By Mark Ambrogi
Kamna Gupta’s mission began during a 2013 visit to her parents’ native country of India.
Near the Taj Mahal, Gupta noticed a man seeking money who had made a pair of shoes out of empty plastic water bottles and hay.
“He had cuts and bruises on his feet and couldn’t walk well or stand well,” Gupta said. “So I felt like I needed to do something, I took whatever money I had and went to nearest vendor and bought a pair of flip-flops for him, and with the money left I bought him a meal. He rejoiced and was extremely happy, which made me happy as well. I realized I couldn’t buy flip-flops and a meal for every single person I see on the street. That doesn’t provide a long-term solution, only a short-term solution.”
So Gupta was determined to do something about it when she returned home to Carmel. A few months later, she created Soles for Souls, a nonprofit, seeking donations of gently-used shoes.
Now three years later, the Carmel High School senior has collected 2,800 pounds of shoes (each pair weighs between one and two pounds). ShoeBox Recycling works with her to package and clean the shoes to send them aboard.
“They’re supporting me, and I’m supporting them by sending them the shoes,” Gupta said.
Gupta recently received the Indiana top high school youth volunteer for the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, earning a $1,000 scholarship and an expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C. April 30 to May 4. Ten of the state honorees (five middle school and five high school) will be named America’s top youth volunteers of 2016. They will receive $5,000 awards, gold medallions and a $5,000 grant to the nonprofit of their choice.
Along with collecting shoes, Gupta uses her nonprofit as a forum to educate younger children.
“We use this as an educational opportunity to teach the youth the spirit of volunteerism and why you should volunteer,” Gupta said.
Gupta collects the shoes through her website (solesforsoulsindy.weebly.com) and at Hindu Temple of Central Indiana, where she attends.
Initially Gupta met some resistance at her temple.
“Some criticized me, saying, ‘Why are you bringing dirty shoes in a holy place?’” said Gupta, adding the shoes donation box was outside the worship area. “I also received overwhelming support from the temple as well.”
Twice the boxes of shoes were thrown away. Gupta said she realized she had to step up her game to convince the members of the temple its value as a donation spot for the shoes.
“People telling me I couldn’t do what I wanted to do and make a difference in people’s lives around the world just inspired me more to work even harder,” Gupta said.
Several Indiana organizations have helped her collect shoes. Gupta’s friends and family have started collecting shoes in Ohio and Michigan. Gupta wants to develop a national network.
Gupta’s Soles for Souls project also has earned her the 2015 President’s Volunteer Service Award, 2015 Kohl’s Cares Scholarship Program regional winner and the Gold Award from Girl Scouts of America.
Hindu Temple Sunday school teacher Anita Joshi praised Gupta’s devotion.
“She’s been a joy to work with on that,” Joshi said. “She is incredibly dedicated. She has spent countless hours promoting the Soles for Soles, talking about it all our youth members as well as adult members. She organized some of the youth to sort them and help her. You can tell it’s been a great passion and love of hers to participate in this organization.”
Gupta represents the youth group on her temple’s executive committee. As part of that position, she plans service opportunities for youth. She would organize nursing home visits as well as raise money for temple construction.
“Our entire temple is based on donations from temple goers,” Gupta said.
Meet Kamna Gupta
Personal: The National Honor Society member has a grade point average above 4.0 with advanced placement classes. She will attend IUPUI on a Bepko Fellowship scholarship, which includes full tuition for four years and two years of housing, which is based on test scores, GPA and community service. Plans to earn a teaching diploma to instruct other students in Indian dance.
Activities: Gupta is the vice president of Design for CHS, a web design club. She was a finalist in the 2016 state DECA competition. Earlier this month, in the Hoosier Science and Engineering Fair, she earned the John and Janet Davis Scholarship, first place plaque and $500 for her division for project, Therapeutic Evaluation of Griseofulvin in a Mouse Model of Choroidal Neovascularization. Gupta also earned first place in pharmacy related project, earned Intel ISEF entry into Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix May 8 to 13, and has been selected for a two-week kathak dance workshop this summer in New York with Pandit Birju Maharaj, a noted classical Indian instructor.