Imagine sending your kids to school on the first day of the new academic year without any supplies: no backpack, no pencils, nothing. At Baltimore Highlands Elementary School in Lansdowne, this scenario is a reality for too many students. When Gilman senior Anuj Khandelwal first learned about the needs of the students who attended a school that’s about 10 miles from his own—but a world apart in many respects—he staunchly refused to accept that it was okay.
Anuj’s decision to reach out to the Baltimore elementary school had nothing to do with a community service requirement. In fact, when he initiated the wildly successful fundraising project dubbed “Hope for Highlands” to raise money for the students’ school supplies, he had already met and exceeded his 50-hour service graduation requirement. But, as Anuj has since proven, his community service work was only just beginning.
Anuj initiated a fundraising project during the summer of 2010 that has burgeoned into something much bigger. Now, it’s a community-wide project that’s generated a total of $16,452 with the support of student leaders from several independent schools; committed donors; and The Open Heart Project, Inc, a 501(c)(3) public charitable foundation that adopted the project, dubbed Hope for Highlands, as one of its “official” programs. It all stemmed from the simple yet powerful desire of a budding philanthropist-slash-entrepreneur who wanted to give back.
“My family has instilled in me the value of giving back. What they’ve taught me is right in line with what Gilman teaches you: that an individual’s success is nothing if it doesn’t benefit other people,” Anuj said, sounding much older than the 17-year-old he is. Like his words, Anuj’s actions carry with them a level of maturity that belie his age.
Working independently, Anuj began in earnest during the summer of 2010 to combat the insufficient amount of school supplies that many students at Baltimore Highlands Elementary would otherwise be facing come fall.
Starting small, Anuj began by distributing flyers in and around his Severna Park community and emailing friends and family to ask for support. By the summer’s end, he had collected school supplies for over 90 students at Baltimore Highlands Elementary. Seeing how successful his own efforts were, Anuj decided to build on the momentum.
The following summer brought an even more ambitious scope of activity for the project. By summer break, Anuj had enlisted support for Hope for Highlands from “student representatives”—teenagers he knew from Gilman, McDonogh, the Key School, St. Mary’s, and St. Paul’s who took the project as seriously as he did.
With eight students on board, Hope for Highlands set its 2011 summer goal at $5,000 in supplies and monetary donations. With the additional manpower, Anuj hoped to be able to provide some funding for field trips in addition to school supplies. That summer, in addition to individual donations, several major retailers and organizations—including Harbor Hospital, Sears, Costco, and others—supported the cause. Once again, the project exceeded its goals.
Back at school in the fall of 2011, the success of the summer initiative still fresh, Anuj stood before the entire Gilman Upper School at an assembly and introduced them to Hope for Highlands. Anuj calls the outpouring of support for the project from fellow members of the Gilman community humbling. Soon after his speech, bins placed in the lobby overflowed with school supplies. Fundraising drives at Gilman and other participating schools continue to support the project.
As the project continues to grow, so do Anuj’s ideas about its long-term goals. He wants to reach even deeper into the community and to establish a formal relationship between students and teachers from independent schools with those of Title 1 schools, such as Baltimore Highlands Elementary, which receive federal funding because a majority of its students come from low-income families.
Anuj’s visionary work has not gone unnoticed. A complete list of the awards he’s earned is too long to mention. Some highlights include an Official Citation by the Maryland Senate, the Prudential Spirit of Community Award, the President’s Volunteer Service Awards, and an Official Recognition Day in Anne Arundel County, courtesy of the County Executive.
“He’s an extraordinary young man,” said Brian Williams, principal at Highland Elementary. “What’s most inspiring about this project is that it’s entirely run by students.”
Next fall, as the student who started this growing initiative as a sophomore in high school heads to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study engineering, dozens, if not hundreds, of elementary students will begin their school year with basic school supplies, thanks to Hope for Highlands. It won’t be the last year that Hope for Highlands provides support for local students.
“It’s important to me to make sure this project has a well-founded base for next year. With some of the younger students we have right now [supporting the initiative], we’re pretty confident,” Anuj said.
For more information on Hope for Highlands or to donate, visit http://hopeforhighlands.org/.
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