My name is Mandy Stein, and I am the Founder and Executive Director of Neema International. When I was about five years old, I decided that I was going to make a difference in the world. My head and my heart were filled with dreams and visions of the future– More than anyone could ever imagine. Similarly to most kindergarten-aged children, I thought I was completely invincible and that no matter what other people said or did, I could do anything. While I was an extremely ambitious and dedicated child, I would never have guessed that 18 years later, I would be have my own non-profit organization that was geared to accomplish the same dream that little girl once had.
As a dedicated volunteer, I have extensive experience working with children with physical and mental disabilities as well as with the homeless population. These individuals live with hardships and disadvantages, yet they are blessed to live in America where opportunities do exist and resources are available. I first traveled to Kenya with my family in 2007 on a safari which included a stop to a near by Massai village, where I immediately fell in love with their culture and dedication to one another.
I had since spent countless hours thinking about the people in Africa who are not as fortunate as I am, and researching the endless opportunities waiting there for me to help. My chance came when I opted to spend the summer after my sophomore year in college on a five-week structured volunteer program in Tanzania.
On my first day in Tanzania, a boy named Daniel gave me the Swahili name “Neema” (Pronounced like the name Emma but with an N) I asked him why he was giving me this name and he told me that “Neema” means “ blessing” or “grace”. I never knew how important this name was going to be to me or that it would one day be the name of my non-profit organization. My volunteer placement during the mornings in Tanzania was at the Jiendeleze Nursery School.This was my first solo interaction with African youngsters, and my heart overflowed with love for these children and their innocence. I immediately recognized the opportunity for greater immersion within the community in lieu of the tourist activities that filled the afternoons. I asked the program director for an additional placement, and he suggested I visit the Tuleeni Orphanage.
My first day volunteering at this orphanage was the single most memorable and life-changing experience I’ve ever had. This day happened to be my twentieth birthday, and I thought that there was no better way to spend the day I was born than by doing what I was born to do— help others. I spent the entire day at the orphanage playing games and singing songs with the children. They surprised me that evening and threw me a birthday party—the first song they played at the party was an American song called “One Step at a Time” by Jordan Sparks. My eyes began to fill with tears as I listening to the words and saw the smiling faces of children around me. One of the orphans asked me why I was crying. I took off my shoe and showed them the words tattooed on the inside of my foot… it reads “One Step at a Time.”
A brilliant woman by the name of Marian Wright Edelman once said, “If you have a problem with the world, change it. You have an obligation to change it—just do it one step at a time.” These words on my foot are a constant reminder to me that while the journey of a million miles may seem long and out of reach, it all begins with one step. I felt like this song playing on my birthday in Africa was a message telling me that I was taking a huge step in my journey to change the world. this was where I needed to be. This is where I belong. That day, the mother of the Tuleeni Orphanage, Mama Faraji, told me that there was a passion in my eyes that she had never seen before and asked me if I would be interested in helping her build a new home for her children. The current facility houses 84 children in a living space suitable for 40 people. There was no doubt in my mind that this was my calling.
Upon returning to America in July of 2011, I worked collaboratively with a variety of different student groups and organizations to raise money for the Tuleeni Orphans’ new home. I have implemented numerous fundraising projects including profit shares, t-shirt sales and donation drives. I returned to Tanzania a few months later to celebrate Christmas and bring in the New Year with the children.
While I was there, we finished up the blue prints for the new orphanage, and signed contracts with the contractors, engineers, and consultants.The following summer, I spent three months actually living at the Tuleeni Orphanage, helping with the new orphanage construction, and ultimately being a mother to the children and teens by preparing their meals and playing with them. Through my fluency in their native tongue of Swahili, I have also been able to tutor them in English and Math to prepare them for their national exams. When I returned back to America in the Fall of 2012 to start my senior year at the University of Texas, I felt that this was the year to make my mark–I felt that in order to make a true impact in these children’s lives, I was going to need to start a non-profit organization so that I would be able to accept sizable donations from individuals and corporations. So after a lot of hard work dealing with documents and filling out paperwork, we established Neema International.
I returned back to Tanzania for a short 10 days in January of 2013, to bring in the New Year with the kids, work on the new orphanage and get the kids ready to start a new school year. (In Tanzania, their new school year starts in January instead of in August like we do.)
After graduating from the University of Texas in May 2013, I moved to Tanzania to live full time with the Tuleeni Orphans. I have spent the past two and a half years running Neema International on ground in Tanzania and our organization is stronger than ever. Our projects have flourished beautifully and we truly believe that the future is looking bright for this community. I plan to stay here full time until Fall 2018 when I will head back to the States to attend graduate school to receive a Master’s Degree in International Education Policy Management (IEPM) along side of a degree in Non-profit Management.
My hope is that upon completing my degree, I will be able to move back to Tanzania to continue the work that we have begun here. I see my future here in Tanzania with these incredible people and look forward to being a part of all the amazing things that lie ahead for them.
Neema International is fiscally sponsored by the Greater Houston Community Foundation (a 501c3 organization) and therefore all donations made to Neema International are fully tax deductible.