WEST ORANGE, NJ — The STOP for Nikhil 5K Run/Walk raised more than $52,000 and attracted more than 800 people for its sixth year at West Orange High School on Sept. 18.
That money will go toward funding the programs of the Nikhil Badlani Foundation, a West Orange nonprofit organization that has promoted safe driving and music education in the years since its namesake, an 11-year-old music lover, was killed by a distracted driver in South Orange in 2011. So far, the organization has educated 2,500 students in nine New Jersey schools about traffic safety; donated more than 90 “Drive Smart Save a Life” signs to six Essex County towns; provided more than 3,500 hours of music lessons to approximately 100 students; and awarded $35,000 in scholarships to 21 high school students from West Orange, South Orange and Maplewood.
Nikhil’s parents, Sunil and Sangeeta Badlani, already have plans for how they would like to use the money collected for their foundation this year. In addition to funding their ongoing programs, the Badlanis told EssexNewsDaily that they hope to offer a scholarship to Orange High School seniors in addition to expanding their efforts to South Jersey. Above all, they want to continue spreading the message that teens must pay attention whenever they drive, and that parents must make sure their children are following all traffic laws. That is how tragedies can be avoided, they said.
“Everybody thinks that it’s not going to happen to us,” Sunil Badlani told EssexNewsDaily in a Sept. 16 phone interview. “But when it does happen, it affects not just you but the entire family and community at large. It’s untold damage that it causes when one life is taken away.”
Sunil and Sangeeta Badlani know this all too well after losing their son. Nikhil died more than five years ago, but his memory remains an ever-present part of their lives. Sangeeta Badlani said she will never forget the kindness and open-mindedness he showed in his 11 years of life.
After he was killed, Sangeeta Badlani said people would often tell her stories of the various good acts Nikhil had done for others. There was the occasion when he offered to show a new boy around Gregory Elementary School, and the time that he helped out another student who did not speak English well. Many told her how Nikhil was always quick to give a smile and a “hello” to those he passed in the hallways, even if he did not know them well.
Sangeeta Badlani never knew Nikhil did any of those things — he simply never told her. But she said that was just the kind of person he was.
“He didn’t think that this was something special that he was doing — it was part of life for him,” Sangeeta Badlani told the Chronicle in a Sept. 16 phone interview. “He was one of those people who did acts of kindness without ever bringing attention onto himself.”
Nikhil’s presence was certainly felt throughout the event. As always, numerous people who knew him were in attendance, either to run or volunteer or just pay their respects. Everyone gathered also took the Pledge for Nikhil, promising always to remain alert while driving. And since Nikhil would be a senior in high school today, had he lived, a group representing the WOHS Class of 2017 took a ceremonial lap in his honor.
Austin Bartola is one former classmate who has never forgotten Nikhil, having volunteered at the event since 2012. Bartola said it is an honor to spread his friend’s memory in such a “positive and meaningful way.” While it was tragic to lose him so young, he added that Nikhil was the type of person who would be happy to see so much good result from his death.
“He was only in sixth grade, but he already had the attitude that I, at that time, knew would drive him toward success,” Bartola told EssexNewsDaily while waiting to be assigned his volunteer duties. “He was an extremely positive person. I don’t know if I ever saw him sad or mad or in an otherwise negative mood. And that had an impact on everyone he met.”
Elaine Duck, who was involved with Nikhil’s Boy Scout troop, also vividly remembers his positivity. Shortly after completing her run, Duck recalled to EssexNewsDaily that Nikhil always had a smile on his face. He was happy all the time, she said, and was always eager to help with whatever he could.
As Nikhil’s band teacher, Ryan Krewer played a big role in the young music lover’s life. Krewer taught Nikhil how to play the trumpet for several years, and said Nikhil had an impact on him. Specifically, Krewer said Nikhil’s character was something to behold.
“It felt from an emotional standpoint like he was almost an adult already,” Krewer told EssexNewsDaily at the event. “He chose who he wanted to be already. He wanted to be a positive person. He knew he wanted to be full of love. He knew he wanted to be very creative and involved with the arts and athletics as well. But the main thing I’ll always remember is how positive and giving with his creativity he was.”
Krewer is continuing that legacy of generosity as an instructor with the Music for Nikhil program, a foundation initiative that offers free and reduced priced music lessons to middle and high school students. The teacher even led a few of the participating pupils in a performance of the national anthem to kick off the event. He also ran in the 5K, finishing with one of the fastest times. And he can attribute that success to his former student — he said he thought of Nikhil while he ran, as inspiration not to give up or waste any time.
