WEST ORANGE, NJ — September in West Orange usually sees hundreds of people gather at West Orange High School for the annual STOP for Nikhil 5K Run and 3K Walk organized by the Nikhil Badlani Foundation, an event to honor Nikhil Badlani, a West Orange middle school student who died in a car crash in 2011 when a driver failed to stop at a stop sign in South Orange. But the gathering isn’t to happen this year because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, so the foundation found a way to make it work virtually. It’s a milestone year for the event, first held to celebrate Nikhil’s birthday at the end of August just a few months after he died.
“It’s the 10th year, and he would have turned 21 this year,” Sangeeta Badlani, Nikhil’s mother, said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Aug. 30. “Of course with it being a milestone year, we would like everyone to be together. But like everyone else, we had to adjust.”
Instead of waiting for the starting gun at Suriano Stadium, runners who participate this year can choose their own route and run anytime between Sept. 13 and 20. Treadmills are also acceptable, and times and photos can be posted on the foundation’s Facebook page. At the end of the week, medals will be awarded to the two nonschool teams that raise the most money; there is also a grant for the school team that raises the most.
“We’re just asking them to post what they’ve done,” Sunil Badlani, Nikhil’s father, said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Aug. 30. “The main idea is to raise awareness.”
There are a couple of advantages to the socially distanced, virtual version of the event, though it’s not the same as having it on one day. A weeklong event isn’t as dependent on weather, so if it rains one day there are seven more to choose from. And if it strikes anyone’s fancy to run, they can decide to participate at any time right up until the end of the day on Sept. 20.
STOP for Nikhil has been a 5K run and a 3K walk for the last nine years, but this year a 20K bike ride was added for those who don’t want to participate on their feet. The same rules apply for cyclists: ride on your own schedule and post your time.
“There are people who have said, ‘We don’t run, but we do ride bikes,’” Sangeeta Badlani said. “I think going virtual has made it easier because people can bike anytime. I don’t know if we’ll do that every year, but we could continue it virtually. Bike deaths have increased, and we want to help.”
Around $30,000 has been raised so far, and the Badlanis are expecting a total of about $35,000 to $40,000. The money raised goes back into the foundation’s programs: advocating for traffic safety awareness, academic scholarships and Music for Nikhil, a program that pays for individual music lessons for West Orange students.
The pandemic hasn’t stopped the foundation from working on any of its initiatives. World Day of Remembrance, which acknowledges road traffic victims in November, will be observed. The foundation is also working on setting up a Youth Advisory Board at Burlington City High School, similar to the board in West Orange. And by 2050, New Jersey wants to reduce traffic-related deaths to zero — the Badlanis think it can be done by 2030.
“We’re going to miss the energy of being there,” Sangeeta Badlani said. “But we’re still having it. We’ve spent $155,000 on scholarships and $100,000 on Music for Nikhil. We’ve come a long way.”
To participate in STOP for Nikhil, sign up at www.nikhilbadlanifoundation.org.