WEST ORANGE, NJ - It's been three years since a distracted driver ran a STOP sign and ended the life of 11-year-old Nikhil Badlani, a talented musician and scholar with a compassionate heart and soul. Hundreds of supporters and volunteers gathered at West Orange High School on Sunday to remember Nikhil and all those that died in avoidable automobile accidents at the STOP for Nikhil Walk.
More than 600 participants from all over New Jersey joined with the Badlani family at the walk. According to Sangeeta Badlani, Nikhil's mom, over $44,000 was raised and money continues to pour in. The Nikhil Badlani Foundation has raised $100,000 since its inception. In 2014 alone, they provided $30,000 in music scholarships; $13,000 in academic scholarships; and $25,000 in promoting traffic awareness and safety.
Lisa Renwick, a West Orange resident and good friend of the Badlanis, helps each year to organize the event and help with the foundation's efforts.
"I invest my time because The Badlanis are our good friends and neighbors. More importantly ,this is a global epidemic that does not get enough attention until someone gets seriously hurt or loses a life. I want to help spread the awareness to Drive Smart, Save a Life," Renwick told TAP into West Orange.
West Orange High School students and the varsity cheerleaders were also on hand along with several elected officials, including Mayor Robert Parisi; Councilpersons Sue McCartney, Joe Krakoviak and Jerry Guarino; BOE member Michelle Casalino; WOHS Principal Hayden Moore; and Superintendent Jeff Rutzky.
Goals for the Nikhil Badlani Foundation in 2014 include the continued education of young drivers at the high schools by engaging them in creating traffic safety artwork during the 2014-15 school year.
"We plan to to work with four different high schools and partner with local police departments to raise awareness of traffic safety by donating reflector strips with imprints of Drive Smart. Save a Life," said Sangeeta Badlani. "We will continue to partner with local organizations such as NJ Division of Highway Traffic Safety, NJ Teen Safety Coalition and others to make our roads safer."
The musical component of the foundation reflects Nikhil's exceptional talent as a musician and the Badlanis continue to remain committed to providing opportunities for other children in the West Orange School District.
"On the music front, our plan is to grow the program further," said Badlani.
The program is currently offered to students from grades 6-12 who play band instruments.
"We are exploring the needs of the children who play string instruments," she said. "We have been invited again to perform a prelude concert at NJPAC by NJSO. We are excited that our children are bring given the opportunity to perform at a fantastic venue by a prestigious organization."
The event was emceed once again by Marci Selsberg Echeverria, a West Orange resident and good friend of the Badlanis.
"Nikhil was one of my daughter’s closest friends," said Echeverria."He was a shining light, a kid who put a smile on the face of everyone who came in contact with him. He was one of those kids who would have left a very positive footprint in this world."
Sunil Badlani, Nikhil's dad, provided an update on Nikhil's Law (Bill A-1781) , which has passed the Assembly and is heading to the New Jersey Senate. The law would require that the Motor Vehicle Commission inform and test new drivers on the dangers of failing to comply with traffic safety laws and provide the opportunity to take the "STOP for Nikhil Safety Pledge." Son Anay led the participants in Nikhil's Safety Pledge.
Sangeeta Badlani then spoke to participants and asked them to "keep our stories in mind while you are driving...please think of us. Thank you again for doing what you do for on behalf of the foundation."
Last year's recipient of the Nikhil Badlani Inspirational Award, Gabe Hurley, performed on his electric guitar as the runners took off. Hurley lost his sight as the result of a reckless driver. This year's recipient, 17-year-old Antonia Sinibaldi, was critically injured in a motor vehicle accident the age of 2.
"My life has been a rollercoaster ride since the accident," said Antonia. "I want to perform not only because I enjoy it, but to be an inspiration and an advocate for spinal cord injuries and reckless driving."
For Sangeeta, Sunil and Anay Badlani, the yearly event was not only a time of upbeat enthusiasm, but sobering reality. Nikhil would have just begun his sophomore year at West Orange High School.
"Nothing we do will ever fill the void in out hearts from losing Nikhil," said Sangeeta. But it helps to know that through the foundation we are able to benefit the children and keep Nilhil's memory alive. These children are our 'ambassadors of traffic safety'."
"We miss Nikhil very much, his infectious and sunny smile," Badlani continued.
"Every time we hear about a child that is killed in a car crash, we relive June 11, 2011 and our heart goes to the family. If we can even save a life, that would mean we are making a difference."
To find out more and to donate, go to: http://nikhilbadlanifoundation.org/