Race Remembers and Reminds
WEST ORANGE, NJ — The Nikhil Badlani Foundation had a remarkable run of good weather for its biggest event on the calendar: 12 straight years of sunny skies for the STOP for Nikhil 5K.
The streak came to an end this year, but rain didn’t stop the West Orange community from heading to West Orange High School for this year’s race.
The event, in memory of West Orange middle school student Nikhil Badlani, who died in a car crash in 2011 when a driver failed to stop at a stop sign in South Orange, raises money for the foundation’s traffic safety programs, music lessons and scholarships. As of press time on Monday, Sept. 25, $45,035 had been raised; participants can keep fundraising until the end of the month.
“Your attendance today represents not only your support, but your commitment to reaching the goal of zero traffic deaths,” Sangeeta Badlani, Nikhil’s mother and the president of the NBF, said at the event before the starting gun went off.
According to Badlani, the NBF has continued its traffic safety mural projects at high schools in the area and at NJ Transit bus stops. It has given out 165 scholarships to graduating seniors from WOHS, Orange and Burlington Township that have totaled $250,000 through the years. As part of the nonprofit’s Music for Nikhil program, it has paid for music lessons for 160 students.
This year’s keynote speaker was state Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak. Karabinchak is the primary sponsor of A4296, a bill that would create a Vision Zero Task Force that would work to eliminate all traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2035. The bill was passed by the Assembly in June but has not yet made it to a Senate vote.
“Unfortunately, there has been an increase in traffic deaths since 2012,” Karabinchak said at the 5K. “We have to be safe and smart whether we’re driving or walking. Distracted driving has become a major issue. When you’re driving a 4,000- or 5,000-pound vehicle, you have to know what’s going on around you.”
A point the assemblyman kept stressing was drivers making sure they are not paying attention to their phones while behind the wheel.
“Stay off of it while you’re driving,” Karabinchak said. “You don’t have to talk. You don’t have to text. Everyone’s life is so busy, but you still have to remember safety.”
The foundation hands out the Nikhil Badlani Inspiration Award every year before the race; this year’s went to Pam O’Donnell for all her efforts to reduce traffic related deaths. O’Donnell’s husband Tim and 5-year-old daughter Bridget were killed in 2016, when Tim’s car was rear ended while he was stopped at a toll plaza on the New Jersey Turnpike. O’Donnell and the Badlani family met through a mutual friend and have since worked together on advocating for traffic safety laws in Trenton.
“Accident implies no fault,” O’Donnell said when she accepted the award, saying that the driver who hit her family’s car’s conviction was overturned several years later. “None of this should ever happen to anyone. Please heed the warnings and do better.”
Tim O’Donnell was a science teacher at County Prep High School in Jersey City and coached softball for years in the family’s hometown of Bayonne. Bridget wanted to grow up to be a doctor and was just as big a fan of the New York Giants as the rest of her family — she wanted to one day be the first female tight end to play for the team. O’Donnell’s own nonprofit, the Catch You Later Foundation, advocates for traffic safety in their honor.
Two WOHS students were the race’s top finishers: Justin Amaya came in first overall, with a time of 18:57; and Ava Neretic was first in the female category and seventh overall, with a time of 21:30. In addition to the 5K run, the event featured a 5K bike ride and 3K walk.
To donate to 2023’s STOP for Nikhil, go to https://tinyurl. com/9un9482m.
“I could have either gone down a dark rabbit hole that I wasn’t going to get out of or I could be positive and try to do some good,” O’Donnell said in an interview with the West Orange Chronicle at the event about her advocacy. “People need to understand that they’re not invincible. This can happen to anyone.
“It’s so preventable, so the more we educate, the better off we’ll be.”