Saumya Mangalick

June 2016 - The World Health Organization and National Federation of the Blind estimate that 285 million people worldwide are blind or living with a severe visual impairment. Nine in ten live in developing countries, and young girls represent a shockingly disproportionate percentage of those afflicted.

Saumya Mangalick knows these sobering statistics well – and can speak personally to some of the faces and stories behind them. Last summer, the 17-year-old traveled 75,000 miles to Varanasi, India, to work with 200 blind girls at the Jeevan Jyoti Institute for the Disabled.

Saumya first learned about the preventable blindness epidemic, and its acute gendered dimension, while researching for a school project her sophomore year.
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“I learned that there is a clear, strong link between malnutrition and visual impairment,” she explained. “In underdeveloped parts of the world, parents often find that they have limited food to go around – and choices to make. They give sons more than they give daughters, because boys are seen as better able to support the family.”

Saumya felt compelled to learn and do more, even after the school year ended, culminating in her August 2016 trip to India.
The multi-talented Edina High School junior proved a versatile teacher to her K-12 charges. In addition to English and Hindi language lessons, she taught math, politics and history classes. Making the most of this time abroad, Saumya - who is captain of the speech and debate team at home - also volunteered her talents at speech and oration seminars. In her free time, such as it was, she even led Jeevan Jyoti pupils in dance and music classes.

“It was a life-changing experience,” she recalled. “These are smart girls, many of whom want to be doctors and government officials when they grow up… They really just [need] someone to believe and invest in them.”

In addition to these spirited in-kind donations, Saumya also spearheaded a fundraiser to benefit the Institute for the Disabled.

“She raised over 40,000 rupees, which we used to provide over 200 girls with needed items they don’t always have -- such as soaps, shampoo and other toiletries,” noted Sister Sweta D’Britto, director of the school, in a letter recommending Saumya for the Edina Human Rights & Relations Commission’s annual Tom Oye Human Rights Award.

“Saumya’s caring and fun spirit made it easy for the students to bond with her, and she quickly became a part of the Jeevan Jyoti family,” D’Britto continued. “She is a uniquely intelligent, hardworking and sensitive girl.”

Yash Mangalick, Saumya’s brother, first put her name forward for the Tom Oye honor. “Although young, my sister is incredibly hardworking and positive,” he wrote, echoing D’Britto’s sentiments. “She is extremely globally and culturally aware, and wants nothing more than to make the world more just and equal for everyone.”

Indeed, her time in India is only the tip of the iceberg. Closer to home, Saumya has volunteered at Living Well Disability Services group homes, and as a radio broadcaster for Minnesota State Services for the Blind.

In recent months, her activism lens has broadened to encompass additional gender inequity issues. Saumya is founder and president of Girl Up Edina, a local chapter of the United Nations “Girl Up” campaign. Girl Up’s overarching mission is to “ensure that girls everywhere are educated, healthy, safe, included and counted – and positioned to be the next generation of leaders.” At present, there are nearly 1,000 branches in 50 countries.

Thanks largely to the spirited involvement of Saumya and other early leaders, Girl Up Edina boasted more than 150 high school students in March. Although still relatively new, Girl Up has hosted several seminars and forums to date, plus several productive fundraisers. (Back in March, for instance, Girl Up held an ice cream social in conjunction with International Women's Day.)

Mangalick, in his Tom Oye Award application for his capable and caring sister, summed it up succinctly: “Saumya has already achieved more than most would expect of a high school student … I really cannot wait to see what she goes on to accomplish with the rest of her life.”