It’s Your Life

Rachel Denny Clow/Caller-Times

West Oso Elementary School students learn a dance during an anti-smoking program presented by the It’s Your Life Foundation on Tuesday. The foundation has shared the program with about 40,000 students in 10 area school districts. It is now focusing on a teen sleep deprivation program. [auto_thumb width=”150″ height=”150″ link=”” lightbox=”true” align=”left” title=”” alt=”” iframe=”false” frame=”true” crop=”true”][/auto_thumb]

Rachel Denny Clow/Caller-Times

Jahazania Rios (left) teaches West Oso Elementary School students a dance during an anti-tobacco education program while Zehra Surani watches on Tuesday. The It’s Your Life Foundation is a nonprofit organization which has visited more than 40,000 children in their classrooms the past two years to share their anti-smoking program. Now the group made a video to combat teen sleep deprivation. [auto_thumb width=”150″ height=”150″ link=”” lightbox=”true” align=”left” title=”” alt=”” iframe=”false” frame=”true” crop=”true”][/auto_thumb]

Contributed photo

The Surani family of Corpus Christi works together to help youths with public health issues. Most recently their It’s Your Life Foundation has won awards for a 3-D animated film they plan to use to help teens understand the risks of sleep deprivation. From left are: Zoya Surani, Saherish Surani, Salim Surani, Zehra Surani and Sara Surani. [auto_thumb width=”150″ height=”150″ link=”” lightbox=”true” align=”left” title=”” alt=”” iframe=”false” frame=”true” crop=”true”][/auto_thumb]

Rachel Denny Clow/Caller-Times

Ken Harrelson talks with students at West Oso Elementary School about not smoking during a program on Tuesday. [auto_thumb width=”150″ height=”150″ link=”” lightbox=”true” align=”left” title=”” alt=”” iframe=”false” frame=”true” crop=”true”][/auto_thumb]

Rachel Denny Clow/Caller-Times

Zehra Surani watches as students at West Oso Elementary School learn a dance during an anti-smoking program presented by the It’s Your Life Foundation on Tuesday. She and her family now are developing curriculum for teens regarding the importance of sleep. [auto_thumb width=”150″ height=”150″ link=”” lightbox=”true” align=”left” title=”” alt=”” iframe=”false” frame=”true” crop=”true”][/auto_thumb]

CORPUS CHRISTI — Sara Surani’s struggle to overcome sleep deprivation became a family affair: making a 3-D animated film with medieval characters, time travel and big city action that may soon help other teens.

“Sleep deprivation is a rising problem — no, a rising epidemic — among teens,” the 16-year-old Carroll High School sophomore said. “Now that I am aware of the extreme consequences, I strive to maintain better sleep habits.”

Sara is lucky, she said.

Her family understands the stress of her busy schedule, which includes piano lessons, Destination ImagiNation projects, student council and more.

It has helped them bond through a mutual passion: Making a difference for other students.

It’s Your Life Foundation was launched in 2005, when Sara’s father, local pulmonologist, sleep specialist and critical care physician, Dr. Salim Surani, brought home his work to get his family’s feedback regarding a anti-smoking campaign for elementary kids. Now after seeing too many teens with brain damage after late night crashes, and his own daughter’s fight against insomnia, Surani asked all his children to help reach their peers regarding the importance of proper sleep.

“It makes me feel very good to have my family involved,” Salim Surani said. “With any public health issue, we have to start with education before it happens. Sleep hygiene problems start in 8th or 9th grade, so our target is hitting them before that age.”

Reaching into the community to help children make better choices began at the doc’s expense. About $250,000 later, his foundation has delivered its Ante Tobacco message to more than 40,000 elementary students in 10 area school districts with the voice of a blue cartoon ant. Surani attributes the success to other health industry and community partners, who bolstered funding and provided volunteers to go into classrooms.

The foundation’s new project is kNIGHTS — for Keep Nurturing & Inspiring Good Habits in Teen Sleep.

It cost about $3,000 a minute to produce its 19-minute 3-D animated film, which trails two medieval friends through time travel to a large city where they drink caffeine, play video games and stay up through the night. They are fraught with exhaustion, become combative and suffer other impacts of sleep deprivation. The film is being previewed for the public at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s Warren Theater.

