By Jillian Kurtz
IUPUI freshman Renuka Bajpai was inspired by the plight of one of her high school teachers to start Veterans22, a nonprofit that helps bring awareness to the challenges that veterans face with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Bajpai, a 2021 Carmel High School graduate, created Veterans22 her sophomore year of high school. After having Army veteran Gary Wetzel as a teacher her freshman year at Riverside High School in Indianapolis, Bajpai was moved hearing about Wetzel’s military service and learning about the challenges that he and other veterans have faced when they return home.
So, she decided to launch an organization to support them, with Wetzel serving in an advisory and mentorship role as it launched. She selected the group’s name after doing additional research and discovered that 22 veterans commit suicide every day.
“Twenty-two veterans, that’s a lot, especially for our heroes who are going and sacrificing their own lives for our country,” Bajpai said.
Wetzel, 36, had noticed Bajpai’s energy and enthusiasm for helping people. After the Parkland High School shooting in 2018, Bajpai, alongside other classmates, helped organize a rally for gun-control laws and education. Wetzel said that was when he truly noticed that Bajpai had a strong interest in philanthropic work and helping others.
“Renuka was an activist pretty quickly,” Wetzel said. “She always had strong opinions and was always very social with everyone. She wanted to be a leader and a part of an organization that did good work.”
Wetzel, an Indianapolis native, joined the Army Reserve as a 17-year-old in 2002. While pursuing his bachelor’s degree in social studies education at Ball State University, he was an active-duty member of the Army. It took Wetzel six years to graduate after taking breakns in his education to complete deployments.
“She was always very curious and would ask me about my pictures from around the world and want to hear about my stories from traveling,” Wetzel said.
At the 22 Walkathon, the first fundraiser Bajpai coordinated for Veterans22, participants walked 22 laps around the Carmel High School soccer stadium in remembrance of the 22 veterans who commit suicide each day.
The money Bajpai raised from that event and other events all benefited the Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation.
“With that money, (HVAF) can build homes for veterans,” Bajpai said. “Sometimes, veterans come back, and it can be hard for them to readjust into society.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bajpai couldn’t host a fundraising event for Vets22 in 2021, but she wants to connect with Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and put on a larger, citywide veteran’s PTSD awareness event this year at one of the veteran parks in downtown Indianapolis.
Bajpai, who is unsure if she will pursue full-time nonprofit work after college, is in her second semester at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and can apply what she’s learning in school directly to her organization in real-time.
“Going into my senior year of high school, I heard that IUPUI had a philanthropy program, so even before I got into IUPUI, I took a couple of their philanthropy courses,” Bajpai said. “I took my Veterans22 passion and was motivated to start furthering my education in that field.”
Bajpai has recently enjoyed learning about the difference between for-profit and nonprofit organizations and has already presented to her classmates and written essays, with Veterans22 as her main focus.
To learn more about Veterans22, visit veterans22.org