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At 9, she started a charity to help orphans, then at 18, faced the fight of her life

Two years ago, Neha Gupta was walking home from a Pennsylvania State University football game with other students when she was offered a piggyback ride by one of her friends. She happily accepted.

Neha Gupta, 20, a Penn State student, suffered a severe brain injury that kept her out of school for a year and in rehab for two more years.
Neha Gupta, 20, a Penn State student, suffered a severe brain injury that kept her out of school for a year and in rehab for two more years.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Two years ago, Neha Gupta was walking home from a Pennsylvania State University football game with other students when she was offered a piggyback ride by one of her friends. She happily accepted.

"We were just joking around, having fun," she recalled.

But the freshman from Yardley lost her balance. She fell backward, slamming her head on the sidewalk, causing a concussion.

Gupta didn't appreciate the gravity of her injury at first. But in the days and weeks that followed, she couldn't stay awake or stop throwing up. She had trouble walking. Her headaches became so debilitating that she had to suspend her studies for the year.

Gupta wasn't accustomed to such obstacles. At age 9, she had started a nonprofit that over a decade had raised nearly $2 million to help orphans around the world. In 2014, she received the International Children's Peace Prize for her work.

She went to Penn State with dreams of becoming a doctor. Instead, one month into her freshman year, she had taken an abrupt and unexpected detour, and was unsure if anyone could help her.

Gupta, now 20 and a sophomore at Penn State's Schreyer Honors College, has largely recovered, though she still gets treatment for lingering headaches. She's back on track.

"I'm proud of her for winning the international peace prize," her mother, Amruta, said through tears last week at Thomas Jefferson University's Jefferson Hospital for Neuroscience, where her daughter had an appointment, "but I'm more proud of her for making this journey."

Neha Gupta was about 5 when she began taking annual trips with her parents to their native India. The family had a tradition of volunteering at orphanages to help others less fortunate. As she visited each year, she grew more aware of the children's plight. She recalls a girl who didn't know her birthday and saw how another slept on a sheet on the floor of a crowded room.

"I discovered that each of them hoped for a better life," she said. "But this hope was unlikely to be realized in their current conditions, and in that moment I knew I had to take action to help these children."

She returned home and sold her toys at a garage sale to raise $700 for the orphanages.

She got other children and families to help, and began making and selling wine charms. Her parents helped her start her nonprofit, Empower Orphans. She applied for grants. Businesses donated, too.

"Initially we thought it was just a stage, and she's going to just let it go," her mother, a market researcher, recalled. "But as her enthusiasm and passion grew, ours grew with it."

The goal of the nonprofit, Gupta said, is to provide students with educational opportunities and health care to break the cycle of poverty.

Empower Orphans has hosted vision and dental clinics, opened computer centers, started libraries, and organized polio surgeries. The nonprofit has helped 25,000 children over the last 11 years, Gupta said.

She expanded the mission to help local children, too. The organization set up a computer center and donated toys to St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, and provided books and supplies to Feltonville Intermediate School in Philadelphia. Gupta delivered books, blankets, a rug, and chairs, and read to students. The school hung a sign, "Neha's Nook," over a bookcase in the media center.

"Students still ask me about her," said Marcie Erickson, teacher leader at Feltonville. "She showed our students the value of giving, and they want to give back, too."

She also started an Empower Orphans chapter at Penn State.

"She did it very quickly and she got so many other students involved," said Michele Kirsch, associate dean for student affairs at Schreyer. "Even when she couldn't do all the things she wanted to do, other students picked it up. She's very passionate, and it was contagious."

Gupta's work caught the attention of the KidsRights Foundation, a Dutch children's-rights organization that recognizes child "changemakers" with an annual peace prize. The awards ceremony was just weeks after her accident. She had to travel to the Netherlands to collect the prize.

"It really should have been her time to bask in the sun," her mother said. "But instead, it was about, 'How do you manage the headaches, the nausea, the balance?' "

Gupta's friends took her to the hospital that October day after the accident.

"I didn't really know enough about concussions," she said. "I thought, 'OK, I'll be fine in like a week.' Clearly, I wasn't."

Gupta left school and tried different treatments to relieve the symptoms. When she felt well, she worked on the charity.

She returned to Penn State for the fall 2015 semester, still struggling with symptoms. Faculty, staff and students helped her cope, she said.

"They gave me the strength I needed to push through the recovery," she said.

The college connected her with nutritionists at the dining hall. Her classmates retrieved meals for her in bad weather and folded her laundry. Even Penn State president Eric J. Barron met with her.

"I couldn't ask for a more humane place for my child," her mother said. "Forty thousand kids on campus, she could have been lost. But there was so much caring."

Gupta began working at Penn State's Center for Sport Concussion Research and Service, where she helps researchers assess student athletes' vision, memory, and balance before and after they get a concussion.

Wayne Sebastianelli, an orthopedic surgeon at the center and associate dean for clinical affairs at the regional medical campus, remembers when Gupta asked to get involved.

"It was pretty clear to me that this kid has a lot to offer," he said. "She is somebody who I think will go on to do exceptional things."

When Penn State's board of trustees decided it wanted to hear from more students and staff at its meetings, Barron said Gupta was a natural first choice. She told her story to the board this month.

"The more you get to know her, the more impressive she is," Barron said.

Gupta isn't bitter about the setback.

"I feel like I'm an even better version of myself because I've learned a lot," she said. "I've learned to be grateful for even the smallest things, like being able to study."

She views the accident as a blessing, she said, because through it, she discovered the medical speciality she wants to pursue - neuroscience.

"Having a brain injury can be disheartening. I know how hard it was," she said. "My goal is to help patients and their families cope better."

She told Penn State's trustees of her plans.

"One of my favorite sayings is to throw your heart out in front of you and to run ahead and catch it," she said. "Although I know I'm young, I have been chasing my heart for many years. Now, I will throw my heart out even further as I study to get into medical school."