By Julie Ross
Continuing a trend of several years, the Eighth Annual Walk/Run For Nikhil, held on September 16 at West Orange High School, raised more than $50,000 to help promote traffic safety awareness, music education, and scholarships for graduating West Orange High School seniors.
The event benefits the Nikhil Badlani Foundation, established in 2011 by Sunil and Sangeeta Badlani following the death of their son Nikhil, who was then 11 years old, in an automobile crash caused by a distracted driver.
More than 800 individuals attended this year’s event, which brought in an excess of $52,000 and included a 5K run and a 3K walk as well as other activities, such as face painting and games for children and adults to play together, aerobics, food trucks, and a Kids Fun Run. Among participants in the event were teams of students from West Orange’s schools, who had been challenged to form teams and try to raise the most funds for the Foundation. The winner, Gregory Elementary School, will receive a $2,000 grant from the Foundation.
An opening ceremony featured warm-up exercises led by local group The Kerboomkidz and “thank-you” speeches by West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi and County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo. Nikhil’s younger brother Anay, a West Orange High School freshman, led participants in the STOP For Nikhil Safety Pledge, a promise by drivers to come to a complete halt at any STOP sign and never go through a red light; stay alert, striving to keep their hands on the wheel and their minds on the road; “talk safe” by using a hands-free mobile phone system while driving and refraining from texting or using a handset unless they have pulled over; and planning ahead by giving themselves an extra five minutes to reach any destination.
West Orange High School freshman and ROTC member Senay Dani took first place in the Men’s Division of the 5K with a time of 19:01.45. Laura Pfeifer was the first place winner in the Women’s Division with a time of 21:57:56.
“We set a goal for this year and with the help of the community and our sponsors, we were able to achieve it,” Sangeeta Badlani said. “The walk was very successful. We had many new families participate this year. The feedback we’ve received from some of the attendees has been very positive. It heartens us to know when someone tells us that after they heard our story, they will not drive distracted and will follow the STOP For Nikhil Safety Pledge.”
Nikhil’s parents noted that the Foundation’s programs are highly reflective of their son’s talents and passions.
“Nikhil spoke very passionately about how some drivers did not respect the rules,” Sunil Badlani recalled. “A few hours before on the day of the accident, (he) commented on how a driver was speeding and weaving. It’s unfortunate that a few hours later, he was a victim of a road accident. His loss cannot be in vain and should be an awakening to all drivers on the road.”
In addition to hosting the annual run/walk and spreading the message that “STOP means stop,” the Foundation’s safety initiatives include seeking pledges from drivers to drive safely and educating high school students in Essex County on distracted driving and its deadly ramifications. To date, several thousand drivers have taken the STOP For Nikhil Safety Pledge.
Other initiatives have entailed, but have not been limited to, hosting a driver’s education workshop for students from West Orange High School, as well as students from Nutley High School and Bloomfield High School; creating safety-themed artwork in conjunction with local high schools, and partnering with NJ Transit to display posters of artwork created by high school students on NJ Transit buses, Hudson-Bergen Light Rail trains and train stations throughout Essex County.
The Foundation also played a major role in the passage of Nikhil’s Law in 2015. Under the umbrella of the law, a question has been added to the New Jersey driver’s license examination. The question asks applicants whether they are aware of the dangers of failing to follow the state’s motor vehicle traffic laws and know that they have the option to take the STOP For Nikhil Safety Pledge. The text of the pledge appears on the examination.
Meanwhile, in keeping with Nikhil’s thirst for knowledge and excellence in academics, the Foundation established the Nikhil Badlani Scholarship as part of the West Orange Scholarship Fund (WOSF), a 501(c) (3), which awards financial aid to graduating WOHS seniors to assist them with college education. Nikhil Badlani Scholarship awards are given to students in need who demonstrate strong academic performance and have participated in music- and drama-related activities while attending high school.
Nikhil also had a passion for music from an early age and, while he excelled at piano, he especially loved his trumpet. At age 11, he had auditioned for and had been accepted to play the trumpet for the prestigious Youth Orchestras of Essex County (YOEC).
YOEC participants are required to take private lessons in addition to their school music program, and Nikhil’s first individual trumpet lesson had been scheduled, but not yet taken, when he died. In the wake of the tragedy, the Badlanis realized that although their son would not be able to further his trumpet education, there were other talented and capable young musicians who were also unable to do so due to financial constraints.
The Foundation’s Music For Nikhil program funds lessons in trumpet, alto saxophone, trombone, bassoon, oboe, tuba, flute, and guitar, as well as voice lessons for special needs students. The weekly hour-long lessons are provided at no cost to need-based students and at reduced cost to other students throughout 30 weeks of the academic year.