July 2, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It isn’t every day that you get a proclamation in your honor. It’s more uncommon still when the name on the proclamation is that of a 15-year-old. But there it was in black and white. After six uses of the word ‘Whereas,’ Sama Shah’s name was emblazoned on the official City of Bennington Proclamation.

Shah, who just completed her freshman year at Brownell-Talbot School, was recognized at a recent city council meeting for earmarking birthday gift money to purchase and donate books to the Bennington Public Library. She had noticed that the library had precious few titles with information on the subject of her faith and culture—Islam—and Shah worked with library director Lisa Flaxbeard to select a group of eight books appropriate for different interests and learning levels.

“We’re studying the origins of world religions in school and that reminded me that information on Islam was hard to find in the library’s collection,” says the young lady whose first name is pronounced like ‘summa.’ Islam in the news, as Shah knows, doesn’t always paint an accurate, let alone complete picture of her faith, her people, and their customs and culture.

“I want people to understand,” Shah says, “that Muslims cannot be defined by headlines. Too many people think ‘Islam’ and ‘terrorism.’ That is not who I am. There are so many good things that people also need to know about us.”

Sama’s parents, Rafia and Dr. Inaganti Shah, began the birthday gift model of philanthropy when Sama’s older brother, Saif (now 19), was faced with his first candle on a cake. Sama’s giving tradition has also included Locks of Love, a non-profit organization that provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children under age 18 suffering from long-term medical problems.

“Now that Sama is 15,” says Rafia, “she has had the chance to give to a number of charities. We hope that the spirit of giving continues for both Sama and Saif,” into adulthood.

Shah is involved in tennis, golf, and cheering at her school, and she plays the violin and piano. She is also is a member of the Omaha Area Youth Orchestra. Sama and Saif are familiar faces at the library, where they have volunteered in the library’s summer reading program.

“We are grateful for and inspired by Sama’s thoughtful generosity, which is helping the Bennington Public Library in its mission to welcome and support all people in their enjoyment of reading and pursuit of lifelong learning,” says Flaxbeard.

“Her generosity,” Bennington Mayor Gordon Mueller says in the proclamation, “is an important reminder that our library is a precious public resource which exists through the support of both public and private dollars.”

And what is Shah’s favorite pastime when there is so much as the smallest of breaks in her hectic schedule of school, sports, music, and volunteering?

Easy question, she replies. “I’m probably reading!”

small

More from Omaha Magazine