Bollywood actress Neelam Kothari Soni found herself in the starring role of a lifetime this past month – albeit quite different from any she’s played over her 40-film career, or her recent comeback thanks to Netflix’ “Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Lives” reality series.
As the guest of honor for Child Rights and You (CRY) America’s 2023 Gala series, Neelam led the charge toward a “box-office blockbuster” of a fundraiser series that netted over $1 million toward life-changing support for underprivileged children in India and the U.S.
CRY America is a U.S. nonprofit that supports projects in India and the U.S. that ensure access to education and healthcare for underprivileged children, as well as protection from child labor, early marriage and trafficking. Since 2004, with the support of over 25,000 donors and over 2,000 volunteers, CRY America has impacted the lives of 786,985 children living across 5,027 villages and slums through support to 90 projects in India and the US.
CRY America Gala events ran from April 28 through May 21, 2023 in Seattle, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City and Houston. The series raised a total of $1.08 million toward 40 projects in India and the U.S. currently supported by the nonprofit. Titled “YOU are the ‘Y’ in CRY”, the galas trained the spotlight on the donors, project partners and media supporters who have been integral to establishing CRY America as a leading child-rights organization.
Having stolen hearts in Hindi films of the 1980s and 1990s such as Khudgarz, Paap ki Duniya, Hero No. 1 and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Neelam now urged gala attendees to open their hearts (and, adding playfully, “your wallets”) in support of the cause. Donors heeded her earnest requests to “make CRY happy, make the children happy – and make Neelam happy,” contributing generously, and in many cases, securing matching funds from employers.
CRY America CEO Shefali Sunderlal credited the Dinner Committees, volunteers and staff for making the gala series a huge success. She said, “Our dedicated dinner committees truly went above and beyond this year, tirelessly planning and organizing the Galas. Our donors ensured that thousands of children will have a better future with their generosity.”
In addition to fine dining and thrilling music and dance performances to songs from Neelam’s films, several events featured an interactive video session with Souvik Basu, Executive Director of project Sanlaap in Kolkata. Souvik spoke to guests about his organization’s work with over 2,000 children living in one of Kolkata’s most infamous red-light districts. Through intensive work with the community, Sanlaap focuses on breaking the cycle of exploitive sex work and child trafficking, in the process removing children from labor situations and re-enroiling them in school.
A young beneficiary of Sanlaap, Kishan, joined the session to talk about his journey from being an at-risk orphan in the slum to becoming a youth leader in his community. Kishan now mentors other children and is pursuing a masters degree in social work. Basu noted that in the past year, 70 formerly at-risk children passed their school exams. Additionally, over 30 adolescents rescued from the sex trade have been linked to livelihood resources.
Bay Area donors Arti and Ketan Kulkarni have been involved with CRY America for 20 years, and since 2017 have been supporting Sanlaap through CRY America’s Direct Project Funding program. Arti said that CRY’s model for lasting change was an important factor in the couple’s decision to donate regularly.
“What is different about CRY is that it’s not not a fly-in fly out kind of organization,” said Arti. “They don’t just build a school, work with a few kids and then get out. They actually empower the local organizations and community to take ownership of the problems and come to sustainable solutions.”
New York’s gala at the historic Taj Pierre Hotel featured an address from New York State Assembly member Jenifer Rajkumar, during which she presented CRY America with a state proclamation in recognition of the organization’s dedication to child rights.
The New York event was preceded by a media conference, which included commentary from longtime CRY America volunteer Sharad Joshi, donors Sangeeta Mudnal and Jigar Thakkar, and Sandy Santana, Executive Director of Children’s Rights Inc, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of children in institutions and foster care in the U.S. through strategic litigation.
“It is really remarkable that CRY America has been supporting CRI for 15 years,” said Santana. “And it’s rather modest of them to say that they have benefited just 800,000 children,” he added, noting that with CRY America’s help, CRI has transformed child-serving systems in 20 U.S. states, impacting the lives of 1.6 million children.
Mudnal shared her personal experience from her regular visits to CRY America projects in India. “CRY has a very holistic approach to helping children,” said Mudnal. “[CRY project partners] engage in strategic partnerships with both government agencies and the communities and through training and discussion inspire collective action for child rights.”
Concurrently with the series, CRY America conducted an online auction featuring sarees from Anamika Khanna and Gaurav Gupta; jewelry by Sheetal Zaveri and Suhani Pittie; paintings by Ramesh Gujar, Sujata Achrekar, and Bharti Prajapati, and a cricket bat signed by Cricket Captain Sourav Ganguly, among many other auction items.
As no India-focused event would be complete without a bombastic Bollywood finale, every gala wrapped with guests and performers crowding the dance floor in a jubilant show of solidarity for child rights. Before hitting the dance floor herself in the Bay Area, Neelam summed up the evening’s aim.
“I feel every child has the right to proper education, nutrition, and the right to make a choice of what they want to be in life,” she said. “At the end of the day you want your child to smile – to be happy. That’s the reason I’m here. It’s been an honor to be part of these fundraisers, so please join me in supporting CRY America.”
For more details, visit www.cryamerica.org.