1 of 3
2 of 3
3 of 3
A smoker has most likely taken their first puff by 5th grade. The food choices an adult makes are cemented in the lifestyle that was set by age 5. These shocking statistics are what led Dr. Salim Surani, MD, pulmonologist, internist and sleep specialist, to realize his greatest work was not going to be at a patient’s bedside. Instead it would be by reaching a generation long before they become a patient at all. This passion for prevention is what led he and his wife Zehra, a nurse, to pursue methods of early education aimed at elementary-aged children. In 2004, he began to develop a classroom instructional program and video that introduced children to the dangers of smoking. Its success led to a broader scope as smoking was only the tip of the cultural healthcare crisis.
What he did not foresee was just how far these educational programs would go, or just WHO would be taking the reins. His own daughter, Saherish Surani, was just a 6th grader when her parents presented their fun and educational lesson in smoking prevention to her own class. Up to that point, she had not really connected to their endeavors. But from that moment on, a spark ignited that set in motion something much bigger than they all imagined. Looking back on that Saherish, now 17, and little sister, Zoya, 16, they laugh that their original roles were simply handing out pamphlets in class. Now they have reached over 100,000 youth, raised $180,000 through their nonprofit, won countless international awards, travelled the globe, collected unprecedented data, produced 4 DVDs in their own in-home green room, written and produced an inspirational vocal single on CD, and implemented an inspirational instructional program that is ready to take the nation’s schools by storm.
The It’s Your Life Foundation aims to serve our culture at the epicenter of the war against obesity, diabetes and smoking, seeking to get ahead of the curve and interrupt the start of bad habits by instead aiming at children just 3 years of age and up to change their lives by simply starting them off in forming GOOD habits. Through their iConquer program, Saherish, Zoya and a small army of other local teens now present in schools across the Coastal Bend, bringing vegetables to life as they personify characters like “Tina Tomato” and “Zoya Zucchini.” Exposing young children to fruits and vegetables while employing all of their senses: sight and sound through interactive song and dance, right down to tasting samples of healthy whole foods many children so young have never been exposed to. Apple slices tend to be the crowd favorite, but they laugh recalling how cute kids are in encountering new veggies; one memory is of a little boy exclaiming, “Wow I have never seen such a red grape!” over a cherry tomato.
Saherish shares how fun it is to watch the transformation in these little ones in the 4 hours of the course spread over 4 weeks when these Pre-K and Kindergarteners spend their PE period learning jingles and watching a puppet show about good choices, staying fit, and tasting new fruits and veggies.
Let it be known this is no small endeavor. The Surani’s have set out to prove their methods work by implementing a testing system using iClicker technology, equipping each child with a small remote clicker that they submit answers on in a pre-test of good v. bad food and lifestyle choices and then follow-up tests over the course of the program. “For the sake of science and protecting the data, we actually had to prove that the iClicker system itself actually worked on this age group by doing multiple test groups at this young age level to certify the accuracy of just this method of gathering their answers,” said Zehra.
The thoroughness behind which every aspect of the iConquer foundation and its endeavors has managed is truly a family affair. But they have also reached out to the community to grow their base of support. Sponsors like Citgo, HEB, Caller Times, Coastal Bend Community Foundation, Kenedy Foundation, and Subway, just to name a few, have come on board to broaden the scope of these efforts and grow the program. Each year iConquer hosts 2 fundraising events, a golf tournament in the fall and a 5K fun run in the spring. This year, their run was expected to reach about 1,200. They were simply blown away when a crowd 4,000 strong came together in a glow run for diabetes.
For Zoya, the iConquer Diabetes program hits close to home, for she was born in the year 2000, which marks the statistical shift where, from that year on, 1 in 3 children will be affected by Type 2 Diabetes. Sadly, among her friends, this has proceeded to hold accurate. She takes this fight very personally and explains, “I know that while I do not have diabetes myself, it’s more than just being lucky, it’s personal responsibility through my eating habits and lifestyle to make sure that my own family predisposition to the disease does not catch up to me.” Teaching this empowerment is what pushes her to constantly find new ways to reach more kids. Together, Saherish and Zoya identified that children with disabilities had not been reached yet, but were at equal risk of diabetes, obesity, and other preventable disease. “We are re-producing our videos to include a sign language interpreter in the corner of the film, and the book(s) we are publishing for children will include braille paper. It will have the look and feel of a regular book but with braille added to specialized pages.” These girls truly think of everything.
What began as just a family endeavor has now spread into our CCISD high schools starting with Carroll and now Veteran’s Memorial. It is now a club designed to support the iConquer program and provide steady recruits in the form of teens ready to go out to their younger peers and present this powerful message. “It’s amazing the transformation this program has also had on the teens teaching it, just in the way leaders are being formed and teens who used to be shy are willing to get up in front of children and use acting and song to teach kids.” Dr. Surani explained. The goal for the long-term is to make this a national program, but before it fully launches, the foundation locally needs to gain strength and a strong foundation so that it can support the work ahead. Already some of the teens who have graduated high school while serving the iConquer program have exposed the program itself to top universities like Harvard and Berkley. Saherish, a senior, who is about to end her high school career explains, “We are implementing a handbook for iConquer that will literally lay out every process and resource we have thus far utilized, thus making this format duplicable. We already have many of our videos fully downloadable from our website for people to utilize.”
What are Saherish and Zoya going to be when they grow up? Who knows, for through their charity work they have certainly sampled a wide variety of careers from film production, journalism, teaching and healthcare, but what we love most about these two, is that they did not wait to “grow up” before deciding to change the world. You can tell by that glimmer in his eye, that Dr. Surani agrees, his greatest work was in raising these amazing daughters who embrace humanity and hold nothing back.