Burleigh Manor inspiration, philanthropy wrapped in FreshPaper

It was a reunion of sorts when Kavita M. Shukla came to Howard County to be with students from her former middle school — or if not a reunion, at least a field trip.

For members of the student council at Burleigh Manor Middle School in Ellicott City, a recent tour of the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia alongside Shukla was a chance to donate to the community and connect with an inventor and entrepreneur who once followed the path they are now walking.

Shukla is founder and CEO of Fenugreen, a Massachusetts company marketing a product she developed years ago, essentially from a science project at Burleigh Manor, which she attended until 1998. The invention, FreshPaper, is used to wrap fruits and vegetables, and keeps items fresh two to four times longer than usual.

Students have been helping to market and sell FreshPaper as part of the company's "Fresh for All" school initiative, and during the visit to Grassroots late last month, they donated a bulk supply of the paper — and a check for $2,260.71 — to the shelter's Change Matters initiative. The initiative is designed to raise funds and awareness of Grassroots' services, which include a family shelter, a men's shelter, crisis intervention, suicide prevention, a 24-hour hot line, outreach and education.

"It was really inspiring for me," Shukla said of the students' donation. "It's so great seeing kids of that age wanting to give back."

The partnership between students, inventor and Grassroots took shape last year, when Burleigh Manor technology teacher Tony Miceli asked Shukla — a former sixth-grader in his class — to come back for an assembly to share her story with students from Burleigh Manor and Centennial High School, which she also had attended.

She told them how FreshPaper, based on a home remedy learned from her grandmother, is a potentially life-altering product for undeveloped nations where fresh food is often scarce. A graduate of Harvard, Shukla has been recognized by the Lemelson-MIT Foundation, the Cartier Women's Initiative, Startup America and other organizations for creating FreshPaper, and has been inducted into the National Gallery for America's Young Inventors.

"Here she was, starting her own company and trying to change the world," Miceli said. "I felt she was a great example to our students — if you work hard, you never know where it's going to take you."

From that assembly in September 2012, Burleigh Manor's student council decided to partner on a "buy one, donate one" campaign to raise money for charity and chose Grassroots, a private, nonprofit organization serving Howard County and Central Maryland. Students sold the FreshPaper at Burleigh, and also connected it to a schoolwide health initiative, BIG (Burleigh's Intense Games), where student and faculty competed in relays and contests. The entrance fee included a donation to purchase FreshPaper.

Miceli noted that the students' initiative has spanned years — it was started by one student council and carried out by others who wanted to see it through.

Anna Katz, Grassroots' cold weather shelter coordinator, said the organization appreciated not only the monetary donation, but also FreshPaper itself, because it has a practical use in helping stretch shelter dollars to use toward fresh produce.

"We want to feed [shelter residents] a healthy diet, and that includes fruits and vegetables," she said.

Students toured the Grassroots facility, and Katz said she appreciated the empathy shown toward residents. "I think it's important to see that people who are homeless, or who are in need, are just like you and me."

Shukla was inspired by the event as well, in part because she was able to reconnect with the school that, "supported me so much on this unconventional path" of invention. But she also enjoyed that fact that her product was used by the students to help others — and she loved the thought that her success might inspire young students as well.

"I love hearing all their ideas. It's just really inspirational to me," she said. "It just gives me a lot of hope for our future."

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