West Orange fifth-grader Svara Bhatnagar was also inspired by Nikhil to sell handmade stop sign jewelry at the event to raise money for the foundation. Svara donated $2 from every purchase, with approximately $100 in sales made at the time she talked to EssexNewsDaily. She said it was a pleasure to combine her love of creativity with such an important cause. After all, she said, people need to drive safely in order to prevent accidents.
Molly Lindstrom was also inspired by Nikhil to form a team and raise roughly $4,500 — more than any other group — for the foundation as part of her bat mitzvah project. Molly said she chose the cause partially because Nikhil’s accident occurred right in front of her South Orange home. Additionally, she said that she has a passion for music like he did, so it felt right to support his organization.
And now that she has, Molly’s father, Al Lindstrom, said that he is “extremely proud.” Lindstrom is also glad that the money collected will go toward promoting traffic safety, which he said is essential in today’s technological world. He said young people especially need to learn the dangers of distracted driving considering how much of their lives revolve around the use of devices.
“These kids are all growing up texting,” Lindstrom told EssexNewsDaily before the event. “They just text, text, text all day long. And they’re not driving yet. So if you know now, and you’re made aware now of all the dangers involved in texting while driving and traffic awareness and all that, you go into driving with that knowledge. It’s embedded in you.”
Texting while driving is becoming a major problem throughout the United States, causing 1.6 million accidents per year according to the National Safety Council; the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis found that it results in 330,000 injuries annually. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that texting behind the wheel results in 11 teen deaths every day.
Young people are especially prone to the hazards of distracted driving in general. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, 10 percent of all drivers 15 to 19 years old involved in fatal accidents were distracted at the time of the crash. That age group has the largest proportion of distracted drivers, per the NHTSA. As for the general population, the association reports that 2014 alone saw 3,179 fatalities and 431,000 injuries brought about by distracted drivers.
Considering the prevalence of distracted driving, Pleasant Valley Way Civic Association President Roz Moskovitz Bielski said it is fortunate that people like the Badlanis are working to stop it. Bielski, who serves on the West Orange Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board with Sunil and Sangeeta Badlani, called the couple passionate and committed people who have become a “force to be reckoned with” in their advocacy for the foundation and the board. West Orange Councilman Jerry Guarino, a fellow PSAB member, agreed that the Badlanis do important work since teens and adults must be reminded that it is never OK to drive while distracted. Guarino said a tragedy should not have to happen to wake people up, so he hopes more will support the Badlanis in their efforts.
Jeff Feinblatt and his son, Daniel, family friends of the Badlanis, are longtime supporters of the foundation. And they also know the effects of its work firsthand. Though Daniel Feinblatt is only starting to take driver’s education, he told EssexNewsDaily that he already knows he will not be a distracted driver thanks to what he has learned from the organization. He said Sunil and Sangeeta Badlani have had a “big impact.”
Likewise, Jeff Feinblatt lauded the Badlanis for all they have accomplished in just six years, adding that he is proud to help them in any way possible. The fact that they have achieved so much through the foundation in light of such tragedy speaks to the kinds of people they are, he said.
“They are truly special people,” Jeff Feinblatt told EssexNewsDaily at the event. “Many would’ve been devastated, and I’m sure they were. But they used that horrific event and turned it into something good. They will save lives.”
The Badlanis said it is “heartening” to see the immense support they always receive for the STOP for Nikhil event, which this year was attended by state Assemblyman John McKeon, West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi, West Orange Township Council members and 200 new registrants. West Orange’s own Andrew Joyce finished first in the 5K run — on his birthday, no less. And Amara Riccio, a Kean University student who started the nonprofit Riccio Pick-Me-Ups after surviving a traumatic brain injury from being hit by a car, received the Inspiration Award.
Sunil and Sangeeta Badlani said they never expected to see STOP for Nikhil become as big as it has, and they are “humbled” by the support both the event and the foundation have received in West Orange. As the foundation continues to grow, the Badlanis said they hope that the message of safe driving will continue to proliferate. Because, as Sangeeta Badlani pointed out, no one is immune to a tragedy.
“This can happen to anyone anywhere,” Sangeeta Badlani said. “It is not specific to West Orange or South Orange-Maplewood. This is a cause that is common to everyone.”
Photos by Sean Quinn