“To our knowledge, this is the first 3-D animated education video on sleep in the world,” said Zehra Surani, the doctor’s wife and foundation board member.

After the film preview event, the group will start using it in presentations beginning in August at area schools, she said.

Sara and her friend Simone Menezes started researching sleep problems, before working with other friends and Sara’s sisters to write the screenplay.

“We believe the film appeals to the present interests of the audience we’re targeting,” Sara said. “There are many medieval games, and knights catch young people’s attention. We hope they are so engaged in the characters that they don’t realize they’re learning.”

The girls are excited about the impact their work can have, Menezes, 16, said.

“As a teen helping to educate other teens,” Simone said, “I hope our work installs in others the importance of good sleep habits, in an interesting and engaging way.”

The animated film was directed by Corpus Christi award-winning moviemaker Nikola Knez, who has more than 300 films to his credit. Voices were done by students of the university’s theater department.

The project kNIGHTS’ film won two gold Remi Awards April 21 at WorldFest, Houston International Film Festival, under Knez’s iFilms LLC of Corpus Christi. One was for Knez’s animation and the other for the screenplay written by Sara, her sisters, Simone and their friends.

“We’re all different ages and from different schools,” said Saherish Surani, 13, a 7th grader at Baker Middle School. “We believe the movie is well-rounded from that, and it feels good knowing we’re giving back to our community.”

Zoya Surani, 11, helped write lyrics, not only for the kNIGHTS film’s theme song, but the “Be smart, don’t start” Ante Smoking CD, used to deter younger grade school students from tobacco.

“I love writing,” Zoya said. “Sometimes it just comes to me, and I have to write it down. I think it’s the way our characters transport through time that will capture people my age.”

The film’s purpose is simple: to stress the importance of sleep for teens.

Studies by the National Sleep Foundation suggest that in addition to an increased risk of a car crash, sleep deprivation in teens and adolescents contributes to poor grades, obesity and other health-related problems, as well as sleep disorders including narcolepsy, insomnia, restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea.

It can also prompt a teen’s worst social nightmare: pimples and acne.

Research shows most teens function best with 9 1/4 hours sleep nightly, and as few as 15 percent of teens report sleeping more than 8 hours on school nights. Recommendations include avoiding caffeine late in the day; teen’s making their bedroom a cool, dark and comfy sleep haven; and trying to keep wake and sleep times consistent, even on weekends.

The Suranis are pleased their dedication to tolerance and diversity prompted their children to make the film.

“As a parent,” Salim Surani said, “it is important to me to pass the passion to help the community to our kids. They make me proud.”

© 2012 Corpus Christi Caller Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


It’s Your Life walk and run promotes fitness, anti-smoking message

Friday, February 10, 2012

CORPUS CHRISTI A walk and run Saturday is aiming to improve community health with a two-pronged approach: getting hundreds of people actively enjoying downtown and stopping local kids from smoking.

Funds raised by the It’s Your Life 2-mile walk and 5K run support the Ante Tobacco Education Program, a prevention effort headed by local pulmonologist Salim Surani. After seeing new adults each week with smoking-related lung cancer who still couldn’t shake the tobacco habit, Surani began focusing on keeping kids from starting.

“On average, people take their first puff of a cigarette between sixth and seventh grade, so prevention has to start before that,” he said. “That’s why we focus on elementary school.”

His prevention effort turned into the nonprofit It’s Your Life Foundation, which since 2005 has shared the Ante Tobacco message with more than 40,000 first-, second- and third-grade students in 10 Corpus Christi area school districts. Surani has largely funded It’s Your Life with his money, but as the program has grown, donations and funds from the walk/run help reach more children.

Volunteers from the medical community deliver the Ante Tobacco message, which features a video starring Tinku the talking ant.

“He teaches kids to say ‘no’ the first time and every time,” said Diane Kaiser, administrator at Dubuis Health System.

For resisting the temptation to use tobacco, Tinku is rewarded with the strength to carry things heavier than he is. Question and answer time follows the presentations, and the students receive pencils, stickers and a book featuring Tinku.

