While most nine-year-olds were prioritizing playtime and toys over everything, young Neha Gupta was starting a non-profit organization. In fact, nine years later, Gupta would become the first American to win the International Children’s Peace Prize, following in the footsteps of Malala Yousafzai.
Gupta’s organization, Empower Orphans, has raised more than $2 million for orphans around the world and motivated countless individuals to help provide kids with access to education, better healthcare, food and clothing. Her passionate efforts have changed the lives and improved the rights of tens of thousands of orphaned children around the world, and she’s inspired youth to become positive change-makers and heroes for them. On top her work with Empower Orphans, Gupta is a founding member of the Kidsrights Youngsters, which has helped tackle issues of child slavery, child trafficking and child labor by placing them in the 2030 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. Basically, she’s killin’ it.
So, let’s backtrack: How did a tiny nine-year-old develop such a global, mature mindset that ended up changing the course of her life and instigating a powerful ripple effect on the lives of others? While growing up, Gupta’s family took trips to India where they would visit her grandparents and a local orphanage. Her family wanted her to experience firsthand the importance of giving back to the community, and she was encouraged to selflessly give food and gifts to orphans, even on her birthday. By her ninth year, with her experiences of interacting and playing with kids who were growing up in humbling, polar-opposite life conditions, she began to understand them on a deep, empathetic level.
“I started comparing small parts of our lives,” says Gupta. “I remember talking to a group of girls who were my age and finding out that they couldn’t go to school or go to a doctor if they got sick.” Not only did Gupta hone in on these differences, but she was stunned by the big picture of what these kids’ futures, without intervention, would most likely look like. “I’ve always been a very ambitious person who wants to do a lot of things. But, I found out that in India, once orphans are sixteen, they’re kicked out of the orphanages and must fend for themselves on the streets. That terrified me. I made it my responsibility to help these kids, and it expanded from there,” she says.
With support from her family, despite their initial confusion when she told them that she wanted to sell all of her toys to raise money, Gupta started from the ground up by fundraising through garage sales and selling handmade crafts. But, despite how obviously her outlook made sense to the young philanthropist, her peers consistently questioned why she was taking action. “There were times when I was very down. I thought to myself, ‘Should I even continue doing this, if I’m getting so much negative feedback? Even my friends are making fun of me.’” However, Gupta turned this doubt into determination and used it to fuel her mission. “I realized I needed to help the other students understand why I was doing what I was. I tried to get the other kids my age to understand the plight of these kids and to want to take action. Once I was able to understand how to do that, I realized, ‘You know what? We can make a huge impact.’”
By planting seeds of empathy in the individuals around her, the Penn State student began to see the changes that she had dreamed about since she was a little girl come to life. And, in her visits to the orphanages she helped finance, Gupta found that the channel of giving back didn’t just flow in one direction; the orphans were teaching her something. “When I would go India, I would see kids who were lying on the side of the road and coming up to our car, begging for food. That perspective taught me to really appreciate every single thing you have and never take anything for granted. Sometimes it’s the really small things you overlook that can actually change somebody’s life.”
Gupta is continuously re-inspired by the fact that, although these kids find themselves in extremely unfortunate circumstances, each one has the yearning and capability of achieving—it’s just a matter of a little help. “Every single person has potential,” she says, “whether they have the certain tools or not. With some help and some hope, anyone is able to accomplish whatever they want in life. I’ve always believed it’s our responsibility to help these people because they’re often forgotten, but they really are able to achieve incredible things.”
It’s not just in the context of the kids that Gupta realizes the positive effects of struggle; she has experienced for herself that unfavorable conditions can unearth hidden potential, as well as change the course of one’s future. About three years ago, she suffered from a painful concussion. “It was the worst I’ve ever felt in my life, but I was still getting on stage and doing public speaking events, because I knew how important it was to do and how passionate I was about Empower Orphans. Most people don’t know how incredibly concussed I was during that time.” Not only did Gupta have the strength to keep showing up despite her pain, but she even found a silver-lining in her injury—developing the goal to become a doctor who specializes in brain injury and recovery. The rising senior, who is a Neuroscience major, would especially love to lead overseas trips with other doctors and hold medical camps. “I can’t imagine not helping other people for the rest of my life,” she says.
So far, at twenty years old, Gupta’s life emulates her motto: Convert your empathy into action, and let those actions ripple out to inspire other people. She has experienced the limitlessness of what can happen when a single person has an idea that’s charged with passion, and her continuous work toward creating a better world is an inspiration to anyone who dreams of doing the same. Her favorite quote by Margaret Mead holds true—“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Want to get involved? If you’re interested in starting a chapter of Empower Orphans at your school, contact Neha Gupta at firstname.lastname@example.org