She’s nuts about “fashion and going to parties” and also mouths off to her parents every now and then, but Neha Gupta is far from your ordinary teenager. The 18-year-old Indian-American is the founder and chief driving force behind the non-profit Empower Orphans, and the winner of this year’s International Children’s Peace Prize (Malala Yousafzai won it last year). Through her organization, Gupta has raised over $1 million to improve the lives of “under-served” children, in India and the US, by setting up libraries, computer labs, health camps, and sponsoring education, even surgeries for polio victims.
Making yourself useful has been a valued family tradition — Gupta was spending annual visits to her grandparents’ home in India volunteering at orphanages way before she came up with the idea of Empower Orphans in 2005, at the age of nine. “I pictured myself in rural India, being abandoned by the two people I loved most and sleeping on a cold floor. The children were my age and ethnicity, and yet, poverty had stripped them of hope. They would likely never escape its clutches because they lacked access to education and basic health care.” Along with global expansion plans, Gupta intends to pursue her passion for service by becoming a pediatric doctor.
That said, she’s not about to give up on girlie nights out and movie marathons anytime soon — just unlike most teenagers (and adults too), she’s found that rare, elusive thing: a calling. “I know what my passion is: giving hope to others and enabling them to rise from their struggles. One of my favourite proverbs is ‘Throw your heart out in front of you, and run ahead to catch it’. I’ve been chasing my heart for many years now.”