’s transforming lives. With her light, she attracts everyone, so that they can change the world.”
Woman of Worth
At age 13, Shreya Mantha became aware of the bubble she had been living in as an eighth grader in south Charlotte. “It’s been a very sheltered and very privileged life,” she says now as a PD senior.
She was encouraged to venture out of that bubble by her parents, who have a lifelong commitment to giving back to their own communities, from their native India to here in Charlotte where they have lived the last 22 years. Shreya and her father Sailesh began visiting a nonprofit that helps trafficking survivors obtain their GEDs, to tutor in math and English for an hour each week. “We didn’t know there were so many people in Charlotte, our own hometown, who needed help,” she recalled.
Shreya soon realized that the survivors needed more than just one hour of help at a time. They had missed out on having a family support system like the one Shreya and her younger sister Sahana ’24 had taken for granted until then. Shreya encouraged two of the program participants, ages 18 and 15, to attend a Providence Day basketball game with her. They blended in seamlessly.
“We couldn’t just see that and go on with our life,” she recalled.
And then around that time, Shreya’s grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. As one of her dying wishes, she encouraged her granddaughter to do more to help vulnerable girls.
Soon after, Shreya formed Foundation for Girls with the help of her family. Their mission is to partner with other area nonprofits to offer a path from dependence to independence. The focus areas include digital literacy, financial wellness, leadership, and health and wellbeing. They have now served over 1,800 at-risk girls referred by agencies that serve refugees, the homeless, domestic violence survivors, pregnant teens, and foster children.
The work has struck a chord in Charlotte, which ranked 50th out of 50 cities for economic mobility in a recent study. If a child is born in the bottom quintile of income distribution in Charlotte, the chances of reaching the top quintile are just 4.4 percent.
Shreya’s work led her to a major national recognition last fall: She was selected by L’Oreal Paris as one of 10 honorees nationwide to be named “Women of Worth.” She was the only honoree still in high school, recognized alongside women with decades of service. The honor came with a $10,000 grant to the foundation and a trip to New York City for a gala ceremony in December, where she met actresses Eva Longoria and Julianne Moore, among others. In November, the Charlotte Association of Fundraising Professionals named her the city's Outstanding Student Philanthropist.
Shreya’s mother Anu, who co-chairs the Annual Fund with her husband, appreciates PD’s emphasis on social responsibility among its students. “I’m incredibly grateful to Providence Day and the entire Charlotte community for helping her to grow in so many ways,” Anu said.
In helping her daughter with her foundation work, Anu drew from a strong background in nonprofits, including work for the World Health Organization and UNICEF. She emphasized the need for clarity of purpose, discipline, and consistency to make a nonprofit succeed.
Now, Shreya is looking ahead to college at Stanford and hoping to help Foundation for Girls grow beyond Charlotte — perhaps even internationally. The L’Oreal experience has led to contacts with partners in England, Chile, and India. The foundation plans to continue with its team of 45 volunteers and 12 youth ambassadors (many of whom hail from within the PD community).
The foundation operates out of the family’s garage and has a part-time paid employee — a graduate of Foundation for Girls who entered as a pregnant teen-ager looking for a better life for her daughter. And Sahana, now in 8th grade, is continuing her family’s tradition with her own projects of service to the community, and plans to continue her sister’s work. (For an example of Sahana’s service, visit www.thekindsquad.team).
Shreya credits Providence Day for supporting both the foundation and her Women of Worth recognition. “Providence Day has given us an incredible amount of resources,” she said. “I don’t think I could do this if I was at any other school.”
Added Anu: “Instilling in its students that there’s a need to give back to the community, that’s just so important.”
And it comes with a reward, said Shreya. “There’s a magic in giving,” she said. “It’s really energizing.”
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