If a child doesn’t try smoking, the program’s work is done, Surani said. For many, it seems the message is sinking in already.

“The unexpected part of the program is that the kids are becoming ambassadors,” Surani said. “When a relative reaches for a pack of cigarettes, there are kids who say, ‘Grandpa, it’s bad.’ It’s very tough to take a cigarette when your grandchild is there telling you it’s bad.”


Program aims to discourage smoking

Effort intends to persuade kids not to adopt habit

By Rachel Denny Clow
Originally published 10:18 p.m., October 20, 2008
Updated 10:18 p.m., October 20, 2008

Mayor Henry Garrett (from left) and Barbara Flato give William McDonald, Christus Spohn Hospital Shoreline COO, a a certificate of appreciation.

Tinku the talking ant is the mascot for the AntE Tobacco Campaign. The aim is to reach young children and persuade them not to take up the health-threatening habit of smoking. Photos by Rachel Denny Clow/Caller-Times

Rachel Denny Clow/Caller-Times Tinku the talking ant is the mascot for the AntE Tobacco Campaign.


To volunteer, donate, or for more information on the It’s Your Life Foundation or the Ante Tobacco Campaign, call 885-7722 or go to

An anti-smoking campaign featuring a cartoon ant named Tinku that started with four volunteers four years ago is now 75 strong, with nurses, physicians, medical students and other volunteers getting out the message.

The AntE Tobacco Campaign received a boost Monday with more than $75,000 in donations going toward the It’s Your Life Foundation, a nonprofit formed in response to the growing campaign.

Dr. Salim Surani and his wife Zehra Surani, who started the program locally, donated $50,000; Christus Spohn Health System donated $15,000; and several other local groups also donated to the campaign.

The money will be used to update and produce a new video and workbooks, purchase additional audio/visual equipment and distribute copies of the materials to reach more children in coming years.

“We want to prevent the first puff,” Salim Surani said. “The motto is ‘Say no to smoking the first time and every time.'”

The program targets elementary-aged children from the first to third grade in an effort to prevent a bad habit before it starts. Students in Corpus Christi, Flour Bluff, Wood River, Falfurrius, Kingsville, San Diego and other locations have received the information, and the plan is to expand the lessons statewide.

“It started out very small,” said Barbara Flato, a foundation board member and employee of Christus Spohn Health System. “It’s incredible how many kids we’ve reached in the last few years. If we can keep just one from smoking, it’s worth it.”

The program features Tinku the ant, his friends and his family, who learn about the dangers of tobacco during a journey in which they face obstacles such as a tobacco-pushing devil ant that tries to tempt the group to smoke. The ants turn down the tobacco and are rewarded by a fairy who grants them the power to carry items greater than their own weight.


Call 885-7722 or go to

By the numbers

Area students reached through the AntE Tobacco Campaign

2005-2006: 3,562
2006-2007: 4,953
2007-2008: 9,356
2008 to date: 5,000

Source: It’s Your Life Foundation

Contact Rachel Denny Clow at 886-4358 or


Doctor’s orders: Don’t smoke

Kids learn how tobacco use can affect their health

Heather Ann White Caller-Times
Monday, December 25, 2006

FALFURRIAS – Even though about half the 130 Lasater School first-graders didn’t know what lung cancer was, they knew enough that they didn’t like the sound of it.

“Can cigarette smoking cause cancer? Can tobacco turn your lungs black? Can cigarette smoke make you sick?” asked physician assistant Brenda Parrish. “Is it OK for adults to smoke?”

The students soon would learn the answers as the school’s cafeteria turned into a theater.

Enter Tinku the ant, his friends and his family, who go on a journey and learn about the dangers of tobacco in the film “Ante Tobacco.” Tinku and his crew are faced with obstacles on their journey including a tobacco-pushing devil ant that tries to tempt the group to smoke. The ants turn down the tobacco and are rewarded by a fairy who grants the ants the power to carry items greater than their own weight.

The students sat captivated as they watched the movie, which comes with a colorful, 40-page book. The film is part of Dr. Salim Surani’s anti-tobacco campaign. Surani, who is board certified in internal, pulmonary and sleep medicine, began the campaign 1 1/2 years ago and has visited about 5,000 students in first through third grades in the Corpus Christi and surrounding school districts.

Surani and a team of about eight volunteers travel to the schools, talk to the children about tobacco use and show the film. The students also take quizzes before and after the movie to demonstrate what knowledge they’ve gained about tobacco, Surani said.

The doctor said he started the campaign because of his older patients who suffer from diseases caused by tobacco such as emphysema and lung cancer. By teaching the children about the harms of tobacco at a young age, he’s hoping they will never smoke and develop similar health issues, he said.

“I see a lot of folks dying,” Surani said. “Smoking is more addicting than heroin or marijuana. And now is the time to teach them. We’d never teach our kids as a teenager that stealing is bad, we teach them when they’re young. They’re like a sponge, and they need to know.”

Surani, who did not write the books or film, saw the books while researching for his campaign and received the copyright waiver from The CHEST Foundation, an international medical society and branch of the American College of Chest Physicians. Surani pays for the copies of the movies and books himself. His hard work earned him the CHEST Foundation Ambassadors Group 2006 Humanitarian Award – an award for volunteer work – for the campaign.

“The issue is not winning the award,” he said. “When you go with the kids, that’s the award. If I can have a few of these kids not smoke, that’s the biggest award. There’s no more satisfaction.”

Parrish, an ex-smoker, said nothing is more important than teaching students about the dangers of tobacco use. She already has begun to see the campaign change the children’s’ attitudes after working with Surani for two months.

“You can get statistics all day long. Kids are starting to smoke earlier and earlier,” she said. “But the children are beginning to know what tobacco is. They’re becoming more and more aware of it.”

According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating youth about tobacco use, 900 million packs of cigarettes are consumed by kids each year. The organization’s research also shows that 21.6 percent of high school boys and 21.8 percent of high school girls are current smokers.

Seven-year-old Gabby Chavera knows firsthand that smoking is bad and can’t stand second-hand smoke.

“It burns my nose because I have asthma,” she said.

The first-grader from Lasater School said she liked the movie and was excited to take the book home.

Gabby, whose parents smoke, said she would always say no to tobacco and cigarettes.

“Cigarettes can make you sick,” she said, reciting what she learned from the film. “Don’t smoke cigarettes ’cause you’re lungs are going to be black.”

Contact Heather Ann White at 886-3794 or whiteh@


Program counters the cartoon threat

Anti-smoking campaign uses animated tool

Anthony Martinez Beven Caller-Times
Saturday, June 24, 2006

The message is colorful, fun and easy to understand: Tobacco use is addictive and can lead to serious health complications. Area health advocates are hoping those words will stick with local children throughout their teens and into adulthood.

Unveiled on Friday at the Christus Spohn Cancer Center, the Anti-Tobacco Targeting Children campaign centers on a DVD cartoon story line laced with anti-tobacco messages.

Dr. Salim Surani, a local lung specialist heading the campaign, said because cigarette companies in the past have used popular cartoon characters, such as Joe Camel, in their marketing strategies, it is necessary to curtail “cool” images of smoking and other tobacco use with positive cartoon images.

And while tobacco has been made popular through media campaigns, studies have shown that kids also learn about tobacco use from peers, family members and role models, such as celebrities, said Dr. Kalpalatha Guntupalli, creator of the anti-tobacco DVD and professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

The campaign specifically targets area children in 1st through 3rd grades. Surani said the DVD has already been shown to grade schoolers in the Flour Bluff Independent School District and will soon be presented to Corpus Christi Independent School District students.

“Every day, 4,000 children start smoking,” Surani said. He added early intervention and behavioral may reduce the possibility of tobacco use later in life. “We want to get down to the level of the kids and try to educate.”

Debbie Wood, vice president of people and culture for Christus Spohn Health System, said this campaign will be a definite benefit to the community.

“I think the more folks that are aware of the dangers of these products, the less likely they are to try them at an early age,” Wood said.

Contact Anthony Martinez Beven at 886-3792

or bevena@