Deeya Bajaj ’16 is no ordinary Cornellian. She has taken mountaineering courses in the Himalayas, is a certified scuba diver and has a black belt in Taekwondo. However, her interests extend far beyond her passion for adventure sports.
This past summer, Bajaj cross-country skied 550 kilometers — about 340 miles — across Greenland to raise money for a girls’ orphanage in Haridwar, India.
Bajaj is in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, studying natural resources. Her coursework at Cornell represents a passion that began at an early age due to rafting and hiking trips she has taken — activities that her father organized as a part of adventure tourism camps that he runs in the foothills of the Himalayas.
When she was 14 years old, Bajaj took part in a 14-day kayaking expedition in Greenland. She was the youngest member of the expedition.
Three years after her kayaking expedition, her father was invited to take part in a cross country skiing expedition in Greenland, which was part of Polar Trilogy, which includes skiing in the North Pole, South Pole and across Greenland, all in the same year.
“On a whim, I asked my father if I could join and my mother freaked out because these expeditions are very serious and scary-sounding,” Bajaj said. “But eventually they decided to let me go.”
At the same time that Bajaj was training for the expedition in Greenland, she was exposed to a boys’ orphanage — which housed boys whose parents suffered from leprosy — near her father’s adventure tourism camps.
“The thing is, in India, because [some people] are not educated, [they think that] if you are a child of a parent with leprosy, it is worse than being an orphan,” she said. “You are literally an untouchable. No one will touch you, eat the same food as you … It is a very sorry state.”
Bajaj said she also noticed that the orphanage was only for boys, which pointed at another problem in her country: unequal treatment of men and women.
“People are not educated [in India] and there is a social stigma [against] being a girl child, especially having your name associated with running an orphanage for girls. You need a lot more safety precautions,” Bajaj said.
As her parents had been supporting the boys’ orphanage for a long time, Bajaj said she wondered why they did not create an orphanage for girls.
When Bajaj initially spoke with the manager of the orphanage, he rejected the idea, claiming there was too much social stigma and responsibility involved.
“But for me, it was like, ‘If you don’t take the responsibility, then who will?’” she said.
The manager eventually agreed to start a girls’ orphanage if Bajaj raised the funds to build the orphanage wing and maintain the facility.
“So I decided to ask people, friends, family, sponsors if they could pledge a certain amount of money for every kilometer that I skied. So, in total, at the end of it, I did 550 kilometers and even if you were pledging 10 rupees, which is a small amount, it would become like $100 [in the end], and it added up to a large sum,” Bajaj said.
With support from friends, family, her school and a few corporate sponsors, Bajaj embarked on a 19-day cross-country skiing expedition in Greenland — with temperatures under 6.8 degrees Fahrenheit and winds up to 35 miles per hour — to raise money to start the orphanage in the summer of 2012.
The Ganga Vatica orphanage in Haridwar now houses, feeds and educates 12 young girls between the ages of seven and eight whose parents have leprosy, according to Bajaj.
“It is so nice meeting them and seeing how grateful they are [for] however little they have,” she said. “Things like having friends, food and education … It really makes you look at things from a different perspective.”
Bajaj hopes to eventually expand the orphanage to house 100 young girls. As she is now busy with studies at Cornell, Bajaj’s parents are helping with the orphanage and planning ways to expand it.
Bajaj also hopes to combine her passion for adventure sports to help her father run his adventure tourism business in India, while still working for the orphanage for girls.
“As much as I would like to make a billion changes, this is a small step that leads to bigger ones,” she said.
Original Author: Lucy Mehrabyan