The first time I felt alone was the summer before eighth grade.
I was sitting on a crowded train in India and staring out the window.
Gleaming skyscrapers and sprawling malls dotted the new Delhi skyline, and I was in awe. In just a few seconds, the scene transformed into acres of destitution, and I was left in disbelief. Makeshift homes, comprised of four sticks and a canopy drape, crisscrossed the area. Scrawny children trudged wearily in the oppressive sun, carrying water for their “homes” or finding a temporary place to cool under trees. I saw a girl traipsed through the slums – her clothes tattered, her face weather beaten. For a second our eyes met, then the train sped away.
In that moment, I felt isolated. I could not empathize with the rich and glittery lifestyle of those living in New Delhi, nor could I comprehend the heartbreaking poverty that lay spread out in front of me. The glass window separated me from reality — and I was alone.
I saw myself as a useless bystander.
When I went home from my trip that summer, I shared my experience with three of my closest friends. Suddenly we were coming up with actual solutions to these problems. Maybe we could host a fundraiser and donate the proceeds or start a collection drive.
Our thoughts quickly transformed into ideas, and our ideas into actions. Within a few weeks, we started a nonprofit service club called Youtopia (a play on the quote “be the change “you” wish to see in the world”). Our mission was to improve education and healthcare both globally and locally.
Our ideas were labeled as “too lofty”; many small businesses were skeptical in sponsoring this “business” started by four middle school girls, and none of us really had any prior knowledge about how to put together a fundraiser. Yet we persisted. By the end of eighth grade, we executed our first event: a 5K-run, raising over $10,000.
The proceeds provided education and shelter for fifty children and covered the cost to hire an educational guidance counselor for teenagers. One girl we helped had been abandoned by her parents as an infant, and when the school found her, they named her “Mili”, which means “found” in Hindi. Witnessing stories of children such as Mili strengthened my resolve to create a positive social impact. I was no longer a bystander.
Since its inception four years ago, Youtopia has dramatically shaped my goals. To date, we have held six different events (such as 5Ks, galas, and fundraisers), and raised over $45,000.
Convincing people to part with their money is not for the faint of heart! Raising funds for causes ranging from educating underprivileged children to the National Parkinson’s Foundation has changed me forever. I am a salesperson, convincing businesses to part with their precious advertising dollars. I am a politician, motivating volunteers to come bright and early for a 5K or stay back for a cleanup after a gala. I am a meticulous event planner, with master checklists of tasks which I track diligently. I am a stingy accountant, planning the budget and tracking expenses. And I am a dreamer who will continue to work to make a difference in the lives of people and make our world more fair and equitable for all.
Youtopia has instilled in me the confidence to create social impact, which has become my lifelong goal. Organizing and planning events for Youtopia has taught me the value community outreach, logistical planning, and management. Our impact has made me feel part of a community larger than the confines of my small-town life. The sense of reward that comes with giving back to the community is only part of the gratification I receive; the rest lies in seeing our work actually assist those in need, inspiring others to also effect change, and developing plans to continue our journey in contributing to a positive social impact.
Shefali will attend Columbia University in the fall to study mathematics and economics.