If someone asks Khushi Shah and Saanvi Mirchandani how they spent their summer, they can sum it up in one word — shopping.
There’s nothing unusual about two teenage girls on a shopping spree, but they weren’t loading up on the latest IG-worthy outfits to set them apart during their senior year at New Hyde Park Memorial High School. They made 10 trips over about two weeks to Staples in Garden City. The two best friends since seventh grade spent hours filling shopping carts with hundreds of notebooks, backpacks, pencils, pens, papers, calculators, erasers, glue — anything a student needs to get through the school day.
It was all for a good cause. Shah and Mirchandani came up with the idea to raise money to buy school supplies for children for the fall.
“With the pandemic, a lot of families are having a hard time financially. We wanted to do something to take some of the financial pressure off families. Right now every little bit helps,” said the 16-year-old Mirchandani.
With their hearts set, they got busy developing a plan. In the spring of 2019 Mirchandani’s guidance counselor at school had told her about the youth group at the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island in Garden City and she joined. She reached out to two coordinators she knew from the youth group who introduced the young women to Jim LoPresti, president of the Ethical Humanist Society and director of Ethical Friends of Children, an outreach program of the society.
They found a home for their idea: Ethical Friends of Children assists more than 2,500 children and their families each year by providing clothing as well as baby furniture and gear like strollers for free at their on-site “store.” They started a GoFundMe campaign with a goal of raising $5,000 for school supplies for Ethical Friends of Children. They put out the word on social media, as did their parents and the principal of their high school. Families, friends and the New Hyde Park community responded. The girls exceeded their goal by more than $400, with the cutoff for contributing in early August. Raising the money has almost been the easy part. Then came the shopping.
“It was a little overwhelming at first,” Mirchandani saids.
But they got organized. They shared what they were doing with a store manager at Staples hoping to get a discount, but that didn't pan out. Determined not to pay full price, they signed up for the store’s rewards program and used coupons.
“Initially we tried to buy too much at once. My car was filled to the brim with supplies,” said Shah, 17. They decided to spread out the spending, which also proved a good strategy. They looked out for sales, partly timing their shopping accordingly. They learned the importance of strategy — and there were other lessons along the way.
“We had to develop a budget because we wanted to get the most with the money we received. We had to keep records of what we bought and how much we spent,” said Shah.
This was the first time the two had undertaken such a project, though both have a history of volunteering.
“My family has always emphasized the importance of community service especially during our annual trips to India,” Mirchandani said. “Every year with my grandfather, I would visit a local orphanage [Bal Asha in Mumbai] and donate goods for the children as well as volunteer to serve food at old age homes. My experiences at the orphanage, Ronald McDonald House and Mary Brennan INN have taught me that I should always be involved in the community and aid those that are less fortunate,” she says. “Every child deserves the right to a meaningful education and having the access to supplies is crucial.”
Tradition of serving
Other Long Island volunteer projects have found her working with the Ethical Society’s youth group. She participated in community service projects like distributing food to the needy and coat drives.
Shah says she too grew up in a community-service minded household. Volunteering is a way of life. She was involved in a campaign called Dance to End Alz, which raised funds for the Alzheimer's Association. She also participated in the Alzheimer's Association's "Walk to End Alzheimer's." As a part of an organization called Games for Seva, she makes educational games that are aimed at spreading Indian culture and values. These young ladies are about helping. It’s not surprising they both hope to become doctors. Mirchandani wants to be a pediatrician while Shah is undecided about what type of medicine she will practice.
They’ve bought the majority of the supplies to donate, so what’s left now is to finish off the last bit of shopping and to buy diapers that were requested by Ethical Friends of Children. In early August they will hand over the supplies to Ethical Friends of Children to do the distribution. They’re feeling good about what they have accomplished.
“Saanvi has always believed that we should all do our part to make the world a better place,” said her mother, Siya. “To now see our little girl helping the community is overwhelming but not surprising. We saw our 16-year old devotedly working with Khushi, putting aside her summertime with friends for almost two months. They courageously recruited donors, planned and executed a successful project to help those in need during these unprecedented times.”
What most surprised Shah and Mirchandani? The outpouring of financial support. They set a goal of $5,000 and would have been thrilled no matter what they received. But to exceed their goal was the ultimate outcome. Would they do a drive again next year? They laugh and say they are interested in coming up with a community service project to serve all of Long Island.
In the meantime, in July, Mirchandani rejoined the activities of the youth group at the Ethical Society, which Shah has also joined. The group meets weekly via Zoom, focusing on a voter-registration drive for the 2020 presidential election. The drive targets such states as North Carolina, which Shah said has one of the largest numbers of disenfranchised voters in the country. The young people in the group, about 20 16- and 17-year-olds, are hand-addressing postcards to people who haven’t registered to vote or have not voted in awhile.
The inseparable pair are exhaling. Said Shah, “Education is important. We want to give kids a chance to have success in school this year.”
Shah’s parents are proud of her and Mirchandani. “At such a young age, they have such a developed worldview. They've spent hours organizing this project and we are so happy to see its success. … We hope they continue giving back to their communities throughout their lives," said her father, Himanshu.
Doing their best
As Shah and Mirchandani wind down their drive, LoPresti is gearing up. The school supplies drive is a first for the Ethical Friends of Children. Because of the pandemic, LoPresti has reached out to women’s shelters and social services organizations to let them know that supplies are available as he works on the logistics of distribution.
Ethical Friends of Children was established in 1985 as Friends of the Homeless. The name changed but the mission is essentially the same: to help families in need. LoPresti, a volunteer, has overseen the program for 15 years. The organization focuses on providing donated clothing and has added children’s furniture and items like car seats, strollers and playpens. Cash donations are used to buy diapers and formula and other essentials for children.
“The needs are great, particularly now. People are suffering,” LoPresti said. Some “customers” show up to shop on their own, others come at the suggestion of staff at social service agencies and shelters across Long Island and Queens.
People from all walks of life come through their doors, LoPresti said. He recalls a freezing February day when a social worker brought in a mother who was skimpily clad and in sandals; her baby had little on as well. They were both given clothes. Then there was the call about a teenage mother who had no prenatal care and had given birth at Nassau University Medical Center. She had nothing — and needed everything. They gave her what they could, including a crib, car seat, stroller and clothes.
The biggest challenge, he said, is keeping up with demand. “We want to be able to meet the needs of everyone who comes through the door. But if we don’t have cribs, we don’t have cribs. The lack of goods is a challenge. There is a constant need for donations.”
The store, which closed as part of New York’s “pause” to slow the pandemic, is gradually reopening, beginning with Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., though people can always reach LoPresti via email for donations and pickups. To staff the store, LoPresti relies on a dozen or so volunteers, many who are special-needs adults. “They help change out clothes for the season, fold and organize the clothes and items, and interact with customers. They learn skills, and the socializing is good for them,” he said.
Ethical Friends of Children also looks for opportunities to work with organizations. The relationship between St. Bernard’s Parish Social Ministry in Levittown and Ethical Friends of Children began with a coat drive conducted by St. Bernard’s youth for Ethical Friends of Children and has developed over the years.
“We can always call on Ethical Friends of Children to partner with us,” said Sister Christine Sammons, a Dominican Sister from the Amityville Parish who coordinates the Parish Social Ministry at St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church. “If they have a need or we have a need, we work together to try to solve the problem.”
Earlier this year, Ethical Friends of Children had one of its biggest events. It partnered with the New York Race Track Chaplaincy to organize the first International Women’s Day for the Backstretch Women at Belmont Park, that is, those who work behind the scenes at the track. In addition to dinner, the March event included such activities as painting birdhouses for the children, and the mothers had the opportunity to pick out new adult and children’s clothing for free at a pop-up “store.”
“It was a great opportunity to empower and inspire the mothers, their children and the young women of the Backstretch Community,” said Karen Chavez, general manager for the chaplaincy. “The NY RTCA is grateful for the partnership with Ethical Friends and hope to continue to collaborate in future projects.”
LoPresti was pleased with the turnout, about 140 guests. He hopes the mothers will see Ethical Friends of Children as a resource. “The biggest highlight for me of the night was the fact that most of the women who were there are typically serving others given the work that they do. So it was a treat for them to be served.”
The dinner was made possible by The Weill Fund, created by a former member of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island. “We were given $3,000 for the dinner, and we had money left over,” LoPresti said.
He said the remaining money continues to go to the women. In June and July the group had dinner from a restaurant delivered to the women who had tested positive for COVID-19 and their children. LoPresti said remaining funds will be used to purchase items like diapers and toiletries.
LoPresti says such events are new territory for Ethical Friends of Children. Its parent organization, the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island is engaged in the community, collaborating with community groups to sponsor Our Times Coffeehouse of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, which plans to resume the folk music concerts when it’s safe to do so, and collecting food for the Interfaith Nutrition Network. EHSLI has also hosted a used-bike drive for the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and a book drive for families in need.
Ethical Friends of Children wants to explore new opportunities to connect with the community. Said LoPresti, "The needs of Long Islanders are great and growing.”
As for the girls, Shah will finish mentoring middle-schoolers at Game Design Camp, and along with the Mirchandani and the youth group will continue making and distributing masks. Mirchandani will continue volunteer-teaching music to elementary schoolchildren and shadow a podiatrist. They’ll both be working on college applications, but there will be time for fun. Said Mirchandani, “I plan to visit state parks and beaches for bike rides and hikes.”
How to help
To donate to the school supply drive, visit nwsdy.li/EFCGoFundMe. To support the work of the Ethical Friends of Children, visit ehsli.org/social-action/ethical-friends-of-children or email email@example.com. Donations can be mailed to the Ethical Humanist Society of LI, marked “EFC,” at 38 Old Country Rd., Garden City, NY 11530.