Making a difference thousands of miles away
December 18, 2013
While he was growing up, John Schupbach, 26, had plenty of ideas on how he was going to change the world. Maybe it would be through engineering or architecture, or maybe he would become a doctor.
Schupbach pursued those routes, but it wasn't until he took a five-month trip to India as a volunteer that he found a way to make a real difference in the lives of more than 100 poverty-stricken children with his charity, Squalor to Scholar.
Squalor to Scholar is a program Schupbach started that helps underprivileged kids in India get into private schools they normally wouldn't have access to.
"John has always had a big heart," said Keith Schupbach, John's father. "Even from a young age, he's always seemed to enjoy helping others. Going to India really changed him. What he thought was poverty from living in the U.S. was very different there. Some of those people have little to no possessions. Seeing that kind of life really impacted him."
Growing up, Schupbach attended the Wildwood School and Aspen Elementary and Middle schools before his family traveled to France for a year. When they returned from Europe, the Schupbachs moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., where his parents still live.
Schupbach attended Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering and architecture as well as doing some premed work.
He decided he wanted to study medicine and applied at 17 medical schools but was rejected by all of them.
"Getting rejected was a blessing in disguise," Schupbach said. "It allowed me to reflect on my life and find the real challenge I was looking for. I knew I enjoyed to travel and found volunteering in different capacities to be extremely rewarding, so I went on that path."
Schupbach was 24 when he signed up with a volunteer-placement agency based out of New Zealand and was sent to Faridabad, India, a town on the outskirts of New Delhi.
He spent five months volunteering and lived with a host family near a slum of about 25,000 people.
Because of his premed background, he ended up working at 10 different area hospitals. On one particular day, he witnessed two surgeons perform 220 laparoscopic surgeries in one day.
"That really put the vastness and dire straits of the local population into context," Schupbach said. "The public hospital I was at that day had only four operating rooms and was the only surgical setup for nearly 2.5 million people. There are private hospitals available, but for the general public, that hospital had to provide care for the poorer people with extremely limited resources."
While in India, he also taught math and English to around 100 kids, ages 4 through 10, in a small, cinder-block classroom for two hours a day.
"Some of the children were absolutely brilliant," he said. "I had never seen the passion to learn that these kids possess."
Every evening Schupbach walked home from volunteering in India, he would pass by one of the nicest private schools in the area, the Carmel Convent School. The front gate was usually locked, but on the day Schupbach decided to visit the school, the front gate was wide open.
"It was a sign," Schupbach said.
He met the principal, Sister Pushpa, and their relationship took off instantly.
"I had one of the most enlightening, humbling and spiritual conversations I'd ever had," Schupbach said. "She couldn't believe I traveled 9,000 miles to help kids in a slum she'd never visited that was right next to her school."
Schupbach took Pushpa for a tour of the slums and continued to develop a friendship with her. She agreed to take in three kids from the slums and educate them for free in Schupbach's name.
The three kids thrived immediately. The sisters who taught at the school were stunned and encouraged Schupbach to bring in other kids. He agreed to find people to sponsor the kids and help pay for their tuition, which marked the beginning of Squalor to Scholar.
"It was like having the stars align," he said. "I realized right then that this was a way to really make an impact. I found the passion and purpose I was missing in college."
While Schupbach was in India, he also was blogging for his family and friends, posting many pictures and descriptions of his work. By the end of his five-month volunteer visit, he had 10,000 people accessing his blog.
When Schupbach posted that he was considering seeking sponsors for some of the kids, the response was instant. He set up a WePay site so people could donate money and had funds coming in on the very first day.
It costs $250 to sponsor one child for a year of schooling, which pays for tuition, uniforms, books and some medical care. Squalor to Scholar currently is sponsoring 136 children at two schools in India.
"The program is making a tremendous impact," Schupbach said. "Several of the kids we're sponsoring are tops in their classes. I'd love to help more kids, but we're limited financially."
Schupbach would like to see others do work similar to his, but he said it would take time, especially to build the trust of the locals.
"Squalor to Scholar materialized in part because I had no agenda when I went to India," he said. "I learned the needs first, then was lucky enough to find the links to make it happen."
Schupbach is now a medical student at the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine in Rochester, Minn., and hopes to become a doctor in four years.
"My goal is to go back to India and help medically," he said. "The people I've met there are so hospitable and kind. It's an amazing feeling to make an impact in their lives."