Aaban Mahmood

Elementary-schooler Aaban Mahmood makes Pittsburgh a kinder place through his project ‘Kindness + Diversity = LOVE’

Sometimes kids see the world with a clarity that surprises the adults around them. That’s the case with Aaban Mahmood, who is making a meaningful difference in his community even though he’s only 6 years old.

Here’s the backstory: Aaban’s family moved to Coraopolis from Chicago during the pandemic. He and his siblings were born in the U.S. and their family has been in America for a decade, having moved here from India. They are Muslim. Aaban was glad when his new school, McKee Elementary in West Allegheny School District, returned to in-person school learning. But he soon discovered a bit of a roadblock.

“One day he came home and he was feeling kind of sad,” his mother, Hera Nafees, tells Kidsburgh. “So I just asked him, ‘What happened?’ … He was like, ‘Mom, none of my friends know about Muslim culture, or Indian food, and my favorite festival that is Ramadan.’ He wanted to do something about it.”

Nafees was struck by her son’s desire to make a difference.

“I was so surprised to hear all this coming from a 6-year-old,” she says. “After that question, I was like, ‘OK, as a mom what I can do for him?'”

Aaban Mahmood with the books he donated to McKee Elementary.
Aaban Mahmood with the books he donated to McKee Elementary.

Aaban had already begun doing acts of kindness in his community. We first wrote about his efforts as part of our Kidsburgh Kind Kid initiative, when Aaban took quarters he had saved and shared them with shoppers at his local Aldi. He thought it would brighten the day of a stranger if they didn’t have to pay for a grocery cart. (Check out that story here and learn more here about nominating your own Kidsburgh Kind Kid.)

But the issue of diversity seemed to require even more attention from mother and son.

Nafees reached out to McKee’s PTA, asking whether the group had a diversity committee she could join. The response: We don’t have one, but you can help us start one. McKee’s principal, Melissa Wagner, also welcomed the idea.

“She was really happy,” Nafees says. “She told me that she was a principal for eight years in a school diverse in race, religion, culture and socioeconomics. And so this work deeply sits in her heart, too.”

Nafees also brainstormed with Aaban about what he might do. She has an MBA in nonprofit management, so she explained to her son how nonprofits and grant funding work. Aaban loved the idea of finding a nonprofit offering grant money for those wanting to help others. Together, they discovered Kindness Grows Here, which offers what they call “Kid Kindness Grants.”

Aaban and his siblings love reading books at the library and at school. So with his mom’s help in filling out the application, Aaban requested a small grant from Kindness Grows Here to buy books about kindness and diversity, and about cultural celebrations like Ramadan, for his school library.

He came up with a wonderful name for his grant-funded project: Kindness + Diversity = LOVE.

The nonprofit loved his idea and awarded Aaban a $250 Kid Kindness grant. He used it to buy 19 books for his school library. “Every book is special, because it touches on a theme or has a character that is diverse,” Nafees says.

The timing was perfect: McKee Elementary and the school’s PTA kicked off a school-wide reading initiative in December. Each month, they select a book that celebrates diversity, kindness and empathy. For their February event, Principal Wagner gathered the first-graders in the school’s gym with the rest of the school watching on Zoom. First, she read from Amanda Gorman’s book “Change Sings.”

Then Wagner invited Aaban to share his surprise with the school. He explained to his classmates all about Kindness + Diversity = LOVE. And with his mother in attendance, he proudly gave the principal a colorful box filled with the 19 books.

aaban mahmood
Aaban Mahmood donating books to Principal Wagner at McKee Elementary.

Aaban has also begun reading the books on Youtube and letting the authors know about his videos. After posting a video where he reads Vincent Kelly’s picture book “All People Are Beautiful,” Nafees says she received a lovely email from Kelly: “He is so proud of Aaban.”

People don’t always know where to start in helping with kindness and diversity. Nafees and Aaban felt that way. But as they brainstormed together, they came up with things they each could do. This young boy is doing something remarkable, and yet it’s something many other kids and families can build on with their own projects. That’s how kindness can keep on rippling out through the community.

aaban mahmood
Left to right: Hera Nafees, McKee Elementary librarian Dana Bacu, Principal Melissa Wagner and first-grader Aaban Mahmood, celebrating the start of Aaban’s Kindness + Diversity = LOVE project.

“As a mom, I want my son to be confident,” Nafees says, “and to never hide his identity and to stand up for himself and others for what is right.”

It’s inspiring to see that at just 6 years old, Aaban is doing just that — and spreading the spirit of kindness along the way.