Neha Chawla

This feature is told from the perspective of the Founders of the Kaplana Chawla Foundation: Udai Chawla is an Entrepreneurship student at Drexel University, Megha Chawla is a grad student studying Development Neuroscience and Psychopathology at UCL ( University college of London) and Neha Chawla is a Real Estate Salesperson at Sotheby’s International Realty at the Upper East Side office in New York City.

How and why did you start the Kalpana Chawla Foundation?

We have always wanted to start this foundation in memory of our aunt Kalpana (my Father’s sister), who was lost in the Columbia STS 107 accident.  However, we never felt like we were ready. This past year marked the 13th year since the accident and we realized that we really needed to do something to ensure her memory lives on. She is a national hero in India, as well as the United States, and it would be a shame if we did not take her name forward. She never had any kids and treated us like her own children, so we felt it was our duty to create this foundation.

How did this idea of helping children (in particular, Sandeepa, the young girl your organization is supporting) come about?

Kalpana was always very interested in education. She particularly placed a huge amount of importance on the education of girls. She went against the “system” in India at a very young age. She also faced many hurdles in Engineering school in Punjab (PEC).  Her self-motivation and determination really helped her succeed. However, in India, there are so many children who do not have a means to primary and secondary education. Since they cannot even afford to go to high school, they obviously do not end up getting a chance to go to college. We believe that this lack of access to education is the root of many problems and needs to be fixed.

With the Kalpana Chawla Family Foundation, we want to give young girls a chance to fulfill their dreams by empowering them with the basic middle and high school education. We are working with Radico Welfare School in New Delhi, which is based near the Kalkaji Slum area. It is an honest establishment run with a lot of love and care. They empower young children to get admitted into government run schools for middle to high school. We chose Sandeepa because she is a well-rounded and ambitious student who was able to get accepted to a public school in Delhi with the help of the support she received at Radico. Her extracurricular performance and interest (sports, art and music) is as good as her academics and we believe that with our support she is capable of great things. She has incredible perseverance and ambition, and we want to support the children that appreciate our help. 

How does your aunt’s legacy inspire you and your charitable work?

She inspires us to work hard and realize that no matter where you come from, quite literally, even the sky is not the limit. She came from a small town in Punjab, India and against all odds made it out to space.  Twice! We want to empower girls to be able to dream big dreams and then achieve them!

What was the first charitable gift you ever gave?

I can’t remember the first monetary gift I ever gave, however I did volunteer and help kids out after school to study for tests at Radico Welfare School for a few months in 2012. The experience made me realize that the institution is run with a lot of love, care and above all, honesty.

Who inspires and motivates you?

I respect the numerous young people with Indian heritage who have put their names and their country’s name on the map. Be it entrepreneurs, actors, fashion designers, chefs. However, the children that are born into poverty, and against all odds are able to achieve their dreams, are a true inspiration. The media doesn’t talk about them, we don’t know their names, and they don’t even have government issued IDs. They are born into certain circumstances and create their own path and that is extremely motivating.

In 5, 10 years down the line, where do you see the Foundation?

Ideally we would like to support as many young girls as possible. We are already in the process of featuring our second nominee on the website, because we have achieved close to 70% of the goal we had set for Sandeepa’s education. Hopefully, in the next 10 years the foundation would have supported at least 100 girls through school and college and helped them kick start their careers.

What advice do you have for others who are hoping to one day start their own non-profit?

My suggestion would be to just get it started. There will always be changes along the way and since it is a learning process as well, there in no need to fear imperfection. As long as you can make a difference, why shouldn’t you?

Photo: Neha with her Aunt

Sara Schenkel


Sara Schenkel is a development professional with experience at several nonprofits, including the arts and Jewish organizations. Based in the Philadelphia area, she enjoys writing and music. Sara is a graduate of Muhlenberg College where she obtained her Bachelor of Arts in Film Studies with a double minor in Creative Writing and Religion Studies.

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