If anyone is proof that one person can make a difference, it’s 16-year-old Neha Gupta. At the age of 9 years old, she started Empower Orphans, a grassroots campaign that aims to make the lives of orphaned and abandoned children better all over the globe. And her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed—she’s landed a slew of kudos including World of Children Award, Gold Level President’s Volunteer Service Award, Philadelphia 76ers Hometown Hero Award, and many others.
See Neha’s powerful YouTube Video and read our Q&A below:
Your frequent trips to India with your family sparked your idea for Empower Orphans when you were just nine years old. What did you see and experience that led you to take action?
Neha: My grandparents live in India, and I have visited the country since I was a baby. As part of these trips, I would accompany my parents while they volunteered at an orphanage in my grandparent’s hometown. Over the years, I established a rapport with and befriended the children who lived there.
On one such trip when I was nine years old, I was finally able to comprehend the situation that these orphaned children were in—the fact that they had absolutely no future. The importance of education has always been drilled into me. I was appalled to realize that these children would never break free of the cycle of poverty as they did not have the means to even a basic education or healthcare. They had no one in the entire world to love them. Over the years, the children had shared their dreams with me and had told me how they longed to make something of their lives. I could see the fear in their eyes when they discussed how they would be forced to leave the orphanage at 16. They had nowhere to go, no one to turn to, and no education to aid them with a career.
This triggered a call to action for me, as in my opinion, every child deserves the right to an education, basic healthcare, and most importantly hope. To realize my goals, I formed a non-profit organization (Empower Orphans). The goal of Empower Orphans is to create self sufficiency among orphaned and under privileged children through education and healthcare. To-date, the organization has raised over $700,000 and impacted the lives of 15,000 children.
The organization has also expanded its efforts over the last seven years; tell us about that.
Neha: Although Empower Orphans started with the goal of helping orphans in India, we have expanded our activities to support:
- Orphaned children in the United States
- Underprivileged children (India and the United States): The parents of these children are predominantly maids and manual laborers, and the majority live at or below the poverty line. They are unable to afford regular education or healthcare for their children.
- Lower caste children (India): The majority of families living under the poverty line belong to the lower castes—an evil still in prevalence. Given society structures, children born to these families have little (if any) means of gaining an education and breaking the cycle of poverty. Empower Orphans has leveraged its influence in gaining admission for these children into schools and sponsoring their education.
- Critically at-risk girls (India): To mitigate the risk of critically at-risk girls entering into prostitution, Empower Orphans provides them with technical skills (sewing, tailoring) and supplies several of them with sewing machines, enabling them to start their own small businesses.
- Sexually abused children (USA): We provide small comforts to these children while they go through the judicial/criminal process.
A big part of Empower Orphans is raising funds toward education and healthcare—your own team has raised more than $646,897! What are some of the secrets to successful fundraising? Any dos and don’ts that you’ve learned along the way?
Neha: Raising funds, especially in the current economic climate, is not at all easy. I have had some successful fundraisers and some not so successful. The key to success is planning, planning, and more planning. Further, it is critical to not get disheartened but continue to persevere.
In general, fundraisers that have a specific project at the core, along with a monetary goal, tend to be more successful. Keeping the fundraising event simple is also vital. Having a dedicated base of volunteers is absolutely essential; otherwise you end up doing all the work yourself. It is also imperative to determine the reasons why a person is volunteering and whether they are truly passionate about the cause. In early fundraisers, I had difficulty delegating but hopefully I have overcome this challenge.
Many of your projects center around improving conditions at schools. How do you pinpoint the schools to help? How long does a project typically take and what’s your involvement in overseeing and facilitating it?
Neha: The operating principle of Empower Orphans has been to verify and measure the impact of its efforts. Consequently, our projects are located in areas where we have the ability to personally evaluate project progress. Our projects are concentrated to two areas—my grandparents’ hometown in India and the Greater Philadelphia region, where I live. As my grandparents and extended family live in Northern India, they regularly verify that all donations and services are being utilized by and for the children and that there is no embezzlement. Additionally, my parents and I visit India every year to conduct projects and evaluate project progress. As I live in the Philadelphia region, project monitoring is feasible firsthand. We continually receive requests to support underprivileged children in Africa and other parts of Asia. However, we have held off activating efforts within these regions until we have a monitoring process in place.
Our projects could last a few days or an entire year. Many of our projects in India are long-term projects where we set up computer centers and then monitor the progress of the children. I am involved with almost every aspect of the project, from identifying the need, planning the project, organizing volunteers, fundraising, traveling to the project location in India or US, implementing the project, and finally implementing a project monitoring process.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered as the head of a growing non-profit? Any advice for others doing the same?
Neha: As a 9-year-old who was starting a non-profit organization, my greatest challenge was to be taken seriously by adults. Many adults simply scoffed and told me that I was being naïve for thinking that I could make a difference, while others simply humored me and thought that my mission was “cute.” I would stress that I did not want to change the world, and that all I wanted to do was make a very small difference. Over time people realized that I was truly passionate about my cause and started contributing towards my efforts to raise money.
I still face many challenges and I am still learning how best to overcome them. So, it is very difficult for me to advise others. All I can say is to be passionate about your cause and that ONE person can truly make a difference.
Your donations and efforts have changed many lives. How has starting Empower Orphans changed your own life and goals?
Neha: The exposure and experience I have gained through starting and growing Empower Orphans is unparalleled. My activities have provided me with experiences that have led me into becoming a mature, confident, and empathetic young woman. I have gained leadership skills through volunteer recruitment, project planning, and management. Further, I have gained financial, marketing, and sales skills. Accepting rejection and persevering despite it has been one of the most important lessons I have learned. My travels and interaction with other individuals involved with similar activities have offered me the opportunity to be exposed me a myriad of socio-economic conditions faced by children across the globe. I am able to compare and contrast these to conditions with those that exist in the United States. I am also very privileged to have established friendships with amazing people.
Have you traveled abroad and been inspired to help others? Tell us about your experience in the comment section!
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