LOS ANGELES, Calif. — The Westin Bonaventure Hotel was the site of a glittering and well-dressed gathering of 300 Indian Americans on the evening of Feb. 8 at Pratham Los Angeles’ 2020 Gala. Donors and supporters were felicitated and recognized at a gala that featured heartfelt speeches, vibrant entertainment and wholehearted appreciation, all to support the cause of Pratham, in what the organization says, is the largest India-centric charity in America.

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, love was in the air with a clown passing heart-shaped balloons, a violinist playing music, wine flowing freely, and chocolate hearts, roses and tulips adorning the tables. Supporters of the charity sampled the large spread of appetizers, pani-puris and papri chaat fromManohar’s Delhi Palace, chatting and staying focused on educating the needy in India.

Southern California’s Pratham began fundraising 20 years ago and Los Angeles chapter president Navneet Chugh went down memory lane recalling how the first gathering had been held at a low-cost Indian restaurant but still had been able to raise a sizeable chunk of money – $35,000 – on that single night. Mostly, this was due to the generosity of Sudesh and Chitra Arora, who were among the first contributors to Pratham LA, he said.

Light was shed on their unparalleled contributions as well as Manu and Rika Shah. Both families, the audience was told, have committed millions of dollars in grants to Pratham. The Aroras with their donations toward vocational training have provided thousands of youth with job skills that have landed them well-paying jobs, while the emphasis of the Shahs on digital learning has accelerated the imparting of education amongst middle schoolers.

Manu Shah came on stage to speak briefly about the 40,000 tablets donated by their family to Pratham. Working like a classroom without teachers, the tablets “allow up to 3-5 kids to share and learn from each other. Peer to peer learning is very powerful,” he remarked at the gala. “Schools without buildings, students without teachers, learning peer to peer is what Pratham promotes, for quicker and wider education,” he explained.

Another patron of Pratham was the late Pravin Mody. His daughter and son-in-law, Sujata and Ashesh Kamdar, speaking about their association with Pratham for the last 18 years, declared it to be “a love affair” with the organization and the programs it is involved in. Ashesh went on to applaud the organization for its mission and transparency.

Sabrina Chugh, former president of the Pratham Junior LA chapter, brought a fresh perspective on how the youth is impacted by inequality and how organizations like Pratham have helped change their point of view as millennials. She called on stage Rika Shah and Chitra Arora, asking what motivated them to donate with such large heartedness to the charity every year. Explained Chitra Arora, “$100 could go a lot further in India and would make a big change to a lot more people than anywhere else, and Pratham does an amazing job in changing the lives of the family, not just the person one is helping.” Added Rika Shah, “This is our 15th year with Pratham and we started with $5000 and every year we increased our donation, and the more we gave, the better we felt.''

Cary Burch, former chief innovation officer and senior vice president of Thomson Reuters, was the special guest of the evening. He has worked extensively in India, providing job opportunities to over a staggering 100,000 people in India. Sharing his association with Pratham fondly, he was presented with a plaque by Pratham LA director Nitin Bajaj.

Other significant donors to Pratham Los Angeles such as Mahesh and Jayshree Vyas; Avadesh and Uma Agarwal; Mohamed and Gulie Hamir, Vasant and Prabha Rathi; Pradeep and Elashri Kumar; Navneet and Ritu Chugh; Andrei Komarov and the Capital Group were recognized for their generous donations.

The gala dinner event was a little extra special this year as it marked the 25th anniversary of Pratham India. The nonprofit has 16 chapters and last year raised $45 million collectively. Since its founding, it has helped 70 million youth and kids with the help of 70,000 volunteers. A short video of the Pratham team working in India was played for the audience, showing the effect of the fundraising efforts.

Established in 1995 to provide education to children in Mumbai slums, Pratham (which means “first” in Sanskrit) is now one of the largest and most successful non-governmental education organizations in India. It works in collaboration with governments, communities, parents, teachers and volunteers while focusing on innovative interventions to address gaps in the education system.

Pratham’s direct programs seek to supplement governmental efforts to improve the quality of education through “balwadis” (pre-school education), learning support programs, libraries and mainstreaming drop-out children. Full-year learning support is provided at centers for children living in the immediate vicinity. These programs are typically conducted in urban slums or poor villages, where children do not have easy access to quality education. Together with citizens from across the country, the organization has worked towards improving the status of children's learning in 100,000 villages and communities.

The evening showed that the impact of Pratham is three-fold; it helps educate every child and at the right grade level. Second, it gives a second chance to the youth left behind by providing hands-on vocational training and helping to integrate them into the workforce. Third, it places technology in the hands of children to facilitate learning.

The evening also featured entertainment items that were inserted throughout the event, which served to also retain interest in the speeches. The dance group Karmagraphy danced passionately, weaving a story through the evening taking the audience on a journey from “Love to Giving” framed within the words of the renowned 19th century Lebanese-American poet, Khalil Gibran. They concluded their story with the Raj Kapoor Bollywood classic, “Jeena yahan marna yahaan.

In other entertainment, stand-up comic Samson Koletkar had the audience laughing. Violinist Priyanka also impressed with her melodious performance. Emcee Madhur Batra kept the audiences engaged all night with his witticisms.

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