National Adoption Month

How A Family Tradition Led Her To Raise Millions For Orphans Around The World

Neha Gupta helped thousands of children and received the International Children’s Peace Prize — all before she graduated high school.

As far back as she can remember, Neha Gupta spent her birthdays at an orphanage in India. Her grandparents insisted that if someone was to receive gifts on his or her birthday, part of that day must be spent bringing food to a nearby orphanage. That family tradition sent Gupta down a path that led to the founding of her own nonprofit at nine years old and winning the International Children's Peace Prize at 18. It continues to shape her life to this day.

Gupta told A Plus that during those birthdays spent at the orphanage, even at a young age, she realized that her life was different from the children she visited there. She saw that she was able to go to school, while they received no education. She understood that she was able to visit a doctor if she fell ill, while there was no money for such expenses as the orphanage. But she says it was when she was nine years old that she fully understood the implications of what those differences meant.

"I could understand that these kids were very impoverished," she said. "But it was when I was nine that I could actually place myself in their shoes."

Gupta returned from India that year with a mission. She gathered the toys from her room and held a garage sale. She made crafts and sold them to her neighbors. Dollar by dollar, Gupta raised money for the orphanage to be able to buy books, build classrooms, equip computer labs and supply health exams, and she eventually founded a nonprofit, Empower Orphans, to encompass all of the work.

"At that age, you really think about how you, yourself, can make an impact," Gupta said. "You use whatever resources are available." 

Gupta, second from right, with other members of the Empower Orphans Penn State Chapter at a project they organized in the community. 
Gupta, second from right, with other members of the Empower Orphans Penn State Chapter at a project they organized in the community.  Neha Gupta / Empower Orphans

Gupta has come a long way since then. When she was in middle school, Gupta expanded the mission of Empower Orphans to also include kids in the foster care system in the U.S. Penn State, where Gupta is currently a senior, hosts the first campus chapter of the organization. To-date, Empower Orphans has raised over $2.6 million and impacted 30,000 children. 

Gupta is a big believer in what she calls the "ripple effect," that is, the power of one individual helping another who in turns helps another. Focusing on this model of "youth inspiring other youth," she hopes to expand Empower Orphans to other colleges and universities to create greater ripples of change in the foster care and orphanage systems at home and abroad.

In India, children are forced to leave the orphanage at the age of 16. Gupta hopes that the programs Empower Orphans offers help children be able to support themselves when that time comes. To do so, the organization is developing programs focused on entrepreneurship, including supplying girls with sewing machines to help them start their own sewing business and creating a partnership with Deloitte in which employees of the consulting company traveled to India and held an entrepreneurial workshop. 

"If anything, one thing that we do is we try to empower these young kids and these young women," Gupta said. "That's not something they're going to learn in an orphanage."

Neha Gupta / Empower Orphans

While Gupta has seen some children be adopted out of the orphanages, she believes there needs to be more awareness that such adoptions are possible. She recalls a girl who she became attached to at an orphanage who was supposed to be adopted, and then her disappointed a year later when she returned to the same orphanage a year later and saw the same girl was still there after the adoption had fallen through. 

To ABC News, Gupta described herself as someone who just "found her calling early in life." In 2014, Gupta was the first American to be recognized by KidsRights Foundation with the International Children's Peace Prize, an honor that the year before had gone to Malala Yousafzai

"It was such an honor to be able to know that all of the work over the years has come to this point where we've actually been able to make a difference," Gupta said.

But Gupta isn't one to sit on her laurels. Gupta and the Penn State Empower Orphans chapter are currently planning a trip to Uganda to work in orphanages there. She said herself and the other Children's Peace Prize recipients have a conference call once a month where they talk about different issues and make plans for the future. Gupta says the calls and seeing her work come to fruition help keep her encouraged to continue. 

"Every time I go to a center to do a project, I'm re-inspired to want to do more," she said. "Every time that you do something that you really enjoy, you are reminded why you do it, it makes you remember how passionate you are." 

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