Sharwani Kota, an Indian American teenager from New Jersey, started Hope4Spandana, a nonprofit charitable organization, back when she was in the eighth grade as a way to give back to society. Now Sharwani, a high school junior, and her team regularly organize musical performances to donate funds to their school in India, named Spandana, and to other autism charities around the world.
Kota began her organization by first conducting research on autism. She found that the highest incidence rate was in New Jersey, with roughly one child in every 42 being affected. Additionally, the teen learned that there was no cause or cure for autism.
During the summer before her ninth grade, Kota visited senior citizen and veteran homes, playing the veena, an Indian classical instrument, to determine if there was sufficient interest to raise funds for her cause. By the end of the summer, she had raised $5,000 for the ‘Jumpstart’ program at St. Peters University Hospital, which is a care and therapy program for children diagnosed with autism, and she was on her way.
The organization’s name, Hope4Spandana, comes from a school in Anantapur, India, named Spandana, which means reaction or change in Sanskrit. Kota also spent three weeks with children at the school, using some of the therapy methods she had learned at the Jumpstart program. Shortly after, she and her family adopted the school.
The children at Spandana have been diagnosed with autism, and the school provides them with nourishment, as their families, who believed that autism was a bad omen from God, had abandoned many of the kids in the facility.
Kota also decided to reach out to her local community, focusing on a school close by called Lakeview Elementary School in Edison. This was a school that helped children and parents get therapy to help deal with the disorder, as well as provide behavioral therapy. Kota, through helping with the children, learned a lot about how kids diagnosed with autism behave.
“This experience was great more than anything. There are kids diagnosed with autism in our schools, but we don’t get to interact with them, so this experience was really eye-opening,” Kota told India-West.
Currently, her nonprofit includes 15 members her age, and they work to coordinate performances, such as flash mobs, which she said work very well with large crowds to get the word out and raise money. Half of the funds raised goes to St Peter’s University Hospital and the other half goes to the Spandana school.
Kota said she is thankful to her father and her dedicated team who have given her endless support and motivation for the organization. “Without their help,” she said, “none of the achievements would have been possible.”
“I like what I do because I help people realize how important autism awareness is, as many people overlook it, since it is not life threatening,” she told India-West.
Her goals for Hope4Spandana include taking the entire group to India to visit the school and eventually around the world. Kota, who eventually wants to become a surgeon, hopes to adopt more schools to reach out to as many people as possible.
“Before working for this cause, I thought everything was simple and straightforward,” she toldIndia-West. “However, I have learned that life is not simple. If kids can’t understand how other kids their age are feeling, who else will?” For more information about Hope4Spandana, and its goals, or just to get involved or donate, visit the Web site at: http://www.hope4spandana